Higher Education (Industry and Regulators Committee Report)

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Tuesday 21st May 2024

(1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, it has been a very interesting debate, stimulated by this excellent report. I declare my interests as a visiting professor at King’s College London and a member of the council of the University of Southampton. There is a lively debate about universities going on, particularly on this side. Let us have a proper debate about what is going on.

I want to comment on some of the interventions, particularly from some fellow Conservatives in this Committee. I very much agree with the key point by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, that we need a regulator. I do not actually think that the old regime was as bad as is sometimes made out. HEFCE was the regulator, in reality, but its regulatory power was the power of the purse, because it was handing out grants. As the grants disappeared, so its capacity to exercise authority by attaching conditions to the grants was going, which is why, right from early on, I said that we needed a new legislative framework. I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing that in. In today’s world, the HEFCE model of regulation was very discretionary. The regulatory regime needs to be more explicit, rules based and clear, so that people know where they stand. A rules-based, transparent regulator was another of the prizes we all wanted to see from the new regime.

Also, one of my frustrations was that, having to deal with an agenda of trying to promote new players coming in, it was incredibly frustrating that they were not properly regulated. A regulator extends the capacity to regulate new arrivals. The noble Lord eloquently made the case for the OfS, but where I think I part company from him is that one reason why this report is interesting and important is that it is not the old lags who always turn up and we all enjoy our debates on higher education. This is a committee of experts on regulation who are looking at the OfS from the perspective of people who look at how regulatory regimes operate in other sectors, in other contexts. I attach some weight to their assessment, as fellow Members of this House who devote their committee time to studying regulation in different places, of how it is working in the world of HE. I understand the frustrations of my noble friend who chairs the OfS that because of this previously unknown Addison rule, he was not able to engage directly with the points that the committee makes. I am sure that there are good answers on many of them, but having this perspective from a committee that specialises in looking at regulation is a good thing.

The funding model has come up: it came up at the beginning with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, then with the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, and from others in referring to debt. The new funding model is here to last. It was begun under the previous Labour Government. I will turn later to some of the things that we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, but from the tone of the remarks it is absolutely clear: the Department for Education is never going to find a large public budget to fund higher education. In my experience, almost every Education Secretary who turns up cares about early years and primary school. They have no desire, in any battle with the Treasury, to say, “I’m not going to ask you for more money or primary or secondary education. Please can we have more money for universities?”. They just do not, so we need another way of funding it. We have that, and it is not debt in the sense of commercial debt.

For me, it was a low point, when the argument was being made that we needed to have some increase in fees, to hear the then Minister say that we could not put up fees because it would contribute to the cost of living crisis, pandering to a deep and dangerous misconception that somehow this is money that students pay up front. It is not; what matters is the repayment formula, which of course ensures—I look again at the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—that people on low incomes do not pay back. In reality, they do not pay for their higher education; the generality of taxpayers pay for the higher education of people who are subsequently not able to afford to pay back. That is the right and progressive way of doing it.

As to how this funding compares with the money going into primary and secondary schools, I will make some quick comments on what the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, said. I can remember the negotiations with the Treasury. There used to be capital grants for higher education, in the same way as there are for schools. When people compare the figures of £6,000 for schools and £9,000 to universities, that schools figure does not include capital spend, which is a separate and substantial line item in the DfE. I remember the negotiations, and one reason why we put the fees up to such a high level was that the Treasury said, “We’re getting rid of all capital grants for higher education. In future, institutions will finance capital by borrowing on the commercial markets, and one reason for the fees is to cover the interest payments on the capital now that we are stopping having a public capital budget for HE”. That is part of the logic of the system. Their borrowing money to fund development is the new model; it was another form of expenditure saving.

Secondly, that £9,000 includes £1,000 of access spending, which is an absolute social mobility challenge but is not there to pay for the cost of educating a student. It is money to meet a social mobility objective. There are other extra costs. One of my regrets is that we call them tuition fees; they are university fees, for all the other activities that are provided for at a university.

When you look at the historical trends, as measured by organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is clear that in the English system the long-term trend, over 20 or 30 years, has been for public expenditure on primary and secondary education to rise relative to expenditure on students in higher education. That is the underlying long-term trend, so it is not a soft option for higher education.

It is, however, certainly the case that universities need to account for how they spend the money. This was done most recently in the Augar report, which was quite tough-minded. It commissioned an accountancy firm—I think it was PwC—that estimated the costs of higher education and provided an estimate which showed, even in those days, five years ago, that something like the £9,250 fee was barely sufficient to meet what an independent accountancy firm assessed as the cost of higher education. So the fee is looked at, and needs to be looked at, from time to time.

On data, one of my frustrations with the OfS is partly because of the flow of letters and requests that it gets from Ministers on every subject under the sun. Again, my noble friend Lord Johnson made a good point: a great self-denying ordnance would be a restriction in the number of ministerial letters so that there is some sense of strategy and capacity to get on with things. It is the basic information that students rightly care about that matters, as my noble friend Lord Lucas said. In every engagement that I had with students they made practical points. They want more contact hours but they did not want all them to be in incredibly crowded lectures; they had some views about the amount of direct contact that they had. They wanted their academic work back promptly with some kind of useful academic feedback. That is the kind of information that they wanted.

In the old days—looking back, it was perhaps a naive hope—we actually got the NUS to talk to the Consumers’ Association about the kind of data that it and the NUS could obtain to provide to prospective students by working together. There was then an outbreak of anxiety that thinking of students as consumers and working with the Consumers’ Association was ideologically incorrect. That is the kind of information that students should have good access to, and we can still do better on it. Incidentally, if one needs more information about what happens after one leaves university, the Student Loans Company is a hidden and unused resource from which the data should be liberated to make that kind of information possible.

Briefly, I have some final observations on how this argument has gone. There is an issue about promoting innovation. Again, my noble friend Lord Johnson made that point. For example, I hear that an exciting new model for engineering education in Hereford will say that showing that it has a plan for each individual student if it goes bust—it has to be a plan based on the innovative education model it is operating—is quite a barrier to it getting through the regulatory process, becoming fully entitled to give any degrees and, one hopes, getting a university title. This should be a regulatory regime that promotes innovation. That is an issue.

I turn to my noble friend Lord Agnew and his obvious unhappiness about higher education. If only some aspects of the school agenda were transported to higher education. Academies, such as the Mossbourne academy, have thrived and newcomers have come in, but the DfE assesses higher education in a different way. A Mossbourne academy higher education institution would get nowhere in the Department for Education’s model because it takes prior attainment as a measure of the quality of a university. It does not use that with schools: it looks at value added. It is prior attainment that counts for status in the world of higher education, which rewards incumbents.

That model even has a specific measure of school performance in terms of getting students through to the Russell group. I love the Russell group—it is a set of research-intensive universities—but it is massive producer capture to allow a self-organised club to become a measure of performance of a school. One goes to universities that say that the prospective students turned up and rather like what they saw but the school was keen for them to go to a Russell group university. This is a system that rewards incumbency. That is completely different from the agenda at the school level.

Of course the Russell group is excellent and research intensive, but we need to be a bit more relaxed about the different missions of different types of university. Of course many of them will deliver training, and a university can do so. We should not have our view of universities totally shaped by the Oxbridge model. The technical Hochschule in Germany that we all love are actually universities and increasingly take the title “universities of applied science”. In the Republic of Ireland, the university title is being spread. I sometimes think that if people—even, dare I say it, some on my Conservative Benches—could ritually humiliate some of these institutions and say, “You’re not really a university”, they would feel so much better about it. The truth is that those institutions are legitimate universities in almost every other western country. We should accept them and welcome them to the diversity of missions that we have in higher education today.

The OfS is doing a necessary and important job. It needs to be liberated from some of those ministerial letters and to be able to focus on the data that really matters to prospective students. I hope that the OfS will understand the importance of the context of the students that it recruits and I very much welcome this important report from the committee.

