Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Debate on Higher Education

15th March 2007

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams). I do not necessarily agree with all of his analysis, but I share his objectives for social justice.

I should declare an interest in terms of my personal background and as a parliamentary patron of the adult learners' body NIACE—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—and a vice-president of Carers UK. I also participated in adult education as a tutor for most of my working life and I continue that interest as a professor emeritus at Swansea university, my former university.

I welcome this debate as an opportunity to recognise and applaud the work of the Labour Government since 1997 in widening participation. The debate is important for two other reasons. The first is the long and honourable record of higher education in attempting to address the questions of social and economic injustice. The second is the current challenge of the skills agenda, as we have already heard from the hon. Gentleman, and—following the Leitch report—the interface between the skills agenda and part-time higher education. That will be the main subject of my contribution.

Before I come to that issue, I will indulge myself in discussion of another crunchy subject—history, which is my discipline—and provide a brief historical perspective. Arguably the most influential thinker on education of the 20th century was Michael Young, the founder of the National Extension college, the inspiration behind the Open university and—the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) may not know this—largely the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto. In his seminal work, "Labour's Plan for Plenty" from 1947, which was largely the Labour manifesto, he paid tribute to Britain's greatest social thinker of the 19th century, Robert Owen. We commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert Owen's death next year. Michael Young said:

"Of all the social services, education is far and away the most important. 'The best governed state,' said Robert Owen, the pioneer of modern socialism, 'will be that which shall possess the best national system of education.'" We would all endorse that.

It is to the credit of this Labour Government since 1997 and of our first Secretary of State for Education and Employment, as the post was then, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), that one of his first acts was to establish the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. I was privileged to be appointed as a member of that group. Its two reports, "Learning for the 21st Century" and "Creating Learning Cultures: Next Steps in the Learning Age", provided the intellectual ground work for the progress in the last decade in such major issues as the interface of lifelong learning with community development, access to learning, stimulating demand among under-represented groups in further and higher education, and building networks and partnerships in localities and regions.

Democratic devolution was developing at the same time in the late 1990s in Scotland and Wales and they pioneered their own educational programmes, which were more radical in some respects. In Wales, the whole vision of the Welsh Assembly Government was of a learning country, and that encouraged much wider participation, especially in building interesting relationships with the voluntary sectors and women's groups, and in developing the notion of community universities in different parts of Wales that had begun to develop in the period after the miners' strike in 1984-85.

I turn now to the contemporary challenge for the skills agenda and part-time higher education. I believe that all higher education institutions should address the question of widening participation and the need for greater opportunities for part-time students from the perspective of not only social equity but economic progress. The challenge is both global and local; the two are complementary.

A national campaign would be welcome to highlight the valuable contribution that part-time higher education could make if there were greater opportunities and proper financial support for such study. The National Union of Students debate in Central Hall on 21 March will no doubt provide the opportunity to begin such a campaign. I have been impressed by NUS representations, which reminded us recently that 42 per cent. of HE students are part-time, yet the equalities review of March 2007 shows that the great expansion in higher education has apparently led to an increase of only three percentage points in the number of graduates from the poorest families. That is a debatable figure—indeed, it was discussed earlier—although it is too soon to assess the recent changes. However, it is a major challenge to all of us, especially my Labour Government and other parties.

For that reason, and from the perspective of social equity and the global economic challenge, the recent written evidence of Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck college, to the Education and Skills Committee is important. I visited the college recently, as did the hon. Member for Henley who gave a lecture there—he would not allow me to intervene earlier when I wanted to refer to my visit. Professor Latchman is a dynamic leader of that institution, whose president is the distinguished historian, Professor Eric Hobsbawm. Birkbeck is a higher education institution serving one of the great cities of the world and a range of students who largely study part-time. I was impressed by the fact that it is ahead of Government and other thinking about how we address the skills deficit and widening participation, especially in its innovative project to develop a new campus in the east of London and the Thames Gateway.

Professor Latchman raised important issues, with which I am sure many Members are familiar, about ensuring that part-time study is better supported. Before I go through them, I should point out that many other higher education institutions that are supportive of part-time students, such as London South Bank university, my own university—Swansea—and the North East Wales institute of higher education, would also benefit if we addressed the economic barrier faced by part-time students.

