Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Baroness Morgan of CotesMain Page: Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Conservative) - Loughborough)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Maynard.)
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. I declare an interest as a former member of the Army for 14-and-a-half years as a part-time soldier. Does she not agree that the college is a way of sowing into the future those whose career choice is the armed forces and that to close it down sends a contradictory message to the official one, which is that we want young people to make a career out of the armed forces? Money spent on sowing it into the lives of young people can never be wasted. In other words, money spent now will increase our forces, making soldiers who are special. The British Army is the best in the world.
Like my right hon. Friend, I, on behalf of the Defence Committee, received a number of representations from people involved with Welbeck who stressed the high quality of the service it provides. I cannot help wondering if part of the problem is that not all Welbeck graduates go into the armed services. Perhaps part of the solution is that part of the budget should be funded by some other Department to recognise the fact that there is an educational benefit that goes wider than just recruitment into the armed forces.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing the debate, and, indeed, on all her contributions and support for the college over many years. I also acknowledge the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), to whom my right hon. Friend referred. I should perhaps add, by way of explanation to the general public, that he is unable to speak today because of his role as a Minister. However, his very presence on the Front Bench alongside me today highlights the fact that he has been a champion for Welbeck during his tenure as the local Member of Parliament.
As I listened to my right hon. Friend, it was impossible not to recognise and appreciate the affection that is felt for the current Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College—as well as its predecessor establishment, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire—and the disappointment that some will feel at the decision to close it as part of the MOD’s move to a new scheme for recruiting science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates to careers in defence. It is, perhaps, most important for me to acknowledge the high-quality education that Welbeck has been providing, and to pay tribute to its excellent staff and the talented young graduates who have gone on to forge successful careers in defence.
Let me say at the outset that the MOD remains firmly committed to attracting high-quality STEM graduates into the armed forces and the civil service, which, in turn, will contribute to support for the wider UK STEM agenda. In an increasingly complex and technologically driven world, we need talented individuals with a diverse range of STEM skills to ensure that we keep pace with our competitors and are fully prepared to meet the challenges and threats that we face today and, especially, in the future.
Welbeck has undoubtedly played its part in producing excellent STEM graduates. I should explain that attendance there forms the first stage of a two-part scheme, the defence technical officer and engineer entry scheme—or DTOEES, another fantastic abbreviation that only the MOD could come up with. I shall refer to it simply as “the old scheme”, if I may. Following two years at the college and successful completion of A-levels, students have gone to selected universities to study for STEM degrees and joined one of four defence technical undergraduate scheme squadrons. On graduation, they have entered initial officer training with one of the services or become defence civil servants. Under the old scheme, they could go to only 11 universities in the United Kingdom, including just one in Scotland; under the new scheme, that range will be widened. The courses available under the old scheme were traditional STEM courses, rather than—at this point I should declare my interest as the deputy commander of the 77th brigade—courses involving information advantage, cyber, and other 21st-century skill sets that are now required in the military.
Unfortunately, the fact is that the scheme as it stands has consistently failed to deliver the required number of engineers and technical officers to Defence since its establishment in 2005. Despite efforts to improve its output, on average only 53% of entrants have completed it successfully, and a proportion of those have not achieved STEM degrees. While this is not about money, it should be noted that the scheme has cost the MOD and the taxpayer some £200,000 per student who has become a STEM graduate.
My right hon. Friend touched on social mobility, which has been an important part of the scheme. She may be interested to know that just 15% of Welbeck graduates have had a general household income of up to £20,000—perhaps those at the lower end of that bracket—while 60% have had a household income of over £60,000. We are also interested in that area in trying to improve the social mobility aspect of the new scheme.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the review, and we did have a review. In effect, 11 different options were considered, which were broken down into three broad categories: do nothing—retain the current scheme as it is; do better—identify a number of sub-options that would all retain Welbeck; or do something differently—identify a number of sub-options that would involve the closure of Welbeck. There really was a genuine effort to look at a vast range of options.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned consultation with staff and governors before the decision was made. A cross-section of both Welbeck staff and governors were engaged during the course of the study by the review team. Equally, prior to the announcement, Defence Academy staff formally engaged with contractors, and the review was a standing agenda item for the board of governors. There were also two “town hall” meetings with staff in June and November last year.
