Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for International Trade
Moved by
15: Clause 1, page 2, line 27, after “required” insert “by employers or potential students”
Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that the employer representative body is required to have an understanding of skills that are required nationally, and that may be required by local potential students but may not yet be required by local businesses.
Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 33 and 85. All three amendments in this group address the same question of providing access for the local skills improvement organisation to clear and consistent information on skills that are required nationally. I am very grateful to my noble friend for announcing the trailblazers today and am delighted to see that I find myself living in one of them—which is three hours wide, and that is on a good day. It is really quite hard to see how an organisation will hold together a coherent view across the many businesses composed in a spread that wide. It is also hard to see, given the current make-up of the chamber, how it will have access to a deep skills base in areas where Sussex is not currently strong.

There are a lot of skills required in the City of London which are not well represented in Sussex, which is not one of the great centres of the IT industry. There are a lot of areas where it does extremely well, but it is hard to see how you can take an organisation such as the Sussex chamber of commerce, which does very well in trying to knit together the varied economic landscape across this very hard-to-travel region and turn it into something that knows everything about skills in the local area, let alone something that has a real grip on skills nationally, unless we are providing it with a strong source of information on the national picture that it can build into the foundations of what it is trying to achieve locally.

When we last met, my noble friend the Minister referred to the skills and productivity board, which was announced last September and launched in November, with a letter from the Secretary of State saying that within the next 12 months he hoped to have information from the board on what the national skills needs were, how that would change over the next 10 years and how we should be focusing on productivity growth. As of today, as far as I can find, the organisation has no website; it has not reached out to people to discuss these affairs, and the only activity that I can discover is a contract it put out for a scoping study to help it develop a functional skills taxonomy by the end of June. This does not feel like a body that is moving with pace. It certainly does not feel like it is going to get anywhere effective by the end of November.

Perhaps my noble friend can fill us in a bit more than the skills and productivity board has felt willing to do on where it has got to and why a body that is largely composed of professors will be able to fulfil the remit it has been given. It is crucial that the Government get this right, and I am not at all clear that they have.

Baroness Morris of Yardley Portrait Baroness Morris of Yardley (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support these amendments. This Bill is full of good intentions and starts with a lot of good will—people want it to succeed and the nation needs it to succeed—but it is becoming increasingly clear that the backbone, the foundations on which we can build other things, is just not there. It is missing.

I understand it is difficult to know what to put in legislation and what to develop as you go along. I understand that that balance is always difficult, but I think the Government are erring on the wrong side. Like almost all the amendments we have been considering today, this is another one asking for clarification of the Government’s role in setting a national skills strategy, and in particular—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has rightly brought up on previous occasions—their role in almost future-proofing the skills needs of the nation.

Local people might know what needs to be done to provide a skilled workforce for the present economy, but I am not sure they have got time to speculate on the what the economic and skills needs might be in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. That needs a broader discussion and I am left wondering again what the role of the Government will be in their relationship with the local skills plan. Surely the Government are not going to say, “Get on with it, regardless of what we have decided at national level”. The national skills strategy should be what our experts say the skills needs in the next couple of decades might be.

The Bill lacks a clear vision of what the structure is, and as long as that is the case, we will not make progress. I would sooner the Government gave us something that we can amend and debate and move forward with, but they are not giving us anything. The guidance is delayed; it is not there in the Bill. There is hardly anything to debate—it is like whistling in the wind and guessing what the Government might intend. On this amendment, I am not sure how all these different locally determined, local skills plans are meant to fit in to the national skills strategy.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her extensive reply and to other noble Lords for their supportive words on these amendments. I am afraid that I remain entirely unconvinced that the Government have a firm platform on which to go forward in this area. I hope that it may be possible to talk to the Minister and officials between now and Report. In the absence of some further clarification, I think that this is an area where we ought seriously to try to improve the Bill.

