Examination of Witness(Questions 389-399)|
MBE, a Member of the House of Commons, Minister of State for Lifelong
Learning and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills,
Wednesday 12 December 2001
389. Minister, welcome to the last of our ministerial
meetings in the current round in relation to baseline assessment,
which will enable us to carry out a performance review. However,
your colleague, John Healey, is due to return in January. I am
not sure whether we have interviewed you in this room before.
(Margaret Hodge) I have been interviewed in this building,
but the room was not like this one.
390. The problem is that the acoustics are poor
and people seated at the back can become restless because they
cannot hear. Sîan Jones is our new clerk; she is certainly
new since you were Chairman of the Committee. You have such an
interesting range of responsibilities. Were you disappointed by
the autumn statement? If there was a mention of education it went
by me. It seemed to me that in the first four years the Government
placed an emphasis on education and in the autumn statement there
was an enormous amount of emphasis on health, but education appeared
to be yesterday's fashion.
(Margaret Hodge) I do not think that that is true.
Thank you for having me back and it is good to see a couple of
new Members on the Committee whom I have not seen before. Education
is not on the back-burner. We received some money from the pre-Budget
report specifically to try to tackle some of the work on development
issues. It is very important to try to encourage more professional
development in the work place. That is a £40 million to £50
million programme. I believe that that will lead to some decent
pilots about how to incentivise individuals.
391. Did you say £40 million to £50
(Margaret Hodge) Yes, £40 million to £50
million. We need to incentivise individuals and employers to release
people into professional development training. We have a commitment,
as you know, in this Parliament to increase the proportion of
GDP that is to be spent on education and I look forward to that
commitment being met over the period of this Government. We have
the White Paper and a major education Bill that will set the framework
for developing our policies around secondary education and improving
standards. They will enable us to do something in which I am engaged,
the 14 to 19 year-olds phase in education, and linking that into
further and higher education. As we are building up to a comprehensive
spending review, I am sure that there will be a pretty strong
bid for resources from the Chancellor in that spending review.
I look forward to that being smiled upon in the negotiations in
which we engage in the spring and through to July.
392. Is there anything else in general terms
that you would like to say about your brief to the Committee before
we get down to specific issues?
(Margaret Hodge) It is an incredibly exciting and
challenging brief. In the first term of the Labour Government
we properly focussed on what was my previous brief, which was
getting early years provision on to the agenda and establishing
a framework for expanding nursery education and early years childcare.
We also focussed on primary schools. All the indicators show that
the work that we did then has paid dividends. There are real improvements
in early years provision and in primary schools. Nowhere is the
problem more evident than in my own constituency. Interestingly
enough in relation to my current brief, it is a constituency that
has the lowest percentage of adults with higher education degrees
than any other constituency in the country. I come to the job
with that constituency experience. The second term is about raising
standards in secondary education, and tackling the staying-on
rates, which I am sure Stephen Timms has talked to you about and
which is one of the most difficult but crucial problems that we
face as a government. We have to turn around the haemorrhaging
of people who leave full-time training and education at the age
of 16. Investing in further education for all sorts of purposes,
not just to provide good 16 to 19 year-old education, but also
there are the workforce development issues and the basic skills
that we have never tackled before. Then we want to move on to
meeting our ambitious target of ensuring that by 2010 50 per cent
of young people under 30 will have the opportunity of a high quality
higher education experience. It is very challenging; there are
lots of complex and difficult problems, but the focus will be
around that. If you reflect on the ministerial briefs, it is interesting
that if we leave aside the Secretary of State who is responsible
for everything, among the rest of us all bar one have joint responsibilities
in various areas around the secondary school onwards into further
and higher education phases of learning and teaching.
393. That is very interesting. It leads me to
my first specific question. Since you have been in your present
post, two things have happened in terms of higher education. You
have said there is a big emphasis on FE and keeping people in
the system, so that enough qualified people go to university and
higher education. There seems to be some confusion in the public's
mind and in my mind about just what happened when the cross-department
review into student finance was initiated. Almost rather quietly
there was the outcome of the announcement of a fundamental review
of higher education as well. It seemed that the department was
bounced by No. 10, by the famous Labour Party Conference speech
from the Prime Minister. The item went into the speech twice and
was taken out twice and then it was put in a third time, and it
was raising the expectations on something radical happening in
relation to student finance. Then the Treasury was not happy.
It was not happy about graduate taxes. What on earth was going
on? Can you tell us what was going on?
(Margaret Hodge) After all your years in politics,
Chairman, you do not necessarily believe everything that you read
in every single newspaper every day. We were not bounced. We have
been engaged on this together with colleagues across government.
I think that is quite right. I do not think that there is anything
insidious in that. If you are carrying out a fundamental review
of student finance, it is common sense that you work together
with colleagues in the Treasury and in No. 10. The reason for
doing that is two or three fold. Let me deal with the factors
that influence us. We have this manifesto commitment that by 2010
50 per cent of young people will have the opportunity of participating
in higher education. You and I know that up to now higher education
has become a sort of right for the middle classes and is still
a privilege for people in lower socio-economic groups. The challenge
in meeting that target of 2010 is to open up opportunities, particularly
for people from lower socio-economic groupings to go into higher
education. There is growing evidence that debt and fear of debt
is particularly inhibiting young people from low-income families
which have no prior experience of higher education from entering
higher education. That is one key reason.
