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§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
I am grateful to have an opportunity to raise a problem that occurs in the funding of higher education. The problem occurs with the system not of mandatory but of discretionary grants. Even with mandatory grants, which are basically those for which people apply when they want to take a degree course, everyone can think of ways in which the system could be improved. I certainly would not come here today to say that the mandatory grant system is perfect, but essentially it works. What has become increasingly obvious in recent years is that the discretionary grant system simply does not work.
For the most part, discretionary grants are given to people for further education but not necessary for a university degree. The effect is that they are given a grant under section 2 of the Education Act 1962, and it is entirely at the discretion of the local education authority whether a person is given a grant. One way or another, that system must be brought to an end.
The problem has become more obvious in recent years, because people now do more than one job in a lifetime and are encouraged to return to education and training. The difficulty is that, when they do that, they cannot demand a grant as of right but must apply for that grant, and whether they get it lies entirely at the whim of the local education authority.
Today I shall mention just two areas where that system can cause real injustice and bring about a state of affairs that nobody on either side of the House would want. Other examples exist, but I shall deal simply with the problems that affect, first, those doing A-levels and, secondly, those doing dance or speech and drama courses.
If someone takes A-levels at a time when most people do—at school—the system works, and no great problem arises. Students are at home being looked after by their parents, so their subsistence is taken care of and the school pays the fees.
The problem arises for people who do not take A-levels in that way. They may have failed them at school and then gone out to work; perhaps they did not go to a good school, or left school early with no intention of taking A-levels. Subsequently, however, a variety of people without A-levels decide, for whatever reason, that they want to go to university. At that stage, they realise that they must get some A-levels in order to do so.
I have now discovered, through numerous cases that have been drawn to my attention at my constituency surgeries, that people then follow a well-worn course of action. Such people are usually quite committed, have identified the university that they wish to attend and know which course they want to do. Having established that, they want to take their A-levels.
People with that amount of get up and go will usually have gone to a local college and satisfied themselves that it can take them on and provide the A-level courses they want. Then the problems start, because, when they apply to the local education authority, they invariably find—it happens increasingly in Devon—that they will not get the support they need.
Obviously, it would be easier to give a knee-jerk reaction and say that people should work their way through college, as that is how it used to be done. That is 295 easy to say, but it does not answer the case. Usually, people who do A-levels in that way do them intensively—perhaps three A-levels in one year.
The idea that one should be able to do such a concentrated course and work sufficiently to provide accommodation, food and sustenance and pay for college fees is too much to expect. There may be one or two exceptionally brave individuals out there, but I did not have to get my education in that way, and I doubt whether many other hon. Members did. I pay credit to those who can cope, but many cannot. Why should we expect more of our constituents than was demanded of us?
The problem for many people at that stage is that, although they have shown commitment by working out what they want to do, which university they wish to attend and which college can take them on, they are suddenly hard up against the problem of receiving no grant. If all else fails, they must simply drop out if they cannot raise the money for their fees or maintenance, and their hopes are blighted.
In practice, it means at the very least that people will not fulfil their potential. In reality, it means that people who could have passed A-levels and gone on to get a degree, which does not guarantee them a job but gives them a better chance of a getting a fulfilling job and contributing back into the tax system, have to drop out. Everybody then loses.
Alternatively, some people live dangerously within the "21-hour rule", as it was until recently. There is no doubt that some local DSS officials take a relatively broad and academic view of those matters, but we cannot base a further education system on local officials turning a blind eye. If a full-time A-level student maintains himself on social security benefits, ultimately he is skirting close to breaking the criminal law, and we do not want that to happen.
The third option is that potential students—in a sense, this is how i come into the debate—may take the matter to their local Member of Parliament
Over the years, I have developed a format for dealing with the problem. I have identified 10 or 12 charities that are prepared to consider a case put up by an A-level student. I provide a list of those charities and tell people, based on experience, which charities are more likely to offer a grant. It is a sticking plaster operation, and I hesitate to mention it on the Floor of the House lest I suddenly receive applications from not one constituency but 650. I am not in a position to give that list to anyone but my constituents. In any case, it is not a satisfactory way to deal with the problem.