Professor Latchman made the following points: first, it is necessary to make use of full economic costing in determining the allocation of teaching funds, to recognise the higher cost of part-time provision; secondly, the funding allocation must be responsive to the flexible and modular patterns of study followed by part-time students; and, finally, there must be recognition that the present funding method has limited scope for increasing part-time fee rates as a means of closing the funding gap faced by many institutions, such as Birkbeck, which have a large number of part-time students. I look forward to the Minister's response to the points raised by Birkbeck and similar institutions.

Carers are an under-represented group in higher education, yet bearing in mind their caring responsibilities they could benefit enormously from part-time study. The Government have done outstanding work in supporting carers—from the Prime Minister's national carers strategy in 1999, which established the carers special grant, to my Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, which the Government supported and highlighted the importance of education and training opportunities for carers, and the Work and Families Act 2006, which gives carers the right to request flexible working. To build on that progress, I believe that the current review of the national carers strategy should recognise the pioneering work of the National Extension college in helping carers to access further and higher education. There should be a section in the new review on carers' ability to access such opportunities. That would contribute enormously to addressing the question of social exclusion and the need to widen the participation of this very important group. The whole question of the 21-hour rule is a serious barrier to carers studying part-time.

As I said at the outset, I have focused on the new skills challenge and its relationship with part-time study. I end by paying tribute to a pioneer in this field—Bob Fryer who 10 years ago was the principal of the Northern college. He was chair of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning and, since that time, he has continued the important work of widening participation by developing innovative and Government-supported strategies that could be seen as a model for future action. He was a leading figure in the early years of the University for Industry, which is now rebranded as learndirect, then the chief executive of the national health service university, and he is now the Department of Health's national director for widening participation in learning. His work shows how seriously the Department of Health takes the development of its staff, especially the 25 per cent. who are qualified below NVQ level 2. His first report last year identified a great disparity between professional and non-professional employees in the national health service and it is something that I know the Department will take seriously. It is very much part of the whole debate about widening participation.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the fact that we should not be narrow in our definition of higher education. It is not entirely about residential, full-time university opportunities; it is about work-based learning, home-based learning and a whole host of other things that have been developed by fine institutions such as the Open university.

I conclude by not only referring to the great and the good, such as Michael Young and Bob Fryer, as pioneers, but by recognising those people at the grass roots, such as Lesley Smith and Julie Bibby, who are carrying forward the work of widening participation for working-class women in former mining communities through the work of organisations such as the Dove workshop in the Dulais valley. It is now held up throughout Europe as a model of how to address the skills deficit in socially deprived communities. I should declare an interest at this point: my wife was one of the founders of the workshop and is its current president.

I am wearing the tie of the university of Wales, whose motto is "Prifysgol y Werin"—the people's university, an aspiration that we all share. The challenge before us today is much easier than it was 150 years ago, when the university of Wales was established. The pennies of the poor, which inspired the establishment of the university of Wales, still inspire developments such as the Community university of the valleys, with which I was associated, Birkbeck college's fine work in east London, and—most inspirationally of all—London South Bank university's partnership with universities in South Africa to widen participation for black and coloured peoples, women, and working class people in that new country. It is the task of this Labour Government to sustain, widen and deepen such initiatives so that they are not marginal, but are mainstream in our higher education system. That would be a real achievement.

Mr. Boris Johnson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not allowing him to interrupt during my speech. It was because I was taking so many other interventions. I want to join him in what he says about Birkbeck. I hugely support Birkbeck's fantastic efforts in the east end. But does he really think that women represent a minority whose participation in higher education needs to be expanded, given that they currently make up 59 per cent. of the student body?

Dr. Francis: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but what was lacking in his contribution was any class analysis. I am talking about working-class women and black working-class women. People from all kinds of social backgrounds should be encouraged - particularly women of working-class origin.

My last point is that this is a worthy, honourable and appropriate challenge for a party in government today that gave this country and the world the national health service and the Open university. It is a challenge that it will meet and in which it will succeed.

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