394. When we conducted our own investigation,
we found it difficult to identify firm evidence that that was
the case. We also note that most young people who have the relevant
qualifications to get into university are coming in anyway.
(Margaret Hodge) We know that most young people who
have the qualifications get in. The socio-economic bias comes
in at the age of 16. It affects those who leave school at 16.
I agree with that. That is why every time I talk about it I say
that prior attainment levels are as important as student funding.
Indeed, aspiration is also important. There are three factors
that affect this: aspiration, prior attainment, and fear of debt.
There is growing evidenceit is not 100 per cent certaincoming
from too many quarters that suggests that student debt is inhibiting
young people from low-income families from participating in higher
education. We have access to quite a lot of research. The sort
of thing we find is that even where about a third say that debt
puts them off, those from lower-income groups doing perhaps HNDs
and HNCs will be more put off than others. We need to tackle this
problem before it becomes a real issue inhibiting progress, rather
than waiting for it to become so evident an issue that it is too
late to do anything about it. Another point is that I have always
felt that the reforms that were introduced by David Blunkett and
Tessa Blackstone were extremely brave. As you know, I chaired
a review into that when I sat in your seat, Chairman. I believe
that it is right to say that those who benefit from the opportunities
that they receive from the higher education experience should
contribute towards it. No one denies that principle, which I believe
is well established and which is now accepted by everybody right
across the board. The NUS congress accept that there should be
a contribution from students and their families towards the cost
of higher education. That principle has been established. Whether
we have the balance right and whether we have the timing of that
contribution right are issues that we are now investigating. I
believe that it is completely appropriate that a couple of years
into the system, when the evidence is coming through, that we
should reflect on whether we have that right, particularly as
we want to get to the target.
395. On getting the balance right, the fear
in the university community that we are picking up as a Committee
is that there are tremendous priorities in higher education. People
are concerned about the levels of pay, of attracting good people
to stay on to do research, and to stay in the teaching profession
in higher education. Many people are concerned about the general
level of pay. People are also concerned that money flowing into
higher education and research must be maintained. We are not America
and there will be more private sector finance coming in, we hope.
We are not like America and the Government has to maintain the
levels if we are to have world-class institutions. Your remit
is interesting because you and I know that the regeneration capacity
of universities is enormous. The fear is that if we lurch back
to spending a greater percentage of our GDP on student support,
as we did in the pasttwice as much as our competitor countriesthen
you take money away from those other aspirational targets. That
is the real concern that you lurch back on little evidence to
start paying a great deal of money to people who should contribute
to their own higher education.
(Margaret Hodge) I notice that there are no Conservative
Members present on the Committee this morning. The legacy that
we inherited was severe under-funding of the higher education
sector. A tribute to the higher education sector is that despite
massive cuts in spending that it experienced over that generation36
per cent cut in unit funding for studentsit has survived
with an incredibly strong and healthy position. Given the retention
rates, graduation rates and how we are punching above our weight
on research, even retention of academics and even the growth of
postgraduates, the situation is not bad. There is a whole range
of issues in which we need to invest over time, so that we can
maintain our higher education sector as a key player in the global
higher education world. I am absolutely clear on that. We are
bearing that in mind as we put together a package of proposals
that will form our part of the CSR bid. Having said that, it is
equally important, if we are to develop the skills that we need
in the economy and to provide the inclusive society which we want
to build, that we ensure access to higher education for people
from lower socio-economic groups. We have to get that right as
well. They are complementary and not competing demands. I recognise
that they are in an environment where we need a lot of money to
go into the higher education sector in all sorts of ways: higher
education, further education, working in the local community,
teaching infrastructure, retaining the best of the academics in
the UK and retaining the research capacity. There are many key
issues that we have to consider. We are thinking imaginatively
and laterally about how we can deal with some of those.
Chairman: We shall come back to the profound
review on higher education later, but now I shall bring in some
of my colleagues.
396. Referring to the 50 per cent by 2010, the
manifesto says that standards will be improved whereas the department
talks of maintaining standards. Is there a difference?
(Margaret Hodge) No. I had not picked that up. In
my view you continuously strive to improve standards. That has
to be a basic tenet of our approach to every phase in education.
397. Is that a washing down and not an acceptance
of less funding in the future?
(Margaret Hodge) One of the tributes to HE is that
standards have not been watered-down, although funding has been
cut by 36 per cent on the unit funding. We are determined to maintain
and enhance standards.
398. It was a slip then?
(Margaret Hodge) I do not know where that came from.
I do not think that that was deliberate in any way.
399. I have a couple of questions on the review.
The review followed quickly on the heels of the announcement regarding
student finance. Was that the Treasury saying, "Right, we
shall give you some extra money; universities need to sort themselves
out; we are not happy with their productivity", and so on?
That is often the way and the Treasury do not want to give you
something for nothing. If we have to find the money now that the
Prime Minister has made the statement , will you come back to
show us what you are going to do to improve the productivity of
universities. Is that the way it went? This came out of the blue.
(Margaret Hodge) Which review are you talking about?