Listening to my noble friend, I think that there still seems to be an idea that the interests of local employers and local potential students are automatically aligned. This is a fundamental misconception: within a particular area, there are many skills where employment is not available in the quantities that might be required. Students require a much broader view of what their capacity and prospects are. People follow my noble friend Lord Tebbit’s advice and get on their bike and get around the country, particularly when they are young, and their view should not be restricted to what is available locally.

I am also not convinced by the picture that my noble friend paints of a whole collection of local skills improvement partnerships talking to each other. We are getting into the now-familiar territory of exponential growth, this time in emails and confusion, as these organisations try, in a collection of people that is far too large and diverse, to evolve some view on what the national skills need is, armed with a collection of reports of variable quality from different bits of government and other people. This needs drawing together to make it something that informs not only the local skills improvement partnership but government as a whole. We need a view on where our skills requirements are. That way, we can make an effort to do something about it.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, pointed out, these things change quickly. This is not intended to be a plan that we expect to be worked through but one that we expect to live with, but, unless you are looking a few years ahead, it is impossible to put in the provision that you will need. Unless we are looking nationally, we will find national shortages emerging, because large parts of the country, where these industries are not present, turn out not to contribute to the provision of employees in areas where we need them. I will of course withdraw the amendment, but I very much hope that, between now and Report, we can get to a rather better place.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.
--- Later in debate ---
I believe that new technical qualifications can help the services sector, which is now such a huge proportion of GDP. I remember working on local schemes with PwC and local government, and the brilliant apprentice that I had in my private office at BEIS. I agree with my noble friend Lord Flight that this is the opportunity to shift the dial on advancement in education and skills outside our universities and to move forward on parity of esteem. Is the machinery of government, particularly the Institute for Apprenticeships, fit for that purpose? We need to find an answer to that and to make amendments to the Bill if we are not happy with where we end up.
Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I very much share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and my noble friends Lord Willetts and Lord Baker in particular.

The last legislation that we had in this area was the Technical and Further Education Act. There was a belief then in the perfection of the new—almost a post-modern belief that destruction was the necessary precursor to success. The Government had just destroyed the sector skills councils and they have not yet managed to recreate the complex relations and understandings that led to their successes. In the run-up to the technical education Bill, the Bill team said they thought that this would probably result in the destruction of City and Guilds, as if that institution and all its reputation and quality had no value for the future in the face of their newly-created ideas. Now we seem to be destroying the local enterprise partnerships, which in many areas have established a pattern of understanding and reputation that has enabled projects to be undertaken that would have been very hard otherwise.

I do not share this disdain for the old; I think that it is best to work with it where we can. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, pointed out, the reputation that qualifications have built up with employers is a thing of great value. It means that employers know what they are getting but it also means that, when a young person gets that qualification, it is something with strong currency. People know exactly what to expect. It has a high reputation and is a highly tradeable asset.

This is not yet true of T-levels. As noble Lords may know, I have run the Good Schools Guide for many years. I cannot yet imagine advising a parent to let their child do a T-level. It still seems a misconception that you should have to spend the whole of your sixth form years doing this one qualification to the exclusion of everything else. If one is aiming for parity of esteem then it ought to be through the route of being able to mix academic and other qualifications. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, that would allow the technical qualifications to be heavily technical to carry the sorts of skills an employer is looking for, rather than being overly general and not directed towards making someone instantly employable when they come out of school.

Doubtless we are all going to put a lot of effort into making things succeed. We are where we are; we have to make the best of where we have got to. But to give powers to IfATE and others to continue on a path of destruction without consultation and care, and in particular to give them the direction of this Bill without the permission of employers seems wrongheaded. I very much hope that, between those who have proposed amendments to this Bill, we will get something on Report that will help change the Bill’s direction.

