Below is the transcript from Roberta's contribution to the Queen's Speech debate 2016. Roberta took part in the debate on the topics of Education, Skills and Training.
As ever, Roberta is happy to hear her constituents views, so please do not hesitate to get in touch through the normal channels if you have any thoughts, concerns or queries on this issue.
While measures to improve the national citizenship scheme, to support donations to charities, to provide the right to broadband and to protect cultural property are welcome and laudable, the measures in the Queen’s Speech fail as a whole to address the huge challenges that the country faces. These include the huge problems of underfunding and marketisation caused by the top-down restructuring of the NHS. There is nothing to deal with the chronic shortage of doctors and nurses—never mind the investment in social care that is needed properly to protect and look after older people with the dignity they desire.
On education, there is nothing to address the chronic teacher shortages, the shortage of school places and the need for capital investment to create the 21st century schools that our constituents need. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said from the Front Bench, this is a Queen’s Speech with emptiness at its core. Some measures that are in it are deeply worrying, and I shall concentrate on two specific issues.
First, I have to say I am really disappointed by the higher education Bill. The measures in it could see fees climb even higher, saddling young people who want to go to university with even more debt. Some students are already coming out of university with £40,000 to £50,000 of debt—where will this end?
On the teaching excellence framework, we support a focus on teaching quality. However, if this is simply a framework with parameters already set to enable the removing of the fees cap, it is not something we should support. I say yes to the focus on quality in teaching, providing the metrics are right and the risks of doing so are properly managed, but why is there the link to higher fees? As I said, we need to be very careful about what we are doing because of its impact on the reputation of higher education. We are therefore concerned about the deregulation of the establishment of new universities and the lack of safeguards, which could undermine the excellence of our HE institutions.
I hope that the Minister recognises that this is not because we are against the expansion of higher education. I am very much in support of it and I would like to see more of our young people going to universities. However, we are simply not sure that the Government are going about expansion in the right way. We are not the only ones to have concerns about that. As million+ has said:
“Competition can undoubtedly promote innovation but lowering standards to help new, inexperienced or small, single-degree providers with no interest in being research active, to gain degree awarding powers and university title is not opening the market but lowering the bar”.
It emphasises the huge risk of the marketisation approach, and points out that UK universities trade globally on the basis of a national quality assurance system, high student satisfaction rates and high quality teaching and research. It states:
“The assumption that institutions with UK university title or degree-awarding powers should be allowed to fail and exit the market is potentially at variance with the Government’s ambitions to promote UK higher education internationally”.
We share that set of concerns, and Universities UK argued along the same lines in its briefing to Members. We will need to hear a lot more from the Minister when we reach this Bill’s Second Reading about what safeguards will be in place.
The Minister said quite a lot today about improving participation in our universities and increasing social mobility. However, a briefing from the Open University has pointed out that the Prime Minister’s target to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is likely to fail because the number of part-time disadvantaged students entering part-time HE is falling, not increasing. Part-time HE is often the most common way for people from disadvantaged backgrounds or places to enter universities. The Open University also pointed to the lack of clear opportunities for lifelong learning—another issue that the Minister will need to address. I am astounded that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to tackle the reduction in the number of part-time students, to promote lifelong learning or to promote upskilling and reskilling opportunities for adult learners. What we know is the budget for that has been massively cut by £335 million. One can only hope that the White Paper we are expecting in June or the autumn will address some of these issues.
Moving on, I want to comment briefly on the NHS measures. We know that the Government are ploughing ahead with the seven-day care objective, but I think they are refusing to accept reality of what is happening in the NHS. Patients are waiting longer and therefore suffering longer. Waits are increasing and it is getting much harder to see a GP. Instead of providing measures to tackle this and the crisis in social care, we get more cuts to older people’s services. We also know of record visits to A&E, mainly because of the breakdown of services elsewhere, and £22 billion-worth of efficiency savings are not going to help. Over the last five years, my own local authority of Durham has had to make £43 million-worth of cuts to adult care, and is going to have to make a further £25 million over the next couple of years. I really want to hear from the Government what they are going to do to tackle this crisis in social care.
Lastly, I want to say a brief word about the northern powerhouse, which Ministers and, indeed, some sections of the media talk about as if it were a reality. Mine is one of the constituencies that should be benefiting from it, but I see absolutely no reality. The devolution deal brings with it very little money to promote the economy and skills development in the north-east. It would be great to know what the northern powerhouse is actually delivering, but, at present, I see nothing at all.