I make no apology for dealing with the problem as a constituency Member of Parliament, but the problem goes far wider than my constituency. It is well summed up by the principal of the excellent South Devon college, Dr. Keen. I shall quote just one paragraph from his long letter, which sets out far better than I can the essence of the dilemma:
I am pleased to be able to provide some of the information which came to light in our discussion earlier today … The following information is drawn from Devon County Council's Citizens Charter indicators for 1993/94, and you will be interested to note that they issued 1,075 discretionary awards, representing 65.02 per cent. of applicants. What was not mentioned in that report is that discretionary awards were provided for subsistence only, no fees 296 were met. We have evidence at South Devon of over 400 adult applicants for mainstream full-time further education courses, including A-levels, where the failure on the part of the local authority to provide a discretionary award has prevented the individuals concerned from attending. As a College we have reacted to this concern by waiving 100 per cent. of the fee element of such courses for all applicants who are eligible for a discretionary award but for whom no award has been given.Dr. Keen goes on to explain:
This contribution on our part has had adverse effects on cash flow, as we have had to survive on the units of funding derived from the Further Education Funding Council which, without a fee element, are below cost levels. Nevertheless, of 400+ applicants only 203 were able to accept under these terms. The other group (in excess of 200) had received neither discretionary award for fees or subsistence and remained unable to follow any study at the College at all.That shows, in a crisp way, the dilemma that faces students of that sort.
I said a few moments ago that it is not only those who are studying for A-levels in their maturer years who fall into that category. What about those people who want to do speech and drama? Anyone who has any personal acquaintance of the dedication of a student who expects to be able to make a living in fields such as that will realise that they do not offer themselves lightly for such an award.
I quote from a letter that I received from the Royal Academy of Dancing, south-west region, on February 23 1995. A Miss Walker writes:
As I am sure you are aware discretionary grants for dance and drama students have been abolished by Devon County Council.This will obviously mean that our most talented youngsters in the region will he unable to take up their places at Vocational colleges, from where many of them would go on to perform in the West End or in ballet companies world-wide. Eventually, it could lead"—I would say, would lead—
to the smaller local dance schools in the South West closing if there is nothing for our students to work towards …We must not let our talented dance students lose out".Those people show a high degree of commitment and dedication even to have got themselves that far, and everything collapses when they cannot obtain funding.
What is the answer? My hon. Friend the Minister, with his usual generosity, will admit that I have not tried to take him unaware. I have pestered him with specific constituency problems during his entire time as Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education. I guarantee to continue to pester him and any successors, and I have also supplied the notes for my speech today and the material on which I draw.
I hope that my hon. Friend finds that helpful, because otherwise he will he reduced to saying, "What the hon. Gentleman says is very interesting; I shall pause and reflect on it." I hope that my hon. Friend feels that I have been extremely helpful in providing him with the information in advance, so that he can say something to us about it.
Obviously, it would not be the answer—I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister would even try to do it—to say, "The answer is that we have already done a great deal." Indeed we have. An all-time record number of people attends further education, and we can derive satisfaction from that, but it does not solve the specific problem. It is only a temporary answer to say that the social security system should be altered so that people can live on social security while undertaking education 297 courses. In all conscience, the social security mechanism does not exist to underpin the education system; it is there for an entirely different reason.
In no sense is the position the Government's fault, but in a sense it is the Government's problem, because ultimately only the Government can solve it. What is the answer?
I have always held the opinion, on the Back Benches and at the Dispatch Box, that it is a Back-Bencher's job to come up with problems, not solutions. It would be unfair if my hon. Friend the Minister, with his considerable expertise and the serried ranks of experts behind him, were to pick off any solution that I might offer and say, "That one will not work." The problem needs to be brought to the House, so that my hon. Friend can respond to it. Having said that, I acknowledge that old habits die hard. Perhaps I may suggest two ideas that occur to me that would solve the problem.
The first way in which the problem might be solved would be to make, in addition to a mandatory grant for a degree course, a mandatory grant for a course immediately preparatory to a degree course. That would mean that, if one took a bona fide A-level course—safeguards might be built in to ensure that it was bona fide—one could obtain a compulsory grant for so doing. That is one possibility. However, it would not encompass speech and drama students.
Therefore, a second solution might commend itself to my hon. Friend—to take away that part of the rate support grant that goes to a local education authority and give it to the Further Education Funding Council, so that the funding council can disperse it, and do so 100 per cent.
Dr. Keen draws attention to the reason why that would be a good idea. Dr. Keen sounds a caveat, and I have not been able to check that it is correct, but I guess that it is. He says:
Although I am unable to provide specific sources at the moment, I am led to believe that that element of the Rate Support Grant which should reasonably be expected to be spent on discretionary awards in Devon is in the order of £7M, and yet I am told that in the present year the actual expenditure is likely to be in the order of £3M".It would appear, therefore, that, at the very least, the moneys that might be said to be available are not being spent 100 per cent.
It is obvious—and obvious if one considers the antics of the Devon local education authority in recent days—that decisions of that type are too crucial to be left to the whims of local education authorities. If we are to respond to changes in educational patterns and life patterns; if we are to accept and adjust to the fact that people live longer, stay younger longer, stay healthier longer and move from job to job in a way in which in our parents' and grandparents' generation would have thought impossible, we must say that the group of students that I have mentioned can no longer depend on the whims of a—perhaps even maverick—local authority.