Skills: Importance for the UK Economy and Quality of Life

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 9th May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Marks of Hale on a wonderful maiden speech. He is assured of a very warm welcome to our House. He gave an important and topical reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism. For many of us, Lord Sacks is an excellent example of how the wisdom of the Jewish tradition can be of value to us all. The athleticism of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Hale, is also clearly very impressive. We look forward to seeing his running shoes alongside the mobility scooters downstairs. I am sure that he will be an important contributor to our debates in this House.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, on opening and setting the scene for this important debate on skills. I draw the House’s attention to my interests.

I will focus on two issues. The first is the future of BTECs, which are important vocational qualifications, introduced as a skills reform in the 1980s—I am looking across to the former Secretary of State—and which play an important role in providing vocational qualifications today. The Government appear to believe that they can defund BTECs and everyone will instead move on to T-levels, but the figures do not bear that out. In 2021, 5,300 students started T-levels, and one-third dropped out, compared with one-fifth dropping out from other vocational qualifications and one in 10 dropping out from A-levels. The Sixth Form Colleges Association estimates that, in comparison with the low numbers doing T-levels, defunding BTECs could result in 155,000 students not having a level 3 qualification that they otherwise would have secured through the BTEC route. I very much agree with the warnings from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on that issue.

BTECs matter. They are a route into degree apprenticeships, to which Ministers rightly attach a lot of importance. They are a route into higher education, with perhaps 60,000 people getting places in higher education as a result of BTECs in important vocational courses, such as nursing.

We have discussed BTECs in this House before, and I informed the Minister that I would raise with her the assurance that she gave us in a debate in this House on 7 April 2022:

“I know that noble Lords are all interested to see the provisional list of qualifications that overlap with waves 1 and 2 T-levels. I want to be absolutely clear to your Lordships today that through this process we expect to remove public funding approval for just a small proportion of the total level 3 offer, including BTECs. This will be significantly less than half”.—[Official Report, 7/4/22; col. 2202.]

That quotation from Hansard was the assurance she gave us approximately two years ago. I would be very grateful if she could update us on how the defunding of BTECs is progressing. It is possible that, in her statement to us two years ago, when she referred to “this process” she was not referring to the full defunding of BTECs but simply to overlap. I would very much like to hear the Government’s estimate of the total number of BTEC and other advanced qualification enrolments, after they have completed the full defunding process. A useful baseline is the 248,000 BTEC/AGQ enrolments in 2022-23. What is the Minister’s latest estimate of how many BTEC courses will be defunded? How many people will be enrolling on BTECs at the end of the full process of defunding BTECs, compared with that baseline of 248,000? As I said, I gave the department advance notice of this question and very much hope that, in the light of our previous debates, we will get those estimates today.

I also ask the Minister—given the slow take-up of T-levels, and given that we now know the Government do not see T-levels as part of a long-term framework—whether they are in turn going to be replaced by this new advanced qualification. Is there not an even stronger case for pausing the defunding of BTECs to reduce the risk that tens of thousands of young people might find themselves without any suitable qualification that they can study and end up not in education, employment or training? It would be a tragedy if the defunding of BTECs have that result. Given the latest information on the uptake of T-levels, I very much hope the Minister will be able to make some concessions on that.

The second issue I want to briefly touch on is degree apprenticeships. I very much welcome degree apprenticeships—they are an important part of the options available. It is just worth, again, putting the figures in context. There are now about 40,000 enrolments in degree apprenticeships, but half those are by people aged over 25. They seem to be particularly taken up by mature learners. We have about 20,000 young people starting degree apprenticeships, about 10% of the total number starting in higher education.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, rightly raised the question of the apprenticeship levy and the pressures on it. Degree apprenticeships are funded out of the apprenticeship levy. They are particularly expensive programs. If they are a significant claim on the apprenticeship levy, their growth is surely part of the answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare: why are we seeing such a decline in the number of young people doing apprenticeships and apprenticeships at levels two and three? The answer is that this fixed pot of money is being increasingly deployed for degree apprenticeships.

I wish to see more expansion—as the noble Lord said—of apprenticeships for younger people and at lower levels. I urge the Government to consider funding degree apprenticeships out of fees and loans, just like the rest of higher education, to liberate funding for more apprenticeships. That would also have the side effect that, instead of trying to drive people on to degree apprenticeships by scares about the fees and costs of higher education, we would have a shared interest in explaining to young people that they do not pay for their higher education courses upfront and they should have the option of a growing number of degree apprenticeships alongside other higher education qualifications.

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Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords across the Chamber for their contributions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for securing this very important and well-supported debate. It was an honour to be present to hear the maiden speeches of my noble friends Lord Marks of Hale and Lord Elliott of Mickle Fell. Listening to a maiden speech reminds us all just what a privilege it is to serve in your Lordships’ House.

If I may, I will step back and remind noble Lords what the Government are looking to achieve with our overall programme of skills reform. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, started by talking about the need for a strategy. I hope he recognises many, if not all, of the seven points in his speech in the Government’s approach.

The Skills for Jobs White Paper, published in January 2021, is the blueprint for our reforms. It sets out the case for change and the vital need to drive up skills in our country. We know that a third of productivity growth can be attributed to increases in skills levels. I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Baker for his work over many years to bring a focus to the skills agenda. But we still face significant gaps in skills at higher technical levels, with level 4/5 being the highest qualification for 10% of adults, compared to 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. 

My noble friend Lord Patten was absolutely right to highlight the importance of improving productivity in the public sector as well, and my noble friend Lord Holmes was right to stress the importance of inclusivity and innovation in developing skills programmes.

The gaps in our skills are creating significant challenges in the labour market. As we heard from a number of noble Lords, employers report that they cannot find people with the skills they need, particularly the technical skills that drive innovation and enable adoption of new technologies. I acknowledge the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, regarding foreign languages, but I may need to address some of them in writing.

As it stands, a quarter of job vacancies in the UK are due to skills shortages. Some estimates show that, by 2030, we will face a global skills shortage of 85 million. There are major challenges for the future, as we know from research published by the department’s Unit for Future Skills, which estimates that between 10% and 30% of jobs could be automated through AI. The significance of AI was brought out powerfully by my noble friend Lady Fairhead. That is why we have introduced a series of reforms, with the aim of developing a world-leading skills system that is employer-focused and fit for the future. This is backed by an investment of £3.8 billion over the course of this Parliament to strengthen higher and further education. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, spoke about the need for stability in the skills system. Probably the strongest thing we hear from employers is that they want stability so they can plan and invest.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about opportunities for lifelong learning. I remind her of the important lifelong learning entitlement, which will transform opportunities to upskill, reskill and develop skills throughout one’s lifetime.

I will divide my remaining remarks into three broad categories, focusing on an employer-led skills system, our support for priority growth sectors, and the reform of qualifications. I hope that addresses the spirit of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, about looking at this issue in the round and not in a fragmented way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said more eloquently than I can, employers need to be at the heart of our skills system. The Government have worked hard to bring education and business together so that skills and training provision directly support economic growth and productivity. The Government are proud of their new high-quality apprenticeship programme. Nearly 700 apprenticeship standards are now available, covering around 70% of occupations in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked about the drop in the number of apprenticeships. I think he knows what I am going to say: we focused very much on quality, so we took out apprenticeships that did not deliver for apprentices. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that I am not sure what changing the name of the apprenticeship levy achieves, but I think that Labour’s proposals are estimated to halve the number of apprenticeships, which would have a very serious impact on our economy.

I thank my noble friend Lord Harrington for acknowledging the value of the apprenticeship levy. I will address some of his concerns, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, about reform of the levy. We already pay 100% of the apprenticeship training costs for 16 to 21 year-olds in respect of SMEs. We have also doubled the levy transfer limit from 25% to 50% so that levy payers can maximise the benefit of their levy funds.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, gave us her expert insight into the importance of level 3 apprenticeships. As she is aware, they are the most popular apprenticeships, accounting for 43.3% of starts in the current academic year. We now have 229 apprenticeships standards at level 3 and an active apprenticeships campaign promoting both level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships.

My noble friend Lord Harrington noted the importance of manufacturing apprenticeships. The Government are investing £50 million in a two-year pilot to support providers to deliver more high-value apprenticeships, particularly in areas such as engineering, advanced manufacturing, green technologies and life sciences.

