Lord Willetts debates involving the Department for Education during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 14th Nov 2022
Thu 24th Mar 2022
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
Tue 12th Oct 2021

Higher Education

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 7th March 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

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.

Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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?

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.
--- Later in debate ---
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
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)
- Hansard - -

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.
--- Later in debate ---
Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Maybe people outside this Chamber do not give a damn. Maybe they do not understand. Maybe they are not interested, except when occasionally they pay lip service to vocational qualification. But we do. I hope that we can manage to muster sufficient people to stay tonight to ensure that key amendments are passed, so that we give the Commons the real opportunity to say whether its Members, including those in the red wall seats, really want to go back to their constituencies and tell young people that they are removing a lifeline for their future. My eldest son took a BTEC national diploma and ended up with a master’s degree. Do not deny on a whim—because one feels one has to have a hard stop—the opportunity to get this right.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendment 33 in my name and in support of the other amendments, particularly Amendments 29 and 31. It has been a powerful debate and I shall speak briefly because the case has been made so effectively already.

I welcome the Minister to her post because I trust her to listen to the powerful points made by noble Lords from all sides of the House. I should declare my interests as the chancellor of the University of Leicester, as a visiting professor at King’s College London and as a member of the board of Thames Holdings.

I want to turn to the concern that lies behind all these amendments, which is the future of BTECs. What the debate has revealed is that the scheme of thinking—the Government’s model that lies behind their attempt to get rid of BTECs—is deeply flawed. The Government think that there should be some kind of clear divide between academic qualifications— A-levels—and vocational qualifications—T-levels—and nothing else in between. The reason why BTECs do not fit in is that they straddle that divide between vocational and academic—and that is a good thing, too. It is totally unrealistic to expect every teenager neatly to fit into one of just two specified routes.

It is good that T-levels have that breadth of appeal. The Government are clearly committed to T-levels and all of us on all sides of the House have said that we want them to succeed. However, they should succeed on their merits, not because viable alternatives are removed by government fiat. My noble friend Lord Baker spoke powerfully and, as a fellow Conservative, I believe in choice and trusting the judgment of the people. If people are choosing T-levels, that is fantastic. If they are obliged to do them because the alternatives have been removed, that is not a strong case for T-levels. They are, as we have heard, so far untried and untested, and that is why I have particular sympathy for Amendment 29, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asking for a four-year delay so that the evidence on their performance, so powerfully referred to by my noble friend Lord Baker, could become available.

In private, Ministers and the Government think that BTECs are not much good. That is what they really believe. They do not think that BTECs are of a high-enough standard and worry that people who have done them do not perform so well afterwards. Ministers think that they are a soft option. That argument rarely speaks its name but that is part of the thinking. However, BTECs have been reformed. There is now an external examiner and that arrangement could be strengthened. BTECs are not unimprovable but they are not so bad that they should just be abolished. When one digs deeply into the evidence that they are apparently underperforming, one sees that the real evidence is on poorer academic performance. It is actually the old standard and always the academic measure. Indeed, as we have heard powerfully, T-levels are being designed as an academic vocational qualification. Often when Ministers say BTECs are a soft option, what they are really saying is that BTECs are not an academic route like A-levels. They appeal particularly to people who have other aptitudes, people for whom we have an obligation to design suitable qualifications, and I am not convinced that T-levels are right for them.

The other argument that one hears is that there are so many vocational qualifications that we need a cull of them. However, in that jungle of vocational qualifications, BTECs stand out. They are a recognised brand and are tried and tested. They were created by Margaret Thatcher’s Government in the 1980s by the then Secretary of State for Education precisely to develop as a recognised vocational qualification, and they are now widely sat, as we have heard, by hundreds of thousands of young people and are known. Having a vocational qualification that is known, trusted and recognised is a precious thing. One does not throw away something that is well known and well recognised entirely in the belief in some experimental future alternative.

My amendment is designed to fit into the structure of the Bill, not to undermine its fundamental purpose. It says that as the Minister clearly has a power to decide funding, there should be a process of consultation before any significant decision to remove the funding of BTECs is taken. We hear all the time from Ministers about the importance of the employer voice and they are legislating to bring in new employer-representative bodies. It is therefore reasonable that these new bodies should at least be asked what they think about the abolition of BTECs.