The number of potential students affected may not be great. I do not have the resources to ascertain the number, but I do know that, even in one rural constituency, a steady trickle of people find themselves in that position. Ultimately, if I cannot help, or others cannot help, there will be blighted expectations and blighted lives.
298 I should like to think that my hon. Friend the Minister will at least be able to say, even if he cannot approve any solution and even if he does not know the answer off the top of his head, that nevertheless there is a problem. If we establish that, we shall be halfway to solving it.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate, and for using it to bring the important issue of education for mature advanced level students to the attention of the House. He has done that clearly and eloquently.
He has, as he has said himself, done it on the back of a continuing correspondence, and having expressed concern to me repeatedly. I hope that, in turn, he will understand that I cannot give him any instant solutions today, but I have listened carefully, especially to the specific arguments that he has articulated as part of a more general picture. I shall return to those later.
I emphasise that the general system of adult student support that we have stands comparison with that in any other major comparable industrialised country. On the mandatory award side, when student loans were introduced five years ago, the total resources available to students in grants and loans were increased by 25 per cent., and they have increased each year since then, in line with forecast inflation. Those current arrangements in higher education are most generous, and, unlike the situation in many of our competitor countries, the great majority of our students pay nothing towards their fees.
I shall return to the subject of discretionary award provision later, but first I should like to say something about the increasing importance of learning throughout life, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and what the Government are doing to encourage it.
We are committed to encouraging all types of adult learning to increase participation in education by adults, and to improve levels of attainment. The evidence is that increasing numbers of people are returning to education. In the past 10 years, there has been an increase of about a quarter [...] further education enrolments by adults in England and Wales.
More recently, the rapid expansion of the further education sector, since its establishment in 1993, has enabled more adults to undertake the type of formal qualification-bearing courses for which the further education funding councils are now responsible. Indeed, adults now make up the majority of those in the further education sector, and we have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of mature entrants in higher education.
The national targets for education and training provide a commitment and a focus for all of us—employers, unions, educationists, trainers and Government—by highlighting what we need to do to compete with our international rivals. The targets envisage our becoming a skilled nation, and that requires raising the levels of attainment of young people and adults alike.
The lifetime learning targets set challenging goals for individuals and employers to improve skill levels to world class standards. That requires fostering a culture of lifetime learning, and that is reflected in those national 299 targets. We all need to work together to achieve the better educated, more highly skilled, nation that we all require in future.
The Government will continue to play their proper part, principally by funding the further education sector. The plans announced in the most recent Budget will support a 25 per cent. increase in FE student numbers in the period 1993–94 to 1996–97. A further 3 per cent. increase in student numbers is planned for 1997–98.
The increase in funding in 1995–96 will be 4 per cent, and adult students will be among those to benefit. The system that we have established, with colleges having control over their own affairs, enables colleges to respond to the needs of their own local communities in the best way possible. The funding council has assisted that process by introducing a funding system that looks at the guidance students get and the outcomes they achieve, not just at student enrolments. Colleges have the incentive to give students the qualifications that suit them best.
My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge referred to the difficulties that students in Devon and in his constituency are experiencing in obtaining discretionary awards to finance their studies. As my hon. Friend is aware, discretionary awards are, by definition, an area where individual local education authorities may exercise their discretion. It is for them to decide how many awards to make, to which students and at what rates, depending on their view of local needs and priorities. Under the present arrangements, the Secretary of State has no power to intervene unless there is evidence that an authority is acting unlawfully—for example, by operating a policy of "no awards, come what may".
The evidence suggests that, overall, the number of awards made to further education students is holding up. In 1992–93—the latest year for which figures are available—there was an increase of 12 per cent. in the number of FE awards made by local authorities in England and Wales. In the same year, those authorities spent almost £170 million on such awards.
Enrolments in further education sector colleges rose by 5 per cent. between 1992–93 and 1993–94. The strategic plans of colleges indicate that the number of full-time enrolments are expected to rise by 23 per cent. between 1993–94 and 1996–97; and part-time enrolments are expected to rise by 20 per cent in that period.
I am aware, however, that there are wide differences between LEA policies and practices in this area. Where the differences reflect more than the normal variations resulting from decisions about local needs and priorities, and where they amount to some authorities effectively throwing in the towel on discretionary awards, that is of course a matter for concern, locally and nationally. I know that the local authority associations—I met them again last week—are drawing up some voluntary guidelines which should help to address the situation as to both process and substance. That is a very welcome development. The Government are also keeping the situation under review.