My noble friend Lord Lucas talked about the importance of micro-credentials. He will be aware that we have introduced skills bootcamps, which provide flexible training for adults aged 19 and over, which are directly linked to roles in priority sectors. These, again, were courses that were designed and delivered in partnership with employers to respond to their needs. There are now more than 1,000 skills bootcamps available across England.

Turning to the local skills improvement plans, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her leadership in this area. I was glad to hear how important and innovative that direct link is—if I followed her remarks correctly—between business, higher education and further education, just getting people in the room together to work out what an area needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked about oversight of the LSIPs. The employer representative bodies are now leading on implementation and review of the plans, and each of those bodies will publish a public annual progress report in June 2024 and June 2025, setting out their progress.

We also think the introduction of institutes of technology is extremely important. They are collaborations between colleges, universities and business, designed to deliver the best technical education and help businesses to get the workforce they need. We will have 21 of these new institutes in place from September.

The noble Lord, Lord Mair, said that—I hope I wrote this down correctly—20% of adults in Germany have higher technical qualifications, and that this is an important gap in our skills landscape. That is why we have introduced HTQs to meet exactly that need at levels 4 and 5. They have a quality mark that is awarded only to those qualifications that deliver the skills employers need. That also speaks to the point about recognition of qualifications that the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, referred to. To date, 172 qualifications have been approved as HTQs across seven routes. The Government have also sought to prioritise five sectors that are critical to driving our growth in the 21st century: green industries, digital technologies, life sciences, creative industries, and advanced manufacturing.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, all talked about the importance of green industries. The net-zero growth plan sets out how the Department for Education is empowering people to get skills for green jobs, but this challenge is a very significant one, whether it be in relation to workers in offshore wind or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, used as an example, in relation to heat pumps. We are funding a range of apprenticeship standards in green occupations, including level 4 electrical power networks engineering and new low-carbon heating technician apprenticeships. We also have T-levels to support this area in construction engineering and land management.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked about the nature action plan. On timing, the technical answer is “soon” but not “in due course”—that is the good news. We have made a public commitment that it will be published in the first half of this year, and that public commitment still stands. I think that is “soon”.

Digital technologies are a foundation for our economy, but 18% of the UK labour force do not have the essential digital skills that they need for work. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, asked about cross-departmental working. As an example, we are working closely with DSIT to convene the Digital and Computing Skills Education Taskforce, aiming to increase the number of individuals taking digital and computing qualifications and attracting people into digital jobs. We have invested over £100 million in the National Centre for Computing Education, to improve teaching of and participation in computer science GCSE and A-level.

I recognise very much, in my noble friend Lady Fairhead’s comments about AI, the pace of change and the difficulty in government to stay ahead of the curve. I hope the House agrees that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has given great leadership in the area of ethical AI and safety in AI. My colleagues in the department are also making great progress, and I look forward to being able to update the House on some of those activities in due course.

The third area of focus is on life sciences. The UK life sciences industry is one of the largest in the world, with the potential to create up to 133,000 new roles in 2030. Through the Office for Life Sciences, my department is working with employers and industry bodies to identify and address skills challenges.

The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, talked about the importance of the creative industries. This is one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy, and we have clearly set out the Government’s ambition—shared with industry—to support a million new jobs through education and skills objectives, in our creative industries sector vision. We have developed 57 creative and design occupational standards and we have more flexible training models to support apprenticeships in the creative industries, where short-term contracts or other non-standard employment models are the norm.

Finally, our fifth area of strategic focus is on advanced manufacturing. Manufacturing provides 2.6 million jobs in the economy—7% of total employment—but there are currently 70,000 vacancies. Our plan sets out our ambition to establish an advanced manufacturing skills forum with the National Manufacturing Skills Taskforce. Again, this is supported by skills bootcamps and T-levels, to create a pipeline of skilled workers.

I turn to our qualification reform, which was a subject of interest for my noble friends Lord Willetts and Lord Lingfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. As the House knows from our debates on this subject during the passage of the skills Bill, we aim to fund only qualifications that are of the highest quality and lead to good progression outcomes. T-levels are delivering fantastic results for those 16 to 19 year-olds across the country. I encourage my noble friend Lord Lingfield to perhaps meet some of those students with me, because they are delighted by their courses. Over 30,000 young people have now enrolled on a T-level since their launch four years ago, with roughly 16,000 enrolling in the last year.

My noble friend Lord Willetts asked some very specific questions about the precise number of qualifications that will have funding removed and the number of students taking them. I will cover some of those points now, but I will also write to him and put a copy of my letter in the Library, because this is a slightly complex area. We have not yet finished all our decision-making on the funding of qualifications, but we have published the number of courses and enrolments, rather than students, where either funding is being removed or we are considering it, and I will put the links to that information in my letter.

As the House knows, we are removing public funding from qualifications in phases. The first phase was for 5,500 qualifications, which had either no or very low enrolments. The second phase is for the removal of funding from qualifications that overlap with T-levels. The final phase relates to our approval process through which alternative academic qualifications must go to be funded from September 2025.

On the second phase—the removal of funding from qualifications that overlap with T-levels—waves 1 and 2 covered about 130 qualifications and about 39,000 enrolments. Within that, there were 10 qualifications that had more than 1,000 enrolments. Wave 3 covered 85 qualifications with 17,000 enrolments, and there were five qualifications with more than 1,000 enrolments. Wave 4 is expected to cover around 70 qualifications and 32,000 enrolments, of which nine qualifications had more than 1,000 enrolments. I raise the point about the relatively small number of qualifications with large numbers of enrolments because my noble friend Lord Lingfield talked about T-levels being too complicated, but the existing system is extremely complicated. We want to bring simplicity and clarity to the quality of the qualifications that young people are undertaking.

The final reason why I would like to write to my noble friend, rather than try to explain this in any more detail at the Dispatch Box, is that T-levels are very large courses covering a variety of occupational specialisms and lasting two years. The qualifications being defunded are of different sizes; some can be very small, and one person could take several enrolments. The enrolment data for older-style qualifications cannot be directly compared with T-levels, which are much larger. I assure my noble friend and the House that students will continue to have a range of options available to them at level 3, in addition to A-levels and T-levels, including new technical occupational qualifications and alternative academic qualifications, helping to ensure that all students have a range of options. Each one of those will have employer standards and occupational standards at its heart.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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I am very grateful to the Minister for the full answer she has already given. Can she give her assurance that the measure of enrolments, which I understand is not the same as the number of students, going back to the baseline that I referred to, will be in her letter to me?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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It will.

I turn to the wider points raised about the curriculum by my noble friends Lady Sater and Lord Effingham, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty. To critics of the curriculum, I say as a starting point that we work very closely with the Education Endowment Foundation, which gives a robust, highly respected and independent evidence base about all the reforms that we have undertaken, so there is nothing ideological in what we are doing in our schools. It is based on the best available evidence, including randomised control trials and other similarly robust approaches.

I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, that it is a bit artificial to separate knowledge and skills; it is the combination of the two that is powerful. I agree with my noble friend Lady Sater about the importance of confidence and agility, but we believe those are based in a knowledge-rich curriculum that fosters competence and mastery in a subject. I may have to include my response about storming the barricades with the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, in my letter. All I can say at this point is that it sounds an interesting option.

In relation to my noble friend Lord Effingham’s question regarding prohibition of phones, if additional evidence emerges that they are a problem—we know that most schools already prohibit phones in some way—we will seek to make our guidance statutory. The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, emphasised the importance of careers. I remind the House that in the financial year 2024-25 we are investing more than £90 million in high-quality careers provision for all.

I am running out of time. My last point is to acknowledge the point made by my noble friend Lord Lilley that the Government cannot make a success of these skills reforms on their own. Employers must also do more to support the development of workforce skills. We have seen employer investment in training fall by 7.8% in real terms between 2017 and 2022. As my noble friend said, we must move away from reliance on migration to fill skills gaps and towards investment in the skills of our domestic workforce.

