Questions were put yesterday to ministers from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Shadow Secretary of State David Willetts expressed doubt that Labour is delivering on its promise of boosting internships. As so often, the minister – in this case David Lammy, Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property – played an old trick. He accused an Opposition spokesman of scaremongering when in fact he was doing his job: holding the Government to account.
"The Minister referred to his national internship scheme. Will he confirm that after I spent a Saturday afternoon chasing him round the TV studios, it became clear that there is no Government-funded national internship scheme and that the companies that he has identified as providing internships made it clear that no extra internships were intended on top of the ones already announced? Will he also confirm that the Government made a clear commitment to review the student loan regime, that the review will take place this year and that the review of student finance will look forward to ideas for the future and not simply be historical?
Mr. Lammy: The first thing to say is that we are doing all we can to work with employers, careers services in universities, the National Union of Students and students themselves to ensure that students have the best choice and the best portfolio of things they can do when they graduate in the autumn. That compares very well with what was effectively the youth training scheme—YTS—when the Conservatives were in power; nothing was offered then. [Interruption.] The internship scheme was begun in a conversation that the Secretary of State had before Christmas with Microsoft, Barclays and others. I have continued those conversations—indeed, I was talking to Barnado’s just yesterday. So, there will be an increase in internships later in the year, and that will happen alongside the career development loans and all the other things that will be on offer at the end of the year. As the president of the NUS has said, this is not a time for panic; it is a time for proper information. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind when he is making public statements."
Mr Lammy changed the subject when asked a tricky question by Deputy Opposition Chief Whip Andrew Robathan:
"Mr. Robathan: When I went to Oxford university some 39 years ago in 1970— [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Robathan: A very young thing. In 1970, the proportion of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge who were educated in state schools was higher than it is now. Given that all students at university today have had the majority of their education under this blessed Labour Government, to what does the Minister attribute that almost incredible, somewhat depressing and somewhat shameful statistic?
Mr. Lammy: I do not recognise the statistic. This year there has been a 7.4 per cent. rise in the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending our universities. That must be a good thing. I think that increase is the result of the Aimhigher programme and the Aimhigher associates programme, which brings students back into schools and into their local communities to encourage other students to go into education. It is also the result of the work that the universities are doing through summer schools and classes with parents and students, all of which are designed to ensure that we get better equity across the system in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the system is perfect or that it was perfect when he went to university. There is much that we can do and it ought to be a cross-party issue."
Mr Robathan had specifically asked about Oxford and Cambridge
the only universities that matter.
Mr Lammy scored an unenviable hat-trick when his response to Shadow Minister John Hayes was ruled out of order by the Speaker:
"Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Broadening access to higher education is critical to promoting the social justice that Conservatives crave, but social mobility has stalled since 1997. Although £2 million a year is spent on widening access, the participation rate of working-class children has risen by just 1 per cent. The report that the Secretary of State commissioned from Christine King, which he dismissed as provocative, says that flexible funding and learning is central to improving access. Surely we must build on the work of the Open university, Birkbeck and others who provide flexible learning; so will the Minister say whether the Government will back Professor King’s recommendations? One does not have to be Mastermind to recognise that flexible learning is the key to improving access.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that a few hundred words have been said about the Conservative party policy, and that must cease. It is for the Conservatives to let the world know about their policies, not Ministers."