Clause 18 - Lifelong learning: review

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:45 am ar 7 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 9:45, 7 Rhagfyr 2021

I beg to move amendment 50, page 22, line 6, at end insert—

‘(1A) The Secretary of State must also prepare and publish a review of student maintenance entitlements.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to review the maintenance support available to further education students and courses.

The amendment ensures that those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to undertake level 3 qualifications in order to get a job or gain higher-paid qualifications.

The success of the lifetime skills guarantee depends on those who need training or upskilling being able to take up the opportunity. In his speech at Exeter college, the Prime Minister outlined, in a great fanfare, his intention—in the midst of the pandemic—that people should be able to retrain. It was clear that he appeared to have those people in mind, but little attention has been paid to how they will take up the offer if they cannot afford to put food on the table while they are studying.

We believe that it flies in the face of reason not to set out during the passage of the Bill maintenance support for those from marginalised groups and those furthest from the labour market. I believe that the Government are minded to say that they will respond in due course, but as the lifetime skills guarantee will not be fully implemented until 2023, which signals the Government’s too little, too late approach to the skills challenge, we believe that it makes sense to announce maintenance support in the Bill, which is why we tabled amendment 50.

We do not oppose clause 18, but we believe the lifelong learning review is important, and that the Secretary of State should prepare and publish a report on the impact of the overall level of skills in England and Wales. In fairness to the Government, they have spoken in narrative terms but they have not been in a position to make clear their proposals. A review that ensures that there is a detailed investigation of the maintenance required by people to access the skills that they need would be of real value.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:00, 7 Rhagfyr 2021

Amendment 50 would require the Secretary of State to publish a review of student maintenance entitlements, to be conducted annually, I believe. We agree wholeheartedly with the importance of ensuring students are supported to enable them to succeed in their studies. The Government’s ambition for the lifelong loan entitlement is to help those studying at higher levels to have the opportunity to choose the best course or modules based on their learning needs, rather than just choosing the funding system that is most advantageous for them.

In our forthcoming consultation on the LLE, we are seeking to understand better the barriers that learners might face in accessing it, and how the availability of maintenance loans and other forms of support could help. It is crucial that we consider the importance of creating a sustainable student finance system.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank the Minister for taking my intervention. In the earlier part of the debate, when the Minister was not in place, we were not able to consider Sharia-compliant loans. Will the Minister please include that in his comments?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I believe we will come later in the debate to another clause that treats the subject of Sharia, and I will be happy to address the hon. Lady’s point then. It is something that the Government will consider.

It is crucial to consider the importance of creating a sustainable student finance system, alongside what will be necessary to ensure that the Government can offer all eligible students the opportunity to study. However, as with clause 18, imposing an annual reporting requirement would create an unnecessary burden upon Government and the taxpayer. The student support regulations are updated annually, as it is, providing the Government with a regular opportunity to introduce improvements. In addition, introducing a review requirement before the maintenance policy is finalised would be untimely, and would pre-empt the outcome of the LLE consultation.

The Bill already provides the necessary powers for maintenance support to be introduced as part of the LLE, if the decision taken is that it should, following the consultation. Advanced learner loans are currently available in further education. Learner support funds are available for adult learners aged 19 and over, and there are bursaries of up to £1,200 a year for students in specific vulnerable groups, such as care leavers. With that in mind, and given that the amendment is burdensome, pre-emptive and unnecessary, we cannot support it.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I rise to speak in favour of amendment 50, which would require the Secretary of State to review maintenance support available to further education students and courses. The Augar review recommended that student maintenance should be extended to cover students in further education as well as higher education. That was one of the important findings in that review. We have been waiting two and a half years for some outcome from the Government, which I hope we will get soon.

The Association of Colleges reminds us in its briefing that many adults will be unable to take up lifelong learning opportunities, because there is no support for living costs when taking a course at that level. Such people will be prevented from transforming their life chances. The Minister will be aware that the Government’s own impact assessment reveals that one of the main barriers to adult learners is the cost of study, including living costs.

Right across the higher and further education landscape, there are calls from many, including the Open University, for an extension of maintenance support to FE students. The Welsh model is interesting: the Welsh Government introduced reforms to tackle that issue by extending maintenance support including, importantly, means-tested grants to all students, regardless of mode of study, while maintaining low tuition fees for part-time study.

Elsewhere, in the written evidence, Birkbeck University argued for a maintenance grant to prevent further hurdles to taking up study. Universities UK states:

“We would…welcome further details on the government’s plans for introducing maintenance support for individuals studying through the” lifelong learning entitlement

“and, specifically, what would the minimum intensity of study be for individuals to be eligible for maintenance loans.”