Higher Education

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 7th March 2024

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on initiating this debate. Finding myself standing opposite him in the Chamber responding to a debate that he has initiated reminds me of when I was his shadow in another place years ago. It reminds me in particular of an incident when, as I spoke, I could see the then Secretary of State looking increasingly uncomfortable and challenged. I thought, “My points must be getting through”—until I realised that what had actually happened was that his guide dog had been sick on the Floor of the Chamber of the House of Commons, which he kindly pointed out was the guide dog’s assessment of the points I was making as shadow Secretary of State. So I hope to manage a little better this time.

It was an excellent intervention with which the noble Lord began. He was bringing all of us, from all sides of the House, to recognise the qualities and strengths of our higher education system. It is not perfect, it faces real challenges and there are areas where it is underperforming, but the system as a whole is a good one. I am a bit uncomfortable when it is always praised in terms of “four of the top 10 universities” or “25 in the top 200”. That way of assessing the quality of our higher education system does not reflect the truth that it is a very diverse system. There is no one way of being a good university. Of course, those globally respected, research-leading universities at the top of the league tables are excellent, but there are other ways of being excellent. You can be an excellent vocational university, focusing on skills requirements in your area. You can be a university that is excellent in teaching, focusing on teaching rather than research, as the tech initiative of my successor, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, brought out. We must celebrate the strengths of a range of universities doing different things, and I hope that the Minister in her remarks at the end will make that point.

The system also needs greater diversity, and we have already heard about degree apprenticeships, which are a very welcome addition to the range of higher education provision. My noble friend Lord Patten asked about their growth. The truth is that they are funded—nothing comes for free—to the tune of almost £30,000 out of the apprenticeship levy. They are reported to be taking approximately 20% of the apprenticeship levy and, in turn, Ministers report that the apprenticeship levy is 99% spent. It would be very interesting to hear from the Minister, if degree apprenticeships are to expand, how this growth will be funded and whether it will mean, if it remains a charge on the apprenticeship levy, that other forms of apprenticeship, often more focused on young people, suffer by comparison. While they are an excellent initiative, there is some uncomfortable evidence that, for any given discipline and compared with conventional university courses, degree apprenticeships appear to be more socially selective, less likely to take people from deprived backgrounds and less likely to take young people—more than half of those on degree apprenticeships are over 30. What more we can do to extend access to degree apprenticeships is something on which I think we would like to hear more from the Minister.

Finally, as time is tight, I will just comment on the—as always—interesting observations from the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. There is not simply a utilitarian defence of higher education. Again, it was the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, as Secretary of State, who commissioned an excellent research exercise on the wider benefits of learning that is still yielding findings and results to this day. When we at the Resolution Foundation—one of those think tanks—recently did work on mental ill-health among young people and economic inactivity, we found that young people who had been to university were still quite likely to suffer mental ill-health. However, it looked as if having been to university made them more resilient. They were more likely still to be in work even while suffering episodes of mental ill-health than people who had not had that opportunity. So there are wider benefits of higher education that extend beyond those that are subject to immediate economic calculation and this debate is an opportunity to repeat the point.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 4, which would require the Secretary of State to publish a review of the lifelong loan entitlement before bringing in further regulations on fee limits. I welcome the Minister's comments in Committee, and I fully understand her feedback about what information will accompany further regulations as these changes are rolled out.

We have brought this amendment back to further raise the point about ensuring that students, the sector and Parliament are given clear information on the details of the LLE as soon as possible. Throughout the passage of this Bill, we have raised concerns, often after input from those in the higher education sector, that so little about the LLE in terms of course provision, maintenance, credits, transfers, and further rollout of modular study at other levels is confirmed in any meaningful detail.

I am none the less grateful that, following Committee, the Minister outlined further details of the LLE that relate to this Bill in a letter. However, as we know, this huge shift in higher education policy goes further than fee limits. We all want this change to work, but for that to happen the sector will need much more clarity than has been provided through this very narrow Bill.

The accounting officer assessment for the LLE states:

“The main feasibility risk of LLE is meeting the 2025 delivery timescale”.

Is the Minister still confident that the department will be able to deliver on time, particularly in the light of current pressures arising from the major emergency that the department is currently dealing with in school buildings across the UK?

My next question follows on naturally: what is in place if this timescale turns out to be unworkable? There are a great many sector stakeholders—as well as the students themselves, of course—who will need clearly communicated timelines. Amendment 1 from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, puts in the Bill the number of hours that constitute a credit. We understand why she tabled that amendment: it is important that the sector is given clarity and control over the definition of working hours and that it is consistent with the QAA’s higher education credit framework. As she noted, her concern is about the lack of detail. This is one of many areas in which the higher and further education sectors still have questions about how a credit will be defined.

The concept of a credit in education terms will also be completely alien to the general public, and there is a risk that employers simply do not understand its value. The Government need to think about how this can be communicated. We do not believe that putting a number in the Bill at this point would be beneficial. However, we would like a commitment from the Government that they will not seek to amend the value of a credit and will be led by the sector’s understanding of it.

On Amendment 2, I am glad that the Minister has outlined the Government’s plans to ensure sharia-compliant loans in writing; we look forward to receiving further engagement on this issue as the LLE progresses. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, pointed out, there is a distinct problem with skills gaps—a lack of applicants with the right skills. The economy cannot move forward appropriately with skills shortages.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, the amendments reflect widespread cross-party support for the Bill and its principles; they are not intended to destroy the Bill in any way. I see the case for the Bill, which of course I warmly welcome, as opening up new possibilities. We genuinely do not know the circumstances in which people may take them up and we do not know whether debt aversion is much more of an issue among mature learners than among young people aged 18 or 19; we will find out only if we give this a try. Similarly, we do not know how much suppressed demand there is for level 4 or level 5 qualifications because of the way in which loans are currently structured; we will find out only if we give this a try. So this is definitely worth going forward with.

I have three brief comments on the amendments. First, one of the temptations we have in this House— I have occasionally succumbed to it myself—is to try to determine the details of policy through primary legislation. That is one of the risks in Amendment 1, with its specification of the definition of “one credit”. Of course, it is an important and interesting area but, as we are embarking on a journey with a new and more flexible system, trying to put that into primary legislation would inhibit necessary policy flexibility—a point that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, referred to.

Secondly, I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on sharia-compliant loans. We have been at this for 10 years now, and it really is time that a scheme such as this were available and in force. There were initially some tricky problems, but I think that the long work that the department has done over the years has resolved them. My understanding is that the technical and theological issues have been addressed. I know that the Minister herself is keen to get on with this, so anything that she can say to the House about her commitment to that timescale would be very welcome.

Finally, on Amendment 4, I am proud to say that I am acting as the spokesman for the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. She very much regrets that she cannot be with us; she briefly appeared, but I think she had to catch a plane to Lithuania. In many ways, she is the intellectual origins of the Bill. I know that her spirit is that she wants to get on with it. Her concern about this amendment—which I completely understand and support—is that requiring another review before we can get on with things will slow down the pace still further. I think that the mood across this House is that we want to get on with it; we do not want reasons for further delay. I fear that Amendment 4 would constitute another obstacle to this potentially important and significant innovation in policy, which I warmly support.

Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Monday 10th July 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
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My Lords, I support Amendment 7, looking to review how the Act is working. I regret that I was not able to speak at Second Reading.

I shall mention some specific issues that I hope such a review would include, reflecting some of the briefings that I and, no doubt, other noble Lords have received. The list of items to be covered mentions the provision of courses offered by higher education and further education providers, but nowhere in the amendment or indeed in the Bill is there any reference to independent training providers, one of my hot buttons. Yet ITPs are likely to play an important part in delivering LLE-funded courses and indeed modules.

There are two specific issues relating to ITPs. The first is that the process for applying for and gaining recognition as a provider in this field needs to be straightforward and efficient. It is good to see the idea of the third recognition route for providers via the Office for Students.

The second, which I suspect the Minister will have less flexibility in responding to, is that, for many of the courses they offer, independent providers have to charge VAT, even though FE colleges providing very similar courses do not, so there is a fundamental issue of fairness there. I know that VAT is largely untouchable, but the advantage of a review such as this is that it might highlight some of the impact of that competitive disadvantage.

