1 Baroness Cohen of Pimlico debates involving the Department of Health and Social Care

Thu 29th Jun 2017

Queen’s Speech

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Excerpts
Thursday 29th June 2017

(7 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Portrait Baroness Cohen of Pimlico (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I rise along with many of my colleagues to talk about education. I should declare my interests as the chancellor of BPP University, a member of the Parkside Federation Multi-Academy Trust and a governor of University Technical College in Cambridge.

Something that went unmentioned in the recent higher education Bill, now an Act, was student fees, which turned out to be hugely important to young voters, as we all found out in the election. I agree that students are heavily burdened. They are finding that the investment in themselves they have been encouraged to make to meet their aspirations has met head-on another piece of important public policy, which is the instruction to mortgage companies to be pretty careful who they lend money to and to ensure that they can actually repay it. Student debt, particularly now that loans are being given at a staggering 6.1% interest rate, lies across many credit lines and inhibits people’s ability, possibly for ever, to get a large enough mortgage to buy a house. This is a real worry for us all. I feel deeply for students, particularly those whose parents cannot afford to house them or help to pay their fees, and I am distressed by it.

I can understand perfectly why the promise made by my party in its election manifesto to abandon the loan system and make higher education free again proved to be so popular with young voters. I would suggest that higher education is already very well funded—grossly so by contrast with schools, against a background where we are not going to be able to do all we would wish to do in education now that no one can possibly claim that Brexit is going to prove to be in any way profitable, at least in the early years. Given the choices we face, I believe that we will have to leave student fees where they stand and try to put the money into schools. Governors in every school and directors of MATs have sought to make economies. We have done as the Government suggested. We have banded schools together and we have made huge cost economies through combining administration and finance and through teaching. In fact, we are cut to the bone, and I speak even of rich Cambridge, where my schools are located. Hereafter we are looking at either increasing class sizes, cutting experienced staff or doing without an extra STEM teacher. I suggest that this is a completely wrong allocation of national resources.

Once people reach the age of 18, they have choices. They can get a job or secure an apprenticeship, which may well be a better course for them than pursuing a degree. Children from the age of five upwards have no options and their ability to make life choices at the age of 18 or later depends critically on the teaching they receive before that point. I use the word “teaching” advisedly. You can have all the IT you like, but in the end teaching depends on personal inspiration. To my knowledge no one has ever been personally inspired by a computer. It can be a useful supplement, but teaching is really all about people. This is a key issue of social justice as well as an economic issue. Universities and employers everywhere complain that many 18 year- olds are reaching them poorly qualified to benefit from a course or from a job. It would be a far better national investment to put the cash in at an earlier stage. I am therefore unable to support the entirety of this element of my party’s policy on university fees, but there are obvious exceptions.

We are in desperate need of well-trained nurses. We all know that up to £50,000 in fees and expenses cannot possibly be a good buy for someone who is going to be on a nurse’s salary unless they go to the USA or somewhere where nurses are paid a lot more. We should put nurses back into the position they always used to be in so that they do not have to pay fees in order to train, as the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, has urged. I would think that there is a good case to be made for other desperately needed skills, mostly in health services, which people now require degrees to access. These people should not be paying fees. It makes no sense, because we do not intend to pay them well enough to enable them to repay the debt.

In general, however, having lived through two higher education Bills for most of this year, I fear that both attention and funding have become concentrated on university education. When the higher education Bill was under consideration in this House, 180 people spoke at Second Reading—most of us, admittedly, chancellors of universities. About 20 of us spoke in the Second Reading debate on the Technical and Further Education Bill. It sets up the office for apprenticeships and training and is possibly the greatest stimulus to social mobility that anybody could have thought of, because it seeks to enable students via apprenticeships to get good, progressive jobs. All of us, in all parties, have always known that that is the key to social mobility. The small number of us who took an interest like to think that we made up for our lack of quantity with quality. We were much assisted by the noble Lord, Lord Nash, the Minister charged with getting the Bill through, who made himself and his Bill team available to all of us. He held cross-party meetings at which we were able to sort out a lot of detailed argument. I personally benefited greatly from the company of my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green, who has just spoken so eloquently, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden and Lady Wolf.

We left with a much better Bill than that which we had received, which was concerned mostly with preventing training providers going bust. It is still not that good an Act, and I expect to see some of it again in a year or so, but it at least establishes the office for apprenticeships and states clearly the Government’s intentions. We all considered the goal of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 far too ambitious and I share my noble friend Lord Young’s hope that the Government will not sacrifice quality for quantity, but this Act is potentially far more important and revolutionary than the higher education Act. I hope and think that all the little group concerned with it will keep a very close eye on it.

I enter a plea again for different treatment of international students. This House voted to insert a clause in the higher education Act which would enable international students not to be included in the list of immigrants to this country, whose number the Government have sought to control. The Government would not yield on the principle, but we need those students: they bring not only cash but skills, intelligence and knowledge to our universities. We should encourage them to stay.