New Clause 1 — General Duties of the Director

Higher Education Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:06 pm on 31st March 2004.

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(1) The Director must perform his functions under this Part in such a way as to ensure full access to higher education based upon academic ability and potential.

(2) In performing his functions under this Part the Director shall also have regard to—

(a) the desirability of promoting equality of opportunity in connection with access to higher education,

(b) the requirement to maintain the independence of the procedures for the admission of students of individual institutions, and

(c) the desirability of securing that his powers are exercised in such a way as to impose the minimum necessary burdens of cost and compliance with regulation on institutions.'.—[Chris Grayling.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2 General duties of the relevant authority in relation to Wales

(1) The relevant authority in relation to Wales must perform his functions under this Part in such a way as to ensure full access to higher education based upon academic ability and potential.

(2) In performing his functions under this Part the relevant authority in relation to Wales shall also have regard to—

(a) the desirability of promoting equality of opportunity in connection with access to higher education,

(b) the requirement to maintain the independence of the procedures for the admission of students of individual institutions,

(c) any guidance given to it by the Assembly, and

(d) the desirability of securing that his powers are exercised in such a way as to impose the minimum necessary burdens of cost and compliance with regulation on institutions.'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 14, line 6, leave out Clause 30.

Amendment No. 2, in clause 48, page 22, line 13, leave out 30(1)' and insert

[general duties of the Director]'.

Amendment No. 3, in page 22, line 44, leave out 30(2)' and insert

[general duties of the relevant authority in relation to Wales]'.

Amendment No. 99, in schedule 5, page 31, line 33, at end insert—

'(2A) In any report under sub-paragraph (1) the Director shall include an assessment of the factors which most discourage any particular class of person from seeking access to higher education, in particular factors related to income.'.

Amendment No. 100, in page 31, line 33, at end insert—

'(2A) Any report by the Director may include recommendations for public policy.'.

I rise to speak to new clause 1 and the other consequential new clause and amendments, tabled in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends and me. Four years ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer began a process of Government interference in our universities that will, if the Bill goes through, establish the mechanism for the Government to dictate to them how they should select students. We all remember the case of Laura Spence, the applicant from the north-east who was turned down by Oxford university and subsequently admitted to Harvard. For some reason—and with what seemed like precious little knowledge of the detail of the case—the Chancellor thought that it was his job to come to Laura Spence's defence.

I have been looking back at the coverage of the case, and the events, and their consequences for our debate are clear. A report in The Times of 26 May 2000 stated:

"Gordon Brown embroiled the Government in a class war with Oxford University yesterday by attacking its "old school tie" interviewing system and the "absolute scandal" of the rejection of a comprehensive schoolgirl.

The Chancellor urged Britain's older universities to open their doors to "people from all backgrounds" after Laura Spence failed to secure a place to read medicine at Magdalen College. She has since won a Harvard scholarship.

Mr. Brown spoke with the full backing of Tony Blair . . . But he was promptly criticised by the university, whose Vice-Chancellor, Dr Colin Lucas, accused him of speaking without knowing the facts behind the headlines."

That is not entirely a surprise. The real message in that story was in the last paragraph, which stated:

"Last night the row was escalating as government sources made plain that universities could face sanctions if they fail to take more state pupils. 'These people have got to put their house in order', a senior government source said. Oxford and Cambridge have already suffered a cut of £11 million over ten years in the money previously allocated for college tuition fees. Officials say there is plenty of scope to impose further funding conditions."

Further funding conditions are precisely what are on the table today. They are forcing those people, in the eyes of the Government, to put their house in order. Our new clause and the related amendments seek to challenge that intervention, and to ensure that unwarranted political interference by the Government cannot happen.

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Labour, Stalybridge and Hyde

In answer to a question that I asked in the debate on the programme motion, Mr. Collins said that there were hordes of Conservatives waiting for the end of that debate so that they could speak in this one. Can the hon. Gentleman explain why there are only three Conservative Back Benchers supporting him now, given the earlier claim that there was massive interest on the Conservative Benches in this important Bill?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he will find that much of the interest in speaking today is on his own Benches, where large numbers of people are only too keen to speak against the Government's ill-thought-out approach to higher education. The sad thing is that all too few of them will have the opportunity to do so—if, indeed, they have not already been cowed into submission by the intense efforts of the Government Whips Office.

It has been noticeable in recent weeks that some supporters of the Prime Minister have, perhaps with his retirement in mind, started to talk about "Blairism" as a political philosophy, although I am not sure whether that is a contradiction in terms. This measure is not about Blairism; it is about Brownism, and it is a sign of things to come if the country should ever be unfortunate enough to see the Chancellor move house from No. 11 to No. 10. The fact that the measure is before the House today is also a sign of just how weak the Prime Minister has become within his own party, and just how strong the Chancellor has become.