The second concern that has been raised is the possible impact on creative subjects. They can be expensive to deliver, requiring extra resources and facilities, and are often seen as less valuable in the world of employment and work, although that is something I would strongly dispute. It would be welcome if the Minister could reassure us, or if the review could help to demonstrate, whether creative subjects are playing their fair part in terms of the courses being offered and taken up.

The third issue is a robust system of information, advice and guidance to support the LLE in general, both to ensure that young people—indeed, all people—considering taking up courses by using the LLE should be clear about what the opportunities, impact, risks and costs are, and to provide good information to potential providers. I am thinking specifically of SMEs, which, again, have an important role to play but may need lots of support and information in order to know how to play it.

That would all feed into the various uptake headings—the first three all relate to uptake by learners—so a review as proposed by the amendment would be really helpful in making sure that the aims of the Bill, and indeed of the lifelong learning entitlement as a whole, are being met. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us something about how the Government are planning to review these issues anyway with or without the amendment, but the amendment is a jolly good idea.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I shall indeed ask some further questions of the Minister arising from the proposal in this amendment, because I think that it is aimed at learning as much as possible about this very bold initiative. First, following on from some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, how will this scheme interact with employer spending? Clearly there are upsides and downsides. It is possible that the ability to spend some money from this loan alongside spending from an employer will make vocational courses and provision viable when they otherwise would not have been, and that is a good thing. On the other hand, there is the risk of some employers shedding their responsibilities and expecting an employee to use this loan scheme to finance training that they would otherwise have funded. It would help a lot of us if in her answers—they are always very helpful and informative—the Minister could explain exactly how the Government envisage they are going to monitor and manage that process so we know how we get the best possible outcome of the extra total spend on training and not the worst outcome, which would be the taxpayer simply picking up more of the bill with no increase in the total. Any indications on how employer spending might react would be very helpful.

Secondly, on the provision of courses offered by higher and further education providers, the Minister will know that I am interested in one possible use of this scheme being that at last we have a clear indication of public finance through loans for four years of higher education. Of course, that could be taken at different points over someone’s life in lots of different engagements with higher education, but equally, it could be four years in one go. If she could offer an indication of the Government’s support for that way in which students could benefit, it would be helpful.

I hesitate to add any suggestions of uncertainty when there is quite a lot of cross-party consensus on this issue, but it would be understandable if some people young thought “I don’t know how long this lifelong loan scheme is going to be around; if I’m currently eligible for it, I am going to take my chance now and get on with it rather than necessarily being confident it’s going to be around in 20 years’ time when I’m at a different stage of my career”. Being clear on the opportunity for people to take a four-year loan now would be helpful, and I hope the Minister can inform the Committee further on that.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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I rise to support my noble friend Lord Addington’s amendment. I want to tease out of the Minister some answers on sharia law and its effect on accessing education opportunities for all. I was with a group of about a dozen Somali women on Sunday. They have that conflict between faith and education. The Minister will remember that in 2014—nine years ago—the Government published a report on Islamic finance in the UK that acknowledged the lack of an alternative financial product to conventional student loans. It was a matter of concern. The report also identified a solution: a frequently used non-interest-bearing Muslim financial product. The Government explicitly supported the introduction of such a product. However, since then no sharia law-compliant student finance scheme has been made available. Why not, Minister, and what we are going to do about it?

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I begin by drawing the House’s attention to my interests as an honorary fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and a visiting professor at King’s College London. I also look forward to the two maiden speeches from new Members of this House, although it appears that both of them are significantly older than 29. We look forward to learning of their experiences.

The Bill is a very welcome measure, which brings extra flexibility into higher education and has the potential to yield bold reforms in how higher education is delivered. I very much hope that it works and succeeds in promoting access to higher education, but I warn the Minister that I hope that therefore it avoids the mistakes and problems that I experienced and which were referred to by the noble Baroness opposite when she talked about the decline in adult learning post 2010. We were actually very optimistic: we thought that extending larger fee loans to adult and part-time learners would maintain or even increase demand for higher education from them. However, it did not play out like that.

As I looked back on why that expectation that I had was not fulfilled, the lesson that I and others drew was that, for an 18 year-old, at a massive fork in the road in their life, choosing between going into higher education and doing something different—perhaps going into work—the overall benefits of higher education were clear and obvious, and they were willing to take out a loan, on the basis of payback if they were in a well-paid job. However, for someone already in work, who already has family commitments and who cannot be confident that taking a particular modular course will necessarily transform their earnings and opportunities, it does not look quite such an obvious and attractive option to take out extra debt—even though, as we all understand in this House, it is nothing like conventional debt. Given that that is the experience of the past decade or more, I very much hope that the Minister will be able to explain to the House why these lifelong loan entitlements will be successful in promoting demand for adult learning.

As we have already heard, there are then a set of issues about the supply of provision. It would be very interesting to know what scope there is. Perhaps the Minister is already in conversations with the Treasury about the circumstances in which these loans will be available to people. There may even be estimates going back and forth of the so-called RAB charge—how much of the loan is going to be written off. I hope that the Minister is successful in these discussions, but the more that she can share with us the information about what kind of provision she thinks she will be able to offer, as well as who is going to be making this provision, the more helpful it will be. It is possible that one of the most important and radical measures in the Bill is the new third category of registration with the Office for Students, which would enable new providers to come in and supplement existing provision from established universities. Can she share with the House a bit more information about how the new third category is going to operate?

I have some brief, specific questions. Obviously, one model is that we find that this entitlement is taken up by people dipping into more higher education later in life, but will the Minister confirm that this is a four-year entitlement that will be available for people after they start from university in the near future? Therefore, it would be perfectly possible for a new student to embark on a four-year course with a full four-year entitlement. Indeed, it may be—given the anxieties among adult learners—that the biggest growth is in four-year provision among new undergraduates. Will the Minister confirm that, if that means more people getting useful higher education for longer, that is something that the Government will welcome and support?

There has been a lot of concern expressed by the OfS and others about so-called positive outcomes from courses. One way in which you do not get a positive outcome is supposed to be if you drop out. We are used to a view of higher education whereby dropping out is a bad thing. However, it is very difficult to reconcile the rhetoric of dropping out being a bad thing with the celebration of people dipping in and out of higher education—doing a short course, then withdrawing for whatever reason, then coming back to do some more higher education study. If the OfS is going to carry on monitoring and criticising universities with high drop-out rates, and we are also going to encourage flexibility and moving in and out of higher education, I am sure that, if there is any person who can reconcile these two rather different approaches, it is the Minister in this House, and we very much look forward to her account of how the regime will operate. The fact is that some flexibility is actually a good thing, and the Bill is an opportunity to recognise that.

Finally, I hope the Minister will, in the course of our scrutiny of the Bill, share with us more about the metrics the Government will be using for success. How will we assess how well this is doing? What levels of take-up might we expect, what type of courses might students be doing, and how rapidly will she perhaps succeed in reaching her agreement with the Treasury on the scope and ambition of the actual provision that follows?

Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
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My Lords, I agree with the powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, with the possible exception of his surprising suggestion that the introduction of lawyers is generally a mischief.

I will add a few words on why Clause 4, in my view, should be removed. The duties under the legislation—it is a very sensitive area—should be regulated and enforced by a statutory regulator. The regulator should have sufficient power to resolve disputes and to give a declaration or a statement which will set standards which will then inform all relevant persons of what the requirements are in this context. That will be speedier than civil litigation; it will be less expensive than civil litigation; and it is highly likely to produce a more acceptable result than civil litigation. Despite their many skills, His Majesty’s judiciary is not the best body to determine these sensitive issues. A regulator will have far greater expertise and is far more likely to produce an acceptable result.

I am not persuaded by the views attributed by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, as to why Clause 4 is otiose because it will be the law in any event. I have two answers to the concerns of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. The first is that Article 6 of the human rights convention would be satisfied by the ability of someone dissatisfied with a regulator’s decision to bring a judicial review. That would meet Article 6 concerns. Of course, that would have very considerable controls: any person seeking judicial review has to get the permission of the court to bring the claim. They have to bring the claim within a very short period of time—three months, unless there are exceptional circumstances—and judicial review would be available.

