Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Debate on Higher Education

8th January 2008

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): As ever, it is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He has always been a champion of adult learners, and I welcome the inquiry that his Select Committee is conducting.

At the outset, I should declare the interests that reveal my enthusiasm for adult learning. I am an honorary life member of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and I am also a vice-president of Carers UK. I want to say something later about the relationship between carers and adult learners.

I welcome the debate because it offers another opportunity for the Government to showcase their achievements in higher education and lifelong learning, especially when it comes to widening, deepening and increasing participation. It also gives us an opportunity to remind the House about the Government's commitment to implement the Leitch report. However, I am one of those who counsels caution in respect of the proposal to withdraw funding for ELQ students, and I am among the signatories of early-day motion 317.

I wish to put it on record that, of course, I endorse the Government's contention that there needs to be a reprioritisation of resources so that access and participation can be widened and rendered more equitable, and so that quality can be maintained. However, I worry about the unintended consequences of the proposal. We have heard about them already this evening, and they have been described eloquently by the Open university, Birkbeck college, NIACE and the think-tank, Million Plus. The consequences have also been set out by the CBI director general, Richard Lambert, who has been quoted several times in the debate.

I tend to agree with those critics who worry that the proposals will distort—clearly unintentionally—the Leitch agenda. They have noted that there are risks that the proposals will destabilise the part-time HE sector, have an unequal impact on certain institutions and disproportionately affect certain adult learners. It is that final risk about which I want to speak now, especially as it relates to carers.

As chairman of the all-party carers group I take a particular interest in the circumstances of carers, and my Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 made special provision to ensure that carers were encouraged to pursue lifelong learning. What will happen when a carer happens to be a graduate and is unable to upskill after years, sometimes decades, of enforced caring?

I come to this debate as a strong supporter of my Government, but one who is an enthusiastic supporter of Birkbeck, the Open university and all adult part-time learners. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged tonight that such admirable institutions need time to adjust to the changing challenges of our time and to ensure that we have a more radical and enabling higher education system. The House should welcome that commitment as a genuine gesture of support and of his willingness to await the results of the HEFCE inquiry. I urge him to go further and allow even more time for change to take place and to consider the suggestions made by the OU and Birkbeck, particularly that the proposals should be withdrawn or at least that the money saved should be reinvested specifically in institutions that support the skills development of mature part-time learners.

May I finally urge the Secretary of State to consider consulting education Ministers in the devolved institutions, who are clearly committed to widening participation, as we are here in England, but who do not appear to be going down this road? I urge my right hon. Friend seriously to consider consulting HE Ministers to strengthen wider participation rather than weaken it.

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