My hon. Friend suggested that Devon county was spending only £3 million a year on discretionary awards, against an "expected" total of £7 million. We need to be clear that Devon county council, like every other local authority, is responsible for setting its own budget and 300 deciding its priorities between and within services. The council has the final say on how much it spends on education and how much is spent on other services.
The role of central Government is to set the overall framework for the funding of local authority services nationally and to determine the way in which national "standard spending" totals are distributed between local authorities through the standard spending assessment system, with which my hon. Friend will be familiar.
The 1995–96 local authority grant settlement is a tough one, but it allows LEAs in England to spend £17.204 billion on education—an increase of 1.1 per cent. over the comparable figure for 1994–95, which reflects the priority that we have given to education, among other local services, in the settlement.
Having received its individual education SSA, it is for Devon to set its own budget and to decide what to spend on particular areas of the service, including discretionary awards. The SSAs are not prescriptive, and decisions about how much to spend on education and where to spend it are matters of local discretion. The county council is responsible to its electors. It will assess its own priorities in the light of local circumstances, and take the appropriate action.
After adjustment for recoupment—which covers the net costs of 'imported' or 'exported' pupils—Devon's SSA for 1995–96 was almost £7 million greater than that for 1994–95. That represents an increase of 2.1 per cent. However, it is entirely for the authority to decide what level of budget to set, and how to spend it.
My hon. Friend also suggested a possible general solution to the problems that he identified: that discretionary award funding should be transferred to the FEFC and then passed to colleges which would make their own awards. That is an interesting suggestion, and I certainly do not wish to discourage a debate of its merits, but I should perhaps point out that it would not be as straightforward as my hon. Friend suggests.
For example, how would one deal with those colleges which are not supported by the funding council—including many of the dance and drama colleges which my hon. Friend mentioned and to which I shall return in a moment? Would it make sense for local authorities to retain responsibility for higher education but not for further education awards? On what basis would the funding council decide how to distribute the available money between colleges? Are all colleges well placed to take on the role of making grants to students, and would they wish to do so?
Of course, a transfer of funds of that sort would not of itself increase the overall amount of money available, and there would be losers as well as winners if funds were reallocated. I should also point out that primary legislation would be needed if we were not to leave local authorities with a legal obligation to consider all applications for awards, but no provision with which actually to make them.
Returning briefly to the subject of dance and drama students which my hon. Friend mentioned, I am aware that in many areas of the country that group faces particular difficulties in obtaining discretionary awards. Their courses, which are largely provided in the private sector, are relatively expensive to support and many LEAs are becoming increasingly unwilling to do that. My hon. Friend is correct to say that. I assure my hon. Friend that 301 the Government are concerned about the implications of that situation, both for individual students and for the future of the dance and drama industries.
My right hon. Friend had a very useful meeting with the chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain last autumn to discuss the matter. Since then, our officials have been discussing the issues with officials of the Department of National Heritage and the Arts Council. However, I make it clear that, in the current public expenditure climate, there is no prospect of any significant extension of eligibility for mandatory awards to cover students on those courses.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the so-called 21-hour rule. The Government wish to continue to encourage people of all ages to improve their qualifications for productive employment. They have given intensive consideration to how that aim may be supported in setting out the new arrangements under the job seeker's allowance. Our aim was to establish clear and objective new rules which could be easily administered and understood.
From April 1996, the new arrangements will allow people to study for up to 16 guided learning hours. They do not cut eligibility to study from 21 hours; the basis for calculation is different. The new threshold will maintain broadly the same numbers of people who are able to study at present while in receipt of benefit, and it broadly equates to part-time study under the present rules. Individuals can—and should—study privately in addition for as long as they like and still remain eligible for benefit so long as they are available for work. I think that the new arrangements will be clearer, more consistent and more certain for student applicants.
The benefit of Adjournment debates is that it enables hon. Members to offer local perspectives on issues, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for doing that today. There are many educational opportunities in the south Devon area. I know that many people who are involved in education and training in Devon will want to play their part in increasing participation and attainment in adult education. I am grateful for the figures that my hon. Friend supplied about the number of applicants.
There are a number of excellent colleges in south Devon, and if their growth rates are anything to go by—I know that anything up to 14 per cent. a year has been planned—they serve the local population well. I know that the achievement of one of the colleges in a nearby constituency has been recognised by the award of a charter mark. I take this opportunity to congratulate South Devon college and Dr. Keen on that award. It serves as an example of what can be, and is being, achieved.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for expressing his concerns so eloquently. I share his hope that, in the years to come, as a result of our provisions, the educational institutions in Devon—schools, colleges and universities—will continue to go from strength to strength, and to merit many more accolades.