The reasons why some individuals have not completed the old scheme, leaving it early at either Welbeck or university, are varied and complex, but they include medical, academic and voluntary withdrawals. Ultimately, asking young people to make life-determining decisions at age 14 or 15 has, in some cases, been one factor that may have impacted on both recruitment and retention. Another downside of the previous scheme was its relative inflexibility, which I have already touched on, principally because of the fixed costs of Welbeck. This really has meant that the Ministry of Defence could not respond effectively or quickly enough to changes in requirement, or target spending where it would be most effective.
Looking to the future, as I set out in my statement to the House on 11 March, a review of STEM officer recruiting concluded that an alternative method of recruiting STEM graduates was needed to improve the numbers entering a career in defence. The STEM graduate inflow scheme has been designed significantly to increase the number of STEM graduates brought into Defence and the variety of STEM disciplines they are from. Unlike the old scheme, it will be open to undergraduates across all UK universities, studying a wider range of STEM subjects that will include cyber and other new technologies.
The scheme will be supported by an attractive financial package, whereby undergraduates may receive a mix of bursary, tuition fee payment and other targeted payments that are significantly higher than the current bursary of up to £4,000 per annum. This will attract and support a wider range of applicants who are already academically proven, having passed A-levels or being already in the undergraduate pipeline. Importantly, this will provide a greater opportunity to improve both social mobility and diversity. The new scheme, with its focus on supporting individuals through university, will enable more students from a wider range of backgrounds to receive financial support. Indeed, we hope and anticipate that we will double the number of students who receive support.
The financial package has been benchmarked against industry offerings for their own STEM graduate schemes, and it will be competitive. Even with this financial package, however, it will be better value for money—estimated at about a third of the cost per student of the old scheme. The new scheme will also be inherently flexible, allowing the Ministry of Defence more easily to adjust its requirements should the demand for STEM graduates change—for example, due to an increase in requirement or, indeed, a need for specific skills.
Full transition to the new scheme will take place incrementally over the next five years, during which, as my right hon. Friend has said, the current intake of students will be fully supported. The MOD and the single services will develop their specific schemes over this period according to their own requirements, and that is where the flexibility will come in. These are likely to be built around their existing officer recruitment schemes. It may still include some sponsorship of those at school, depending on individual service need, but personnel and funding from the old scheme will be transferred to these schemes to enable them to undertake this work.
Break in Debate
As I said in my earlier remarks, this is effectively a five-year transition. The intake to Welbeck this year will be going into a two-year programme, which will be the last. That will give us two years, as we move to a more undergraduate-focused scheme, to get the new scheme right according to single service requirements. The new scheme, which will run for a period of time, will also be under review. We have not leapt to this decision—anything but—and we hope that the transfer period will allow us to get it right.
As I have said, the new scheme, like any recruitment initiative, will of course be kept under review to ensure that it is achieving the output it is designed to achieve. If it is not, we will look at it again. The final intake to Welbeck will enter in September this year, and for the final two years Welbeck remains a going concern. Over that period, we will work closely with the Welbeck contractor, Minerva, and the principal to help the contractor to support staff who are impacted and to ensure continuity of quality education to students, keeping staff, governors and pupils fully informed of any developments.
I recognise that there are concerns over the future of the Welbeck site, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough that it has become an important part of the local community. I can reassure her and the House that we will do all we can to secure an alternative, sustainable future use for the site. An assessment is being undertaken to determine whether Defence may itself have a use for it and, in addition, some early market testing has identified credible, prospective interest from the private education sector. It is too early to say what the outcome will be, but Defence will work with stakeholders, including the local authority and partners across Government, to seek to secure a viable future for Welbeck.
That is a perfectly reasonable request, and I would of course be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend and the Minister. I want to take this opportunity to underline the Department’s determination for the site to be utilised and not to become moribund. It is a great site, and it is in the wider interest that there is a smooth transition to its future use. We are determined that that will happen.
The scheme has made a valuable contribution to Defence’s need for STEM- qualified officers, but we need to increase numbers well beyond the current ability to deliver, as I have tried to explain. We also need to have greater flexibility about the sorts of graduates that we are now attracting into our 21st century armed forces. We need to be more responsive and agile, both to succeed in an increasingly competitive market for STEM graduates in the UK and globally, and to meet the challenges that we are now likely to face. However, I do not underestimate the impact of this decision on my right hon. Friend’s local communities, and, if I may, I shall end as I started, by paying tribute to her for raising this matter and, crucially, to the staff at Welbeck, who have done such a sterling job for so many years.
Question put and agreed to.