When I challenged the Prime Minister on this issue a year ago, he disowned his Government's own policy. I said to him:

"There are increasing reports of pupils of high ability and achievement being turned down by universities because of their social background. How would the Prime Minister justify that to the people who are losing out?"

The Prime Minister's response was:

"The simple point is that I would not. If universities are doing that, they are wrong. What is more, people should go to university based on their merit, whatever their class or background. That is what should happen." [Hansard, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 256—7.]

The purpose of new clause 1 is to ensure that it does happen, and if the Government are so enthusiastic for it to happen and if Ministers are so keen on it happening, I suggest that we stop the debate now so that they can accept new clause 1 and we can move on. Would they like to do that? [Laughter.] No, I thought not.

New clause 1 would write into the Bill the simple principle that the access regulator should be mindful of academic achievement and potential, and of that alone. That is where the Conservatives stand on this issue. Only those two factors should be taken into account when deciding who should go to university. The admissions system should not become a system for social engineering.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

Has the hon. Gentleman had time, since the Bill was in Committee, to consider what he means by "potential"? Can he now give the House a better explanation of what he means by that term, and of what his objection is to fair access, which is something else that he could not get to grips with in Committee?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I suspect that the difference between the hon. Lady and me is that, as a politician, I do not think that it is my job to define "potential". I would rather leave it to the professionals in the universities to decide which young people have the potential to succeed. They do not need politicians to step in and do their job for them.

Photo of Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Labour, Rochdale

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is something wrong with a system in which, over the last 50 years, no more than 15 per cent. of people from C5 backgrounds have gone into higher education? Is he saying that the vast majority of such people—of whom I represent many—do not have potential?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Lady makes an important point, but she should be looking elsewhere in the education system to deal with those very real issues. It is not a solution to gerrymander the higher education entrance system.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

Speaking as someone who was a professional lecturer for six years in the kind of institute that encouraged wider access, may I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman the unseen potential of people who come to higher education through non-traditional pathways? It is not a desirability but a necessity to ensure that such people have equal access to all higher education institutions, because they outperform people who come through with more traditional grade scores.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. He talks about his own experience in higher education and the role that he and his colleagues clearly played in selecting students with academic potential. It is the job of his colleagues who are still in the profession to take those decisions; it is not for politicians to impose those solutions on them.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

No, I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me. The point is that it is exactly that principle that the Government are seeking to destroy today, and we want to prevent that from happening through our new clauses and amendments.

The proposal to introduce the access regulator represents all that is wrong with this Government. University vice-chancellors have told us that they hope that the regulator will prove to be a paper tiger, but they should have listened to the Minister when he spoke in a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall earlier this year. He said that

"this is a regulator with teeth." [Hansard, Westminster Hall, 6 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 32WH.]

Our goal this afternoon is to draw those teeth, and to establish the principle, which should be inalienable, that these matters should be outside the control and involvement of politicians.

Let us be clear: we believe that entry to university should be based on academic achievement and potential and on nothing else. It is not for politicians to interfere in this.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport) 1:30 pm, 31st March 2004

The hon. Gentleman may recall from Committee that my position is somewhere between his and the Government's on this matter. There is a serious point to be made: the university funding system is already subject to an element of political interference. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, for example, already sets a threshold for the number of applicants who must come from the 100 most deprived communities in Wales. Would the new clause weaken existing arrangements, or does the hon. Gentleman think that he is merely tackling the office for fair access? I am a little concerned that he may weaken efforts already being made in relation to access to higher education.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I see no reason why the new clause would have that effect. Nor do I believe that our universities would be enhanced by another layer of bureaucracy, which would make it more difficult for them to do the job that many of them are already doing.

The important point at the heart of this debate is that there is a need to create opportunity within our education system for those who are let down by it. There was no dispute in Committee about that, and there is no disagreement that there are young people who do not achieve what they could under our current education system. There are young people with the potential to go to university, who, for family or other reasons, such as the social environment in which they are brought up, do not end up doing so. That is wrong. There is agreement on both sides of the House about that.

In Committee, Mr. Allen, who is sadly not in his place at the moment, made an impassioned and important speech and quite a long one about the situation in his constituency, where anyone who stays on in education after the age of 16 is regarded, in his words, as weird. Clearly, that is wrong. I did not disagree with his analysis of the situation in his constituency, nor with the fact that it needs to be addressed, but I fundamentally disagree with him about the solution. The problem that the access regulator is being appointed to tackle is deep-rooted in our schools, and it is there that the change must come. That solution will not be found by gerrymandering the university admissions system, or by requiring university admissions tutors to follow anything other than their natural instincts and expertise in judging academic achievement and potential.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

Does the hon. Gentleman also recall that we heard in Committee of examples of universities and schools working together in communities, such as that of my hon. Friend Mr. Allen, to expose universities to young people who had no previous experience of them? The regulator will oversee exactly that type of access extension.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and anticipates the next section of my speech.