The other point that I understand the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, to be concerned about is that there is a right to a civil claim whether or not a statute says so. My understanding is that when the court assesses whether a statute confers a right to damages for a breach of the statutory duty, the court asks itself the questions: “What did Parliament intend?” and “Did it intend in this statute, in all the circumstances, to confer a right to damages?” If Parliament were to remove Clause 4 and there were to be an effective regulator with a right to bring judicial review, I would have thought that more than sufficient to rebut the suggestion that you can go to court and seek damages in any event.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I hesitate to intervene in this debate as I am not a lawyer. We have heard four very powerful interventions from Members of this House with formidable legal expertise. Already, Clause 4 is looking rather vulnerable in light of the arguments that they have deployed so powerfully with their legal expertise. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, who sadly cannot be with us today, and other noble Members of this House—including me—signalled our intention to oppose the question that Clause 4 stand part of the Bill. Our doubts are reinforced by the formidable interventions we have already heard.

Perhaps I could add, as someone with an interest in public policy in this area, an explanation of where we are coming from. To be fair to the Minister, the case for this Bill is that it backs up the general right to freedom of speech with an attempt to provide more enforceable rights and compensations. The question is whether this provision of a statutory entitlement to tort helps serve that cause at all or whether the Government can achieve their objectives without this new route of civil litigation. The risks are considerable, including, clearly, of promoting vexatious litigation.

There is another significant risk that has not been mentioned so far. For those of us who want to see free and lively exchange of conflicting ideas in higher education—I hope we all do, on all sides of the House—there is a danger that that this type of provision has an opposite effect from the one intended, in that people who are thinking of potentially inviting speakers or organising events at their university are inhibited from doing so for fear that they could potentially find themselves caught up in complicated and demanding legal action; in other words, this could have exactly the opposite effect to the one intended.

I hope that the Minister will also be able to explain to the House why he does not believe that the current arrangements and other arrangements set out in the Bill will not themselves tackle the problem that he is concerned about. Will he accept that with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator there is already a clear process whereby any student who has a concern about the way their university is functioning, including potentially suppressing their freedom of speech, has a right to go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, and, beyond that, that ultimately those decisions are of course justiciable? Does the Minister also accept the point that he himself made in earlier debates on this legislation, that there is a framework of employment law which provides protections for academic staff? Indeed, ironically, especially given the preoccupations of my side of this House with a liberal and lightly regulated labour market, one of the best protections we seem to have from the worst of American cancel culture is precisely that we have a stronger framework of employment rights in this area; they could be extended, and we have heard interesting suggestions on that.

If it is not the OIA or employment law, there is indeed the Office for Students. The Government clearly intend that the Office for Students should have new powers to investigate potential infringement of people’s rights to freedom of speech. Often, when we have been confronting other public ills for which we are trying to find a solution, we have turned to an effective regulator. We have already heard powerful interventions this afternoon about the need for an effective regulator in this space. When we have a regulator in place whose powers can be extended in the Bill and, as we have heard so powerfully this afternoon, very carefully defined and set out with greater rigour than we have had so far, it seems odd and completely unnecessary that we feel the need in parallel to create this new tort route as well despite that route being available.

Finally, I return to the dangers in this approach. We had the wonderful observation from the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, that perhaps lawyers on all sides of the case would find that at least their income rose, and I guess that you can imagine a well-funded litigant and a well-funded university. However, students and student unions are not well funded. There would be a real risk for student unions, which have themselves faced increased legal responsibilities under this provision and would not have the resource to engage in defending themselves against litigation. They are an important place in which students with a wide range of political views have their first experience of organising debates, exchanging ideas and disputing. For the threat and shadow of potential litigation which could bankrupt their student union to hang over them is not a service to the cause of freedom of speech in our universities.

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Moved by
58: Clause 8, page 10, line 20, leave out “may” and insert “must”
Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of this amendment is to specify the route through which complaints must go, i.e., the OfS cannot intervene until a university’s own procedures, or those of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, are exhausted.
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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendments 58 and 59 in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham.

In many ways these amendments follow on naturally from the debate which we have just held in this Committee. It has become very clear that one of the problems that we face is the lack in this legislation of any provision for a coherent complaints procedure which works step by step. A key issue, which will be of concern to many universities, student unions and other bodies, is whether they could find themselves simultaneously facing a civil litigation, an investigation by the Office for Students and a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. It would seem extremely damaging and unproductive if all these different types of complaint, all envisaged in this legislation, could go on at the same time. So Amendment 58 is a simple attempt to provide at least an element of provision for sequencing rather than simultaneous investigation.

I realise that the Bill reflects a regrettable loss of confidence in universities as autonomous bodies able to run their own affairs and resolve their own disputes; we have had some vivid examples, for example from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, opposite, of how those disputes are conducted. Amendment 58 says, “Let’s give universities the first chance to resolve these disputes before they’re then investigated by the Office for Students”. It is an attempt to provide universities with their first responsibility—although not to leave them on their own any longer, absolutely in recognition of the point that the Office for Students would then have the power to intervene.

That leads on to Amendment 59, which tries to specify that the Office for Students really ought not to investigate vexatious complaints. It seems rather absurd and odd that we have a provision at the moment which says that it may or may not investigate vexatious complaints. Why do we not just say that it should not investigate vexatious complaints?

I regard both these provisions as providing some reasonable clarity on the process that will help universities and student unions, while also offering some protection for the OfS itself. We heard, in a very important intervention from my noble friend Lord Johnson, who played a crucial role in the creation of the Office for Students, that of course it is a key regulatory body. The tenor of the arguments from all sides of the Chamber today has been that, if anything, we see an enhanced role for the Office for Students rather than more civil litigation. At least the OfS ought to be able to say to a potential complainant, “You first need to have gone through a process with your university”, and, “I’m terribly sorry; this is a vexatious complaint and we are not allowed to investigate such things”. That will also help provide some definition of the role of the OfS.

In the light of the interventions we have had this afternoon, particularly from noble and learned Lords, I realise that the definition of the role of the OfS in these circumstances needs to go much further. There is much more we must clarify, but I hope these two amendments at least start the process of bringing some necessary clarification.

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Paragraph 19 of the schedule will enable the OIA to make an equivalent rule the other way around. I should point out to my noble friend that Amendment 58 would not in any event result in the OIA scheme having to be used before the OfS could consider a complaint. The OfS scheme will be vital in supporting the strengthened duties under the Bill. It will provide a clear and accessible route for making complaints and seeking redress for all individuals protected by the Bill. It is therefore a key component in ensuring that freedom of speech is protected within higher education. I hope I have offered reassurance about the need for this important scheme.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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I thank the Minister for that response to a brief but very illuminating debate. I certainly learned from the debate that there are defects in the two amendments that I tabled. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, said they lacked sophistication, so I plead guilty to a certain rustic simplicity in just saying what should be done, and I have learned my lesson. I also understand the point that we have to do some investigation to establish whether a complaint is vexatious. However, I have to say to the Minister that at the end of this debate the underlying concern—again, I think, shared across all sides of the Committee—has not really been addressed. It is that some event does not happen, for whatever reason, at a university, and the following day a well-organised critic fires off a letter to the OIA, a letter to the OfS, tries to start civil litigation, writes a letter of complaint to the vice chancellor and phones a couple of newspapers. That is not in the interests of anyone who cares about freedom of speech and higher education. I think all of us on different sides of the Committee would like some greater clarity about the sequencing and the hierarchy that ensures that a student union or a university does not face that issue. However, in light of the Minister’s comments—I completely accept the defects in my amendments—and in the hope that in some way we can return to these debates, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 58 withdrawn.
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Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, two words in the amendment cause me some concern: “overly reliant”. The problem is that no touchstone is provided in the amendment as to how that phrase is to be applied.

As it stands, subsection (2) gives clear guidance as to what the OfS is to look at. The problem to which the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, has drawn our attention is very widespread. It is not only China that one has to consider; there may be other countries too, and there is the question of balancing the contribution made in proportion to the size of the country, and whether it is so great that it gives rise to particular concerns. However, if I may say so with respect, the clause would be improved if it said a little more about the particular point to which the OfS should direct its attention, so that it knows itself what it should be doing.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, in the light of that last comment, I can briefly intervene with reference to Amendment 65 in my name. I register my interests as a member of the board of UKRI and a director of Thames Holdings.