I end on a personal note. Sometimes people associate my interests with higher education, and I am very aware of the charge that we must not design an education policy solely around the academic route. There is a real danger that T-levels as well as A-levels are being designed around that academic route. Imagine that the Government were proposing to remove the funding of an academic qualification—a set of A-levels sat by 100,000 or 200,000 young people. There would be absolute uproar and fury at a sudden decision that within two or three years the funding for that academic qualification was to be removed. The least we owe to young people who have a different set of aptitudes, who are taking a different route, who are being served often by FE colleges that are also entitled to a fair deal, is to treat a decision to remove the funding for the qualifications that they do as seriously as we would treat a decision to remove the funding for A-levels. That is why, as an absolute minimum, proper consultation is a prerequisite before any decision of such significance were to be taken.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I think that the House wants to move towards a decision and the arguments made have been utterly compelling. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, deserves to be parliamentarian of the year for his speech alone. I have rarely heard a government policy eviscerated so comprehensively by one of the Government’s own supporters.

However, the Minister has our deep sympathy in seeking to reply. Can she point us to the actual statement of policy on which we are supposed to think that this is a good idea? I have been in search of it in the run-up to the debate because I am always in the market for evidence-based policy; after all, this is supposed to be an education Bill and one might expect that it has evidence behind it. I have searched in vain. The only statement that I could find on the policy that the Government are pursuing is in the skills White Paper of January 2021, which has one paragraph on this policy—an Orwellian paragraph because it states as fact things that have not yet even happened. I will read it to the House because it adds compelling force to the arguments of my noble friend Lord Blunkett and the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Baker.

Paragraph 63 on page 33 of the White Paper reads as follows:

“In September 2020, students across England started on the first ever T Levels.”


That is one year ago. These are some of the students in those two colleges that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to. It goes on:

“The first three T Levels are in Construction, Digital, and Education & Childcare, and a further seven will be introduced in 2021.”


That is now; they are literally starting just now. We are being invited to legislate to abolish the qualifications which people sit in favour of qualifications that are only just at this moment being introduced. The Government say:

“We are proud of this programme”—


I am delighted that they are proud of the programme—

“which is based on employer-led standards and offers a prestigious technical alternative to A Levels.”

How can we know that they are a prestigious technical alternative when most of them have only just started, only a small minority have been going for a year, no candidates have yet got any of these qualifications and been able to give a view on them, and there has been no evaluation whatever? That is the sum total of the Government’s justification for this policy of unilaterally abolishing all the existing qualifications in favour of those that have not yet started.

The really compelling point was the last one made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. Not following the day-to-day developments in the education world, I had not realised that the Government were moving to abolish BTECs so quickly. We all support the development of T-levels, but to abolish the existing qualifications regime in this way is a truly astonishing act. He is completely right; I invite the House to imagine what would happen if the Government announced that in two years’ time, GCSEs and A-levels were going to be abolished in favour of a qualification which is only this year being piloted in schools for the first time.

When I was Minister of Education, we had to decide what to do with the Tomlinson report, which proposed to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a new 14 to 19 diploma. I strongly advised Tony Blair not to go ahead with this on the grounds that trying to run these two systems side by side—the development of a completely new diploma alongside maintaining GCSEs and A-levels—over a period of 10 to 20 years was simply unsustainable. In any case, we were being invited by Sir Mike Tomlinson, who is a friend of mine and I hold him in very high regard, on a series of assertions and nothing more, to think that a completely new qualification would outclass and—with the great English middle classes, who are very attached to the status quo—prove itself to be better than the entire existing system of education that was available then.

I can assure noble Lords that the arguments in the Tomlinson report did not get very far with Tony Blair; he certainly was not going to be the Prime Minister who announced that he was abolishing the entire existing system of GCSEs and A-levels in favour of an exam which had not even been introduced then. But that is precisely what is happening at the moment in respect of vocational qualifications. My noble friend Lord Blunkett brought up the social aspect, as did the noble Lord, Lord Baker—his closing remarks on the impact of this reform on students from black and ethnic minority communities and disabled students were literally breathtaking in their import.

We would not dream—least of all a Conservative Government, but I do not believe a Labour Government would either—of announcing in advance the abolition of the entire system of academic qualifications in favour of a new regime which had not even been properly designed, let alone tested. That is precisely what is happening in respect of vocational qualifications under the policy announced by the Government and taken forward by the Bill, and we need the biggest possible majority behind the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and these other amendments, so that the Government are invited to think again.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts
- Hansard - -

33: Clause 7, page 10, line 17, at end insert—


“(8) Where a technical education qualification has had its approval withdrawn under subsection (2), funding may not be withdrawn by the Secretary of State without public consultation and the consent of the relevant employer representative bodies, as defined in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2021.”

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

It is very important that we sense the mood of the House on this issue. I beg to move.