HL Deb 25 November 1992 vol 540 cc955-8

2.50 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to encourage adults to undertake full-time higher education.

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, there are a variety of measures in place which will provide pathways for adults into higher education. These include the Government's further education reforms, which have been given a firm stimulus in the public expenditure plans; the abolition of the binary line in higher education, which will help promote equal status between academic and vocational education; and the student support arrangements, including student loans, which make more resources available to most full-time students entering higher education.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the increase in the number of mature students is to be welcomed? Does she further agree that many more will be required, aiming at high qualifications, when the economy finally begins to improve? Is the noble Baroness also aware that the main obstacle to adults undertaking education is finance? The Minister did not really mention finance. I accept that the avenues to adult education have been increased, but does the noble Baroness agree that unless adequate grants are made for adults they will simply not undertake the courses?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for welcoming what is being done. Given the very difficult times in which we find ourselves at present, nevertheless further education expenditure increased at more than twice the rate of inflation, as it did on higher education. That is both to recognise the point which the noble Lord made—that is, the extra numbers—and to make sure that finance keeps pace with those extra numbers. There are 25 per cent. more students in further education alone.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that the great success now being revealed as regards the policy of helping to increase the numbers of mature students going into full-time education will not be at the expense of encouraging mature students to go into part-time higher education? Is it not the case that, as the economy picks up, it will be very important that people can contribute to the economy at work, contribute to their family budget, and at the same time engage in part-time higher education?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The available statistics do not suggest that part-timers are deterred by a lack of funding. On the contrary, demand is very buoyant and many part-time students are also in employment. They can sometimes look for support from their employers. As colleges are freed from local authority control they are being much more imaginative in ways of helping people into part-time education and using it as a stepping-stone to full-time education.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in many places the number of students has fallen off considerably over the past few years? In particular, I have in mind Reading college where the number of students has fallen from a peak of 9,000 down to 6,000. Does the noble Baroness agree that undoubtedly that has something to do with, first, fewer employers being prepared to send students there and, secondly, to the sharp and stark increase in fees?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I simply do not know where the noble Lord gets his figures. There is a record number of young people and mature students in both further and higher education. I quote from a press release which was sent out from my department only yesterday. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State said: I have deliberately placed further education at the heart of the half-billion pound boost to education announced in the Autumn Statement. Increased funding will raise the number of students in further education radically by a quarter of a million. Within two years we expect, for the first time in England alone, to have over one million people studying in further education. This will help lift us to the top of the international league table for 16 to 19 year olds staying on in education within the next three years".

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, why are staff being made redundant at Reading?

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many medical colleges are very glad to take on mature students and that in many cases they do extremely well? Is she further aware that many medical schools discriminate against women and that mature women find it much more difficult than men to get places in medical schools?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me if what I say has to be subject to any correction. My understanding is that the number of women entering medicine is past the 50 per cent. mark compared with the number of men. The point which the noble Lord makes may well be that mature women find it more difficult. I do not think that that is surprising because it is a very long and demanding course and that may present a particular difficulty. If there is anything else I can add on the subject I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, will the noble Baroness pay tribute to the new universities for their success in taking in adult students? For example, in the past few weeks I have conferred degrees on many adults, and not all in connection with their careers. In one or two cases the students have been in their 70s. I believe that this provision is very good and I hope that it will be encouraged.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am very happy to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, said. I too have recently been involved in a degree award ceremony. I hope the day will arrive when we stop calling them "new universities". They are universities.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, taking her reprimand to heart, will my noble friend agree with me that the universities in the wider form are encouraging adult entrants who did not have the entrance qualifications that the universities demanded the first time around? Is she aware that in the universities where that is the policy the success rate of those students is very good? Does my noble friend further agree that that is particularly important in areas of deprivation, where it is quite clear from the exam result that youngsters are not being given the proper opportunity the first time round?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. Considerable progress has been made by those universities in widening access into the world of higher education. I notice that my noble friend Lady Perry is not in her place. Certainly the work of the South-Bank University and its imaginative ways of producing access courses, which improve the qualifications of young and more mature students to come into the world of higher education, is very significant.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, on this occasion the Minister may be surprised to hear that she and I are in complete agreement on the fact that there have been very substantial increases in the number of mature students, both full-time and part-time. However, is she aware that part-time mature students, however poor they are, are required to pay fees out of taxed income? Whereas it is true that there has been an increase in the numbers of such students, it may well be that this inequity is deterring other potential mature students from undertaking such courses. Therefore, will the Minister consider discussing with her colleagues whether it would be right to allow such students to set the cost of their university tuition against tax?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. I believe that the whole House will agree that this is not a political issue, but a situation which we all welcome. However, the noble Baroness will know that there is a price tag attached to her suggestion. The Government must do what governments have to do, which is to determine priorities. The important factor is that as many young people as possible who are qualified—and those who are not should be helped to become qualified—are able to take advantage of further and higher education. We are doing that. It is a matter of priorities. Clearly such students are not only at a disadvantage in terms of having to pay fees, but they are also not part of the student loan system. At the end of the day it is a matter of priorities.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, can my noble friend say how one judges maturity as regards a lady? I have always found it very difficult.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not believe that there is a scientific definition of maturity, but I am told that it is anybody over 21 years of age.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, from what the Minister has said in her replies, can I assume that the Government would welcome a big expansion in adult education? If that is so, does she agree that the best avenue, among the number of avenues which have been mentioned, is through the former polytechnics (which are now the universities) and for a number of reasons? Does she agree that not least among the reasons is that most adult students could reside at home when they are undertaking a course? The example given by my noble friend Lord Glenamara illustrates perfectly what can be done at the so-called "new universities".

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we not only welcome the expansion but, as I think I have said, we have funded an expansion. We expect places to expand by over 25 per cent. in the further education sector. We know what the record is of the former polytechnics —now the new universities—and what they have done to increase expansion. I believe that we are doing everything that the noble Lord has mentioned.