I have two questions for the Minister but they arise also from the important intervention of my noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone. First, we do indeed need some sense of proportionality; the figure of 1% of the total income of a registered provider was an attempt to get some sense of what constituted undue influence. It would be very helpful to have an update from the Minister on the Government’s view on that. Secondly—I am speaking very much in a personal capacity—this clause is really about research funding. Of course, my noble friend has made an important point about teaching income. In the legislation which he steered through this House, there was a rather clear distinction between teaching, which is a responsibility of the OfS, and research, which is a responsibility of UKRI. It is important that those two bodies work together.

It would also be helpful to hear from the Minister how she envisages the OfS scrutinising what in this clause is predominantly research funding, for which the OfS has historically and legally not had any responsibility, but for which a different government body, on whose board I sit, currently has the main responsibility.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, I rise in part to move Amendment 66 in the name of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Before I do that, I would like to speak to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, and the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.

My immediate reaction on reading Amendment 63 and the term “overly reliant” was to ask, how defined? In many ways, Amendment 65 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, shows that there is a way of defining overly reliant; 1% might be the right amount or might not, but it begins to give us a way of saying what over-reliance means. Therefore, I believe Amendment 65 to be a helpful addition.

Amendment 64 is interesting but, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, pointed out, we need to be careful regarding whether we are talking about research funding or wider university finance. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, is obviously correct that the home undergraduate fee does not cover tuition adequately; international student fees are deemed by many higher education institutions to be extremely important. However, an important question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, is: what is over-reliance? If 60% of a British university’s students came from one country and then its economy completely collapsed, that would leave the university more than decimated—potentially, minus 60% of its fee income if that market disappeared. So it is in many ways in the interests of higher education institutions to make sure they are not overly reliant on a single source of student fees.

Quite separate from that, in the case of freedom of speech the question then becomes: to what extent do we believe there is an issue about where the money is coming from? If we are talking about Confucius Institutes, for example, that is money coming directly into universities, and there might be questions about the conditions. If we are talking about undergraduate or graduate students coming to study in the UK, the questions might be slightly different. Wealthy parents from whichever country will not necessarily say, “We will send our offspring to the United Kingdom to be educated only if freedom of speech is in some way curtailed or if certain norms and values are articulated.” That is probably not what we will hear from China.

If there is somehow government intervention from countries paying fees for their brightest and best to come to the UK, maybe it is something to be explored, but I am not sure that this Bill is the right place to be doing that. There is a whole set of higher education funding issues that we might need to think about, but that then becomes very specific in the Bill, and I am not wholly persuaded that fee income will be a major factor in curtailing freedom of speech.

That also underlies Amendment 66 in the name of my noble friend Lord Wallace, which is a probing amendment to ask to what extent His Majesty’s Government think there is a problem with regard to the funding of student unions. Is money coming directly from the Governments of other countries? If so, are they constraining what student unions are able to do? The real question is: is this a problem that needs to be resolved, or is it simply the Government thinking they might like to have another regulator exploring a bit more what student unions are doing? In that case, perhaps we should not support that particular part of Clause 9.

Times Education Commission Report

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 13th October 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I join other Members of this House in thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for convening this debate on a very important report. I should register my interests as chancellor of the University of Leicester, a visiting professor at King’s College London and a director of Thames Holdings. It is an excellent report and I see that two commissioners who contributed to it are here in the Chamber at the moment, which is fantastic.

Although a lot of the debate has focused on specific policy proposals—I will turn to two of them myself—there are reasons other than those why this report is so strong. First, the tone of the report is entirely constructive throughout. It does not say that the problems are because there are terrible people running schools, that the colleges are useless or that universities are irresponsible. It realises that most of the time, most people in education are absolutely doing their best in difficult circumstances. Its tone is to try to work with them to improve the opportunities of young people.

The report is full of humanity, not least in the individual examples of the circumstances that some people have to overcome to benefit from education. It is right to recognise how difficult some young people’s circumstances are. If we ignore them and say that the only measure of performance for a university, college or school is how well its students do, regardless of their circumstances, the effect is to incentivise a university, college or school to select students from most advantaged backgrounds because they are the ones who will do best on the metric that the Government have focused on. That is why it is right to take account of personal circumstances when we measure and assess the performance of educational institutions, whatever their level.

I also like the fact that the report cites proper evidence from a range of sources, from social science to neuroscience—it is evidence-based. Nowadays, if we are to make the case for any kind of change, it has to be done on that basis.

Finally, as several noble Lords have said, the report embraces technology, which is changing the way education is delivered. We heard some excellent examples of what this means for people with dyslexia. It is not necessarily a scandal if some students are accessing some or all of a course online. We do not immediately have to fall back on a campaign to shame the education provider into reverting to the world as it was pre Covid. Sometimes online learning can be very effective and other technologies can enhance learning. There are great examples of innovative technologies in the report, and I hope the Minister will endorse technology as one of the most powerful tools that we have for improving the quality of education.

The report then has a very long list of policy proposals, and I will focus on two. The first area of policy is the curriculum at all stages. I personally have been persuaded by the advocates of the importance of knowing stuff. What Ed Hirsch has said about cultural literacy and what Daisy Christodoulou has said about the importance of memorising and knowing stuff are very persuasive—but they are absolutely not the whole story. What seems to have gone wrong is that those insights have been implemented in a way that has turned too many of our educational institutions into places producing the most appalling Dickensian rote learning, which kills joy and enjoyment of a subject. It is important that young people at school, college or university have an opportunity to do stuff that interests them in a way that then leads them to dig into it more deeply, and therefore to enrich their learning. The idea of some kind of special funding, at a minimum, for electives, so that there is a wide range of opportunities at school, is a great proposal and should be endorsed.

Beyond that, of course, we turn to the future of A-levels and the proposals for a British baccalaureate for 18 year-olds comprising three major subjects and three minors. We have heard a lot about this already and it is an attempt to tackle one of the biggest single problems of our education system. There are quite a few ex-Ministers across this Chamber, and it is striking how, when looking back on our time in office, most of us would, I think, say that a lesson that we concluded by the end of it—some may have recognised it at the beginning—was just how serious a problem early specialisation is in English education. I went to so many meetings where people were planning elaborate PR campaigns to try to get teenage girls more interested in science, for example, and you would say, “Why do we have to do this? Why are we expecting teenagers to take these massive life-shaping decisions at the age of 14, 15 and 16, when no other educational system does?”. We should not have to market physics to a 15 year-old because otherwise they would give it up and not have the opportunity of a serious STEM career; it is absurd that we have got ourselves into that position. I strongly support the proposals for broadening the curriculum.

The full-blown English baccalaureate is very ambitious, and we all know how wary the DfE will be of proposals on that scale. However, there are pragmatic steps that could be taken towards it. Given that this report already includes the idea of some funding for a kind of electives premium, why not introduce a premium of funding for 16 to 18 year-olds who are doing some kind of further maths qualification—it need not be a full-blown A-level—just to keep up with, and try to develop, their numeracy skills? Similarly, something equivalent could be introduced for essay writing and the use of English. UCAS could then be asked to allocate points for prospective students who present with those qualifications, in addition to full-blown A-levels. There must be some steps we could take now towards that full-blown baccalaureate.

As the Minister was reminding us, I sometimes think that the current system is a kind of hourglass model: students do a wide range of GCSEs, then focus down more and more on three A-levels—often in a connected set of disciplines—and then go to universities which are increasingly offering a very broad range of subjects that can be combined in a single university course. In a way, some of the classic university courses, such as natural sciences, are examples of that. I almost dare to mention PPE in this context, which enables students to do a range of subjects that is significantly wider than many A-level options.

We increasingly hear from Ministers—it has been referred to again in today’s debate—of a vision of a lifelong loan entitlement that is driving an agenda of a modular structure for higher education, in which presumably it will be possible to put together different modules in a much wider and combined higher education programme than is currently possible. Could the people working in the DfE on a modular structure for higher education care to have a word with the custodians of the three A-level doctrine for 16 to 18 year-olds and ask them what the basis is for this classic model to be followed by a modular structure of higher education? It seems very hard to understand how the same department could advocate such contrasting doctrines for two different stages of the educational process. If you were designing such a system, you might actually try to envisage it the other way round, to allow students to specialise more gradually, rather than specialising first and then be provided with a broader range of opportunities.

