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Speech

David Willetts: Scholarships to help Armed Forces families

Rt Hon David Willetts, Monday, October 4 2010

David Willetts

Here in Birmingham, where I was brought up, is the right place to focus on the big challenge of growth and prosperity.

The steam engines of Boulton and Watt, which drove the Industrial Revolution and changed the world, are still working just a few hundred yards from here - in a place called the Thinktank Museum, which is perhaps where I'll end up.

They have gone from business tool to museum exhibit. Nowadays that shift happens faster than ever. I have seen the computer server which Tim Berners-Lee first linked to others to create the World Wide Web: that is a museum exhibit too. This is the pace of a modern economy. It is what drives future jobs and prosperity. It is what our party above all understands.

When science, engineering and enterprise come together, you can change the world. But it does not always work out. At the same time as Boulton and Watt were designing steam engines, their friend Joseph Priestley successfully obtained oxygen and carbon dioxide from air. He did the experiments but it was a Swiss businessman who made money by using his technique to put fizz in water - he was called Joseph Schweppe.
 
That still happens today. That is why our universities should have closer links to industry. Here in the West Midlands, Warwick University is doing just that. I can announce Jaguar Land Rover will move their advanced research team to the University's own International Manufacturing Centre. We back initiatives like that. They bridge the barrier between research and business. They can crack that old British problem of failing to make the most of our own discoveries and inventions.
 
There is no reason why the scientist doing the research should also have a head for business. We have to liberate our scientists from the idea they are just cogs in an economic machine and give them space to think and experiment. But then they need the entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into successful businesses. They in turn need affordable finance, lower taxes and skilled workers. And governments can help or hinder at every stage: we cannot bake the cake but we sure can help with the ingredients.
 
Skilled workers are key. Labour shamefully downgraded apprenticeships. My colleague John Hayes is doing more than anyone to change all that. Since the election, we have set aside funding for an extra 50,000 apprenticeships. I can report to conference today that we are on track to meet that commitment. And many of them will be in key sectors, such as engineering, construction and manufacturing.
 
We are achieving this by cutting back on the red tape which ties down companies offering apprenticeships. Here is how you were supposed to fund a young person in an apprenticeship under Labour.
 
First, the Treasury sent funding to the government Department.
 
Then, it passed the money to the Young People's Learning Agency.
 
It then asked each local authority how many apprentices they should fund.
 
The local authority was then supposed to consult the Connexions Service and the National Apprenticeship Service.
 
The local authority also had to take account of the Regional Development Agency's skills strategy and its own skills, regeneration and education strategies.
 
It then went back to the Young People's Learning Agency with its estimate of apprenticeship places.
 
The Young People's Learning Agency would then send sufficient funds to the Skills Funding Agency to cover that number of apprenticeships.
 
The Skills Funding Agency would only then contact employers to deliver the apprenticeships.
 
What a system. Only Gordon Brown could create a system like that. And what was the result. The highest rate of youth unemployment ever - a million young people unemployed.
 
We have an obligation to the younger generation and Labour failed to discharge it. We must do much better. And we will. I can announce today a further 3,000 new apprenticeships here in the Midlands over the next three years, the result of a partnership between Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Birmingham Metropolitan College, represented here in the hall today. They'll specialise in green technologies, business skills and high-tech engineering. This is what rebalancing the economy means- more apprentices with proper training in the industries of the future. And with qualifications that are tried and tested - BTECs, HNCs, HNDs, and City and Guilds. Those are the qualifications we will be backing.
 
You should have something to mark your achievement after you have completed a rigorous apprenticeship. After you have been to university you are a graduate, yet too often there is nothing to mark the completion of an apprenticeship. That must change. So I can announce today that apprentices in key sectors will be officially awarded the title technician - a badge of honour, just like graduating from university.
 
Last year, in Manchester, I promised that we would deliver 10,000 more university places this year. At the time, Labour said that commitment was unworkable. But I can confirm today that we have delivered it. 10,000 extra people are starting university this year. Many of them are starting this very day. Another manifesto commitment honoured.
 
Many young people aspire to go to university. On average it boosts your earnings by £100,000 over a lifetime. So, when money is tight, it is right to expect people to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of their university education - not when they are studying but afterwards when they are graduates on a decent income. And there should be protection for the lowest paid. Lord Browne's independent cross-party review will be published next week.
 
But we cannot expect people to pay more after they graduate if they have not been properly taught. I want to be able to look students in the eye and say they are getting a better education in return for the higher contributions they will make. At the moment academics are more likely to be promoted for research work or for administering their department rather than for excellent teaching. That has to change.
 
We can drive this change by encouraging new higher education institutions to set up and focus above all on teaching. That is just what we are doing. Kaplan, an independent higher education provider, is offering 3,000 places across the country to study for University of London External Degrees. I am determined to make it easier for other new teaching institutions to challenge existing ones. That is why I have given official recognition to the new BPP University College, the first private university college since Buckingham under Margaret Thatcher.
 
There is more to university than Club 18-30 - going away from home for three years when you are 18. Vince Cable and I - a phrase I use a lot these days - are absolutely determined to ensure more diversity in higher education. It means more two-year degrees, more part-time students, and more courses with placements in business. That's the future of higher education under this Coalition Government.
 
We inherited a mess from Labour and we are sorting it out. Ed Miliband said last week that he is an optimist. Well, there are different ways of being an optimist. Micawber was an optimist, hoping something would turn up. Peter Mandelson was an optimist when he went round the country writing cheques for his pet projects months before the election with no money to back them. That's the false optimism that has landed us in this mess. We're the true optimists. Optimistic about people and what they can achieve.
 
Our party is the party of the wealth creators. Anyone can have smart ideas about how to spend the wealth. What really counts is smart ideas about how to create more of it.
 
There is one group of families to whom we have a special debt - the brave men and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. We promised in Opposition that the children of servicemen and women killed in the last 20 years on active duty should have access to education scholarships. That is one small way of recognising the ultimate sacrifice that they have made. I can confirm today that my Department will set aside funding for new higher education scholarships for the children of deceased servicemen and women.
 
And we plan to go further. It is wrong that so many people, on leaving the armed forces, should face hard times. Liam Fox and I will honour our debt to them. That is why I can also confirm that my Department will continue funding service leavers to get new qualifications. And we plan to offer an enhanced scheme that covers more ex-service personnel. Quite simply, it is the right thing to do.
 
Our debts to our armed forces go back much further of course. We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. One of the main factories where Spitfires were made is just a few miles from here. We have been honouring the bravery of the pilots. But they did not win on their own. They depended on the skill of the engineers who made the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Just the sound of a Spitfire brings a lump to your throat. The Battle of Britain is defined not just by people but by machines. That combination drives our nation's future today, just as it saved our future seventy years ago.
 
Around the world, foreign investors and businesses are following closely what our new government is doing. They are impressed by what they see. Two parties working together, putting the national interest first. Getting a grip on the public finances. Investing for growth and jobs in the future. We can all take pride in what we are achieving. It is what we owe future generations.

Rt Hon David Willetts

David is Minister for Universities & Science, and has been MP for Havant since 1992.

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