Those factors are important. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish talked about his own experience the other day. I was lucky enough to go to university many decades ago—

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

It is hard to believe. The Minister is right on that point but, as a third child, I would not have been able to go were it not for the maintenance grant, back in those days. That is why being given a maintenance grant is very much a mobilising and enabling part of the provision of education, to allow young people the chance to study. Since the removal of the EMA—education maintenance allowance—many have not been able to access education, because they just cannot afford to take the courses without some form of maintenance support.

For those reasons, we tabled the amendment. I very much hope that everyone in Committee will support it.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Apologies for the slight delay, Mrs Miller, I was still musing on how long ago it was that my hon. Friend went to university. It was quite a shock. The points he made are important. For that reason, we believe the amendment has merit. We have heard what the Government have said. We will get the opportunity to vote on clause stand part, so we look forward to supporting it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The Government agree that many learners need to access courses in a more flexible way to fit their study around work, family and personal commitments, and to retrain as their circumstances and the economy change.

Existing equivalent or lower qualification rules, however, were designed to help maintain a sustainable system. As such, we are designing the lifelong loan entitlement not only to support students pursuing higher and further education flexibly, but to share the costs fairly. We want the lifelong loan entitlement to provide value for money to students, the education sector and the taxpayer.

The complexity of that balance and the transformative nature of the LLE is one of many reasons why we intend to consult on its detail and scope before legislating on eligibility. It is crucial that careful consideration of the needs of providers, learners and stakeholders informs our final policy design, and that we do not pre-empt the consultation’s findings; however, introducing an ongoing obligation to report annually on eligibility before the policy detail is yet finalised may prejudice the outcome of the consultation, as it could indicate a future path for ELQ rules before there has been a chance for open consultation to happen.

Beyond that, the Government believe that a yearly reporting duty in perpetuity would be an undue and disproportionate burden at this stage. Placing such a duty in primary legislation would be restrictive and out of kilter with prior similar legislation passed by Parliament on student finance. For example, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 gave significant powers to the Secretary of State over student finance, with much of the detail of the policy covered in a complex suite of regulations, including eligibility, repayments and fee limits to name but a few.

It would be disproportionate to put a requirement to report in primary legislation when the system is already under continuous review and subject to frequent amendment. Previously, much of the detail on how the system works has been set out in secondary legislation, with necessary monitoring and review undertaken only after changes have been implemented and had time to embed. The Government will of course address plans for review and monitoring as we work towards the roll-out of the lifelong loan entitlement from 2025 and post implementation. I therefore believe that the clause should be removed from the Bill.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

It is regrettable that the Government will seek to remove clause 18 from the Bill. It was introduced by the Lords for entirely the right reasons. On many occasions we have all seen the Government having to be dragged to the House in order to answer for their performance. The country also faces significant skills challenges. Who would have known a year ago that we would have spent so much of the last few months talking about the heavy goods vehicle driver crisis? Such things arise suddenly.

Given the dynamic state of skills policy—particularly, at the moment, legislatively but also in terms of employers’ ability to access skills—we think that clause 18 is proportionate. It requires the Secretary of State purely to prepare and publish a report on the impact on the overall level of skills in England and Wales of the rules regarding the eligibility for funding of those undertaking further or higher education courses. There is a lot of scope within that. The level of tuition fees in this country is so disproportionate to any other nation around the world, or any of the other major competitor nations in Europe, that inevitably it pushes students to access the courses that will lead them towards the jobs that pay the most.

There are many crucial public servants in this country who might not end up earning king’s ransoms but are performing roles of incredible importance to our country. A regular review of funding and maintenance support in the context of the level of skills is of real value. As a result of that review, the Government might think about being more flexible on tuition fees for certain courses, or taking specific steps to support learners in a variety of areas to study for the specific skills that the Government think will be of most use to our country and economy, and providing incentives for them to do so.

There are all kinds of different professions for which the Government rack their brains about how they can get more people to study. Each year we hear of courses in medical environments, for example, where thousands of places go unutilised. Such a review could push the Government to take the steps required to ensure that the country addresses those areas of skill shortages. It was a sensible amendment by their lordships, and it is regrettable that that very minimal commitment expected of the Secretary of State should be too much for the Government.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Rhif adran 16 Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] — Clause 18 - Lifelong learning: review

Ie: 4 MPs

Na: 9 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 18 disagreed to.