I very much hope that the Minister will be able to indicate just the glimmer of a hint of an interest in possible steps towards some modest form in which 16 to 18 year-olds would be able to study a wider range of subjects. I am not being too ambitious; I am pitching it as modestly as I can.

The other area of policy I want to touch on is higher education and cold spots. It is covered in the report and has been referred to and proposed in an excellent paper from that fantastic, newly reunited team of Tony Blair and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who have now become very important co-authors of several education papers.

I confess that, when I was at the Conservative Party conference last week, I spoke at a fringe event which was advertised as organised by the Institute for Global Change. If you looked at it with a magnifying glass, you could see that it was in fact the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. A bold step was taken and it came and ran an event at the Tory Party conference; a group of us turned up and this was the kind of issue that we talked about.

The Tony Blair 50% target has done quite a lot of damage to the debate, because there are now too many people who think that the reason why more people go into higher education is because Tony Blair dragooned them to go by setting a target for it. We all know that the 50% target was really a political device—I am sure that all of us on both sides of this House have deployed it in the past—where, for the purpose of delivering a speech, he took a trend and changed it into a target. The reason why we have 50% of young people going to university is not because Tony Blair announced it at a Labour conference one year but because lots of young people want to go to university. There is overwhelming evidence from all advanced western countries that the number of people wanting to go into higher education is rising; it has gone through 50% and is now higher than that. This is a social trend, not a Blairite target.

It is a desirable social trend, and we must base policy on a recognition that the combination of that aspiration, demographic change and increasing opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in higher education means that, over the next few years, we will see even more people wanting to go into higher education. Either that will mean that our existing number of universities just gets bigger and bigger—which may be one way forward; I would not rule it out—or it is an opportunity to create some new higher education institutions in the same way as has happened in the past when higher education participation has grown. They could be—I look across at the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who was sceptical about this—further education colleges delivering more higher education provision, perhaps with the opportunity in the long run of achieving a university title if that is what they wished.

What I find shocking and frustrating is that, at the moment, we do not have any kind of debate across government and public policy about how we would deliver that provision and what the opportunity is for creating new higher education institutions in towns that do not currently have a university or higher education institution. I suspect that, when they look back on us in 10 years’ time, the historians will ask why, when this entirely predictable trend was beginning to surge through the system, there was so little debate about what kind of provision should be developed as an opportunity to meet that surge in demand.

I very much look forward to what the Minister is going to say. I hope that, in her response to the debate, she will engage with the large number of us from all sides of the Chamber who have pleaded for a broader English educational curriculum and a broader range of opportunities for 16 to 18 year-olds, and will accept as a matter of fact that we are in an environment where the number of people going to university will carry on rising. We all have a responsibility to plan for that and, indeed, turn it into an opportunity for better and more diverse provision.

The fact is that disadvantaged students are overrepresented on BTEC courses. Many of them were eligible for free school meals while at school. The Government’s proposals, as others have said, are very unlikely to help the levelling-up programme. I do not know how much consultation there has been between the Minister’s department and that of the levelling-up department under its Secretary of State, Michael Gove. Let us keep this popular qualification at least for the next few years and remove it only when students wanting what it and it alone can provide are happy for it to go. There should be further consultation at a later period that is listened to and not ignored. If the Government accept this, they will earn the gratitude of independent providers, FE colleges, sixth-form colleges and universities—let us not forget them. They will also gain the gratitude of many employers, parents and, most important of all, students themselves.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I very much agree with the important points noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and my noble friend Lord Baker, have made. I particularly agreed with my noble friend’s point about this concept of overlapping with T-levels. BTECs and T-levels are rather different. I do not understand exactly what “overlapping” means any more than he does.

It is really important, if we recognise that BTECs have a distinct identity, that many of them continue to be funded. If the Minister can give any further guidance about which BTECs might be defunded and on what basis that would be of enormous value. The two examples she gave of areas where BTECs might be kept, such as performing arts, did not inspire enormous confidence. The more she can share with the House about what exactly this will mean for BTECs will help us in this debate. It will also be incredibly important for FE colleges and other providers.

I will make one final point about the rollout of T-levels. As has been said, many of us support T-levels and we want to see them happen. However, I do not believe that the rollout of T-levels in practice can possibly be delivered in the timescale envisaged. I very much welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement of a delay of one year. If I might make an analogy, it reminds me a bit of the story of Crossrail. This is admittedly a rather London-centric example, but rather like Crossrail we will find that there will be further announcements of further delays, but unlike with Crossrail the Government also have a bold plan to close the Central line. The announcement of a strict timetable for closing the Central line, because the Government are so confident that Crossrail will be delivered on time, would be very high risk.

Regardless of the exact outcome of the vote today or further possible exchanges with the other place, I think that the timescale set out by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is itself quite optimistic. I will not be at all surprised if, regardless of what appears in legislation, eventually the appearance of T-levels and the disappearance of BTECs takes considerably longer than currently envisaged.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has just said about the timescales. I had the privilege of chairing your Lordships’ Select Committee on Youth Unemployment, which reported in November. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, for giving us her time and the benefit of her expertise to advise the committee, which was much appreciated.

We reported in November and have just had the reply from Her Majesty’s Government. What we concluded from the evidence given to us was substantial. I shall read to the House our recommendation 40 on this issue:

“The Government must reconsider its decision to defund tried and tested level 3 qualifications like BTECs, Extended Diplomas and AGQs”—

that is, applied general qualifications.

“We support the amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill requiring a four-year moratorium on defunding these qualifications and urge the Government to reconsider this policy in its entirety.”

That was the unanimous conclusion of the committee.

The Government’s reply came to us a few days ago, and the word “overlap” appears in it again. They say they will

“remove funding from qualifications that overlap with T Levels … at a pace that allows growth of T Levels and time for providers, awarding organisations, employers, students, and parents to prepare.”

They conclude that one year is enough. I conclude that it requires four years and, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has just said, it may be more than that. In introducing these amendments, the Minister talked about two consultations that have taken place on the issue but, as I recall, she did not say, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has reminded us, that 86% of respondents thought the Government’s timetable was too complicated.

I will just give the House some statistics that the committee received. We said in our report:

“230,000 students received level 3 BTEC results in August 2021. They are a common route into HE and are particularly taken up by students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with special educational needs and disabilities … Almost half of black British students accepted into university have at least one BTEC.”

The evidence is conclusive, and the contributions today from around your Lordships’ House have demonstrated that the Government need to think again on this issue. For that reason, in supporting Amendment 15A and indeed Amendment 16A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, I will say on behalf of these Benches that if the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, decides to press this matter to a Division, we shall support him.

Higher Education Reform

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Monday 28th February 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am certainly aware from the many schools I visit that some of the best of them offer a great deal of choice, both within and outside their curriculum. I understand and hear the noble Lord’s concerns, but if we look at the success of our creative industries—which are world beating, in that well-known phrase—we see that we are clearly providing our children, through school and through further and higher education, the skills they need to be very successful within them.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for her Statement and very much agree with the points made by my noble friend Lord Johnson. The changes to the financing of higher education make sense, because the system was always envisaged as one in which the majority of graduates would pay back the cost of their education. An arrangement in which we ended up with more than half of all student loans being written off was not the kind of balanced system originally envisaged.

I ask the Minister to agree that one of the reasons why the English higher education system stands out as one of the better systems in the world is the autonomy enjoyed by universities. We already have a consultation from the OfS on minimum thresholds to measure university performance, we will now have a consultation on number controls and we have another consultation on minimum educational requirements. Does she accept that if all these different, highly intrusive and detailed interventions are piled up on top of each other, the Government will be not boosting the quality of universities but eroding their ability to run their own affairs and therefore threatening the quality of our universities? I invite her to agree that if all those measures are imposed in total on universities, it would be hard to describe our system as one of university autonomy.