Lord Russell of Liverpool Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Russell of Liverpool) (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
63: Clause 17, page 20, line 22, at end insert—
(b) by reference to— (i) the degree to which the mental health and wellbeing of persons who undertake a higher education course with the institution are sustained and improved while they are attending the institution;(ii) the quality improvement and response to mental health crises among persons who undertake a higher education course with the institution;(iii) the pastoral and academic care of students attending the institution.(5A) In this section “quality improvement” has the same meaning as in the report by The King’s Fund, Quality improvement in mental health, published in 2017.”Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that higher education institutions should be evaluated on the basis of their care for students as well as purely academic measures.
Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I welcome Clause 17. There has long been a lack of satisfactory information available to prospective students on the outcomes of a degree. What happens afterwards, other than a degree, first, second or even third class, as in my case, awarded on obscure criteria—although no doubt correct in my case—but with no indication to a prospective student of what comes afterwards? How do students who have been through the degree course look back on their time at university? Are they appreciative of what was done for them? Have they suggestions about what could have been done better? What sort of careers have they secured?

This can be very different in further education, where a good FE college, running a course in, say, golf course management, will have an immense network of alumni with whom it will work to improve the course and with whom it will be in correspondence about the prospects for their current students. It will be able to portray to someone who intends to take on the cost of a course exactly what the outcome will be. For such a substantial personal investment by students, universities owe prospective students a much better set of information about what their prospects are.

My interest in this clause, though, is in the opportunity to broaden it to include mental health and well-being because, in my experience, this is an area that universities have been much less good at than they ought to be. I agree that this has, to a certain extent, come up on them. It is the result of increased parental interest in university education—that is, in parents wanting to make sure that they are launching their children on a good course. I have been a champion of that for a long time. I do not think that it sits easily with universities, which have historically taken refuge in the mantra that their students are adults and therefore do not need support from home, and communication with home is inappropriate.

I sense that that is changing but, for it to change to good effect, it needs some kind of support from the Government. Universities need to know that they are being watched—that information will reach prospective students as to how good their mental health and well-being services are and how well they look after their students. This will form part of a student’s decision on which course to take. If we do not have that kind of visibility, we will see a continuation of the inaction that has been my experience of universities’ response to this over the past 10 years or so.

I am sure that we all have stories about a mental health crisis hitting a friend’s child at university, perhaps even to the point of suicide. Mine, fortunately, has a happy ending. The son of a friend of mine went to a Russell group university, found that the course they were on did not really have its own social life, went back to university accommodation, which likewise had no social life, and fell into a cycle of despair. Bar a casual acquaintance knowing someone who knew his mother and getting a message back, that might have been the end of it. Fortunately, he had a very active mother who whisked him out of university and helped him to find a course that was much better socially adapted to his needs. He flourishes still.

There are many, however, for whom the outcome has been much less good. Universities have not traditionally seen themselves as having a duty of care in looking after their students. I remember—it must be about 10 years ago—trying to tell universities that they should pay more attention to teacher recommendations, that they could use some kind of online reputation system to score the teacher recommendations in the light of their experience of the student when they arrived at university, and that this would enable them to reach through the surface of qualifications to look at the underlying person and maybe start to use that to address the inequalities of access that were very apparent then.

The answer I got from universities was, “Can’t do that. We never get to know our students well enough to know whether that teacher recommendation is accurate or not”. I contrast that with my experience of the better degree apprenticeships and the way in which a company looks after children of the same age whom it has recruited into much the same circumstances. It can be extraordinarily good. I single out JCB in that respect: the way they look after young people who arrive in the wilds where the JCB factory is set and look after them through their degree is absolutely exemplary. JCB is, however, by no means alone. It has set a standard, in the minds of parents and people like me who advise parents, for what we now expect of universities, and I would really like the Government to take a hand in moving the needle.

I am not in any way committed to the particular formula in this amendment. It is a formula that is necessarily stated by its circumstances; it has to fit in with the structure of this Bill. I am not at all convinced that having a scored measure—an outcome measure—at the end of the day for mental health and well-being is the right way to go, but we have to get to a point where universities know that they are being observed and where accurate information finds its way to prospective students.

In the Good Schools Guide, if a school is a place that is a difficult environment for the less robust, we say that. It is fine. You can happily say that you have to be pretty rumbustious to get on in this school, and students and parents know what you mean. It will absolutely suit some people. Others will be put off by it and will find a place that is better suited to them. There is no reason why all universities should be the same, but it is absolutely obvious to me that prospective students and their parents should be given the information needed to make good judgments as to the environment at the university and whether their child will flourish there.