The frustrating irony of the debate about the access regulator is that good work is already going on in the university sector to try to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds.

In Committee, numerous Labour Members praised the efforts of their local universities in this regard. Mrs. Campbell, who is not in her place today, said:

"Cambridge University has long been generous in providing bursaries to students from low-income backgrounds"

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said:

"we need . . . vice-chancellors to become far more a part of the education family". [Official Report, Standing Committee H, 4 March 2004; c.464—71.]

But he went on to praise the work done by his two local universities, Nottingham university and Nottingham Trent university, in seeking to extend opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

It is right that we gave examples of good practice in Committee, but we also said that it was not uniform, it was not across the piece, and that some universities were doing very well, and others were not. We want all universities to perform to their best in terms of widening access and reaching out into communities to young people who would not have thought about attending university. That is what the regulator will do: it is about spreading good practice.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman must understand that the fundamental difference between us is that we do not believe that we should pass laws to do that. One does not legislate best practice; one encourages it. The flaw in this measure is the belief that passing a law is the right way to deal with a genuine problem. That is the difference between Conservative and Labour Members.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises the hard work going on in junior and primary schools as well as in secondary schools and universities. Alongside that good work, does he not recognise that there is a problem with people following their natural instincts, to use his words? Is not the problem that some people's natural instincts may not be benign, and some people's natural instincts may need some encouragement in a more generous direction?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

If the hon. Lady is right, and if Huw Irranca-Davies is correct that there are potential students out there who will out-perform in higher education, by definition, those institutions that are good at recruiting them will rocket up the academic ladder, and others will realise that they are missing out. Surely best practice is best developed in that way, rather than through clumsy bureaucratic laws from the centre.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make some progress. I do not want to take up the whole debate with my contribution.

The problem is that when the Government feel that something is not right, they rush to pass a law. Although the natural instincts of Labour Members to nationalise everything have long been curbed, those instincts are still to look to interfere in every aspect of our lives. When there is something with which they do not agree, passing a law is their only solution. The introduction of an access regulator, whose job is to ensure that universities are pressurised into changing the way that they shape their future intakes, is based too much on class prejudice and not enough on academic good practice. We do better if we empower people to take those decisions themselves, rather than trying to be prescriptive from the centre.

I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that something must be done to address those failing schools and communities where education is an alien concept [Interruption.] He has just returned to the Chamber, and he missed my remarks referring to his speech. I very much agreed with his diagnosis of the problem in his constituency. My point is that that problem simply should not exist in a modern society in 2004. It behoves all of us as politicians to seek ways to address it. We differ not on the aspiration but on the solution. Fundamentally, we do not believe that passing laws is the right way to do it. Nor do we believe that creating potentially draconian regimes for the university sector is the right way to do it.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I am going to conclude my remarks, as I want to allow other Members the chance to speak.

The Government have sought to assure us that they have no intention whatever of trying to become involved in admissions. The measure, they tell us, is all about applications, not admissions. They just want universities, they tell us, to cast their net wider. The problem is simple: we do not believe them. They have form in this area. They know that they have already gone back on a clear manifesto pledge on tuition fees, to which we will no doubt return later this afternoon.

When the Government tell us that the access regulator will have a light touch and confine his interest to a loose set of guidance in relation to the application process, I do not believe them. Do we honestly believe that two or three years down the road, if by some unhappy accident they are still in office and their goals are not being met by the higher education sector, they will stand aside if the changes that they want have not happened? No one in the higher education sector should be under any illusion about that. When the Secretary of State talks about substantial financial penalties £500,000 fines for universities that do not conform that is a threat to be taken seriously. In time, those threats will become a harsh reality.

There is a simple way of removing this threat. The new clause would limit the ability of the regulator to impose a social engineering agenda on our universities. It would ensure that our universities cannot be forced to admit students on the basis of any factors other than academic achievement and potential. The Prime Minister had it right a year ago when he said that anything else would be wrong. He was right then, this new clause is right now, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

I shall not detain the House, because I am sure we all want to proceed to the next group of new clauses and amendments.

The Liberal Democrats will support the new clause, because, as we have said from the outset, we consider the whole system of targets to be nonsense. The idea that precisely 50 per cent. of young people no more, no less should go to university is absurd. The target will probably be achieved quite easily anyway; it has already been achieved in Scotland, and the chances are that it will be achieved in England in the near future regardless of whether the Government take any action. What we should be doing is deciding how many university places we ought to be providing, and for whom they ought to be provided. We have long believed that places should be provided for all who have the ability, potential and qualifications to make proper use of university courses.

We are particularly happy with new clause 1 because the Conservatives, who in Committee tabled an equivalent amendment proposing the removal of the clause in the Bill that insists on fairness, have now included subsection (2) in the new clause. It