I also hope that, by doing that, we will raise the standard of universities generally. This is a move that Universities UK talks very strongly in support of, and some individual vice-chancellors are clearly ahead of the crowd in this. We ought to be out there supporting them, helping this change to happen and helping universities generally to up their standards. At the end of the day, these are children, and it is a big transition between home and local school to university in a strange city a long way away with completely different customs. We want them to be cared for; we want them to be looked after; we want to be a part of that, where we have a relationship with our children that will support that. We want the university to be strong and active in looking after them. If we cannot do that through this amendment, I hope that the Government will confirm that they have plans in this direction. I beg to move.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I wish to speak to my Amendment 69 very much in the spirit of the powerful speech that we just heard from my noble friend Lord Lucas. We definitely need more information about student outcomes. One way in which that information can be presented is the absolute information on the absolute outcomes. I am sure that the Minister will be eloquent on that. There is nothing in my amendment that tries to suppress any of that sort of information—far from it. However, the way in which the legislation is currently drafted means that it goes out of its way to exclude a different sort of equally valuable and relevant information: how our higher education institution is doing relative to the types of students that it has. That is a measure of distance travelled; it is a measure of how a university is performing, given the students that it recruits.

We have heard several important interventions in the course of our debate about students with special educational needs. A university that recruits an unusually high proportion of students with special educational needs, within the approach set out by Ministers, will not be able to signal that it does that; it may just appear to be a less well-performing institution. To offer a second example, which I know is a source of deep frustration and shame to us all, we should look at the performance of students from ethnic minority backgrounds. For any given level of academic qualification, a graduate from an ethnic minority background may do less well in the labour market than a graduate of similar academic achievement but not from a minority ethnic background. That is shocking; it is also a description of the British labour market as it is today. This would mean that, on the approach set out by Ministers, a university that had a disproportionately high number of graduates from ethnic minority backgrounds would do less well on labour market outcomes without the university being able to display its commitment and what it was doing.

--- Later in debate ---
I therefore hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment, and that other noble Lords will not feel the need to move theirs when they are reached.
Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of those who have spoken. The question of supporting students and getting their mental health needs looked after is one for which I—and, I suspect, a very large number of other parents—absolutely have a minimum expected level. I therefore find my noble friend’s statements of government policy in this area uncomfortably flabby. The Government support UUK—good. They back the mental health charter—good. However, universities have been subject to this sort of pressure for a long time and have not moved.

In the spirit of the Bill and of a minimum expected level, I really hope that the Government will consider what else they might do. It absolutely does not need to be measurement under Clause 17; it would work very well if, to pick up on the spirit of the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, someone with character and reputation set out as an individual to work with the universities to get them to the place they should be. Such people are not impossible to find. However, we need something to make universities focus, and which says, “This isn’t just one of the other things that the Government find important but one of the things which we must do, and we know that, even if it can’t be expressed as a number, there is a standard which we have to reach”.

Not surprisingly, I listened with interest to my noble friend Lord Willetts’s explanation of his interest in this area. The question “How are people like me doing at this university?” absolutely ought to be something that interests the university just as much as the student. They should be looking at, for instance, students they have recruited with high and low qualifications relative to the average of a class and asking, “How do they do? Why are students dropping out? Is there stuff here we should be feeding back to their schools because perhaps they have not had the advice that they ought to have had there? Do we really understand the needs of particular types of children, whoever they might be? Are we seeing effects that might reflect something we could improve in this university?” There are lots of different ways of cutting that cake. The self-improving university comes from an attachment to data and a care for its students, rather than just a care for process; that is what we must strive to inculcate, improve and increase in our universities. That human side of the interaction is the foundation of making sure that the physical university survives in a virtual world.

As I said, I am grateful for all the support that I have received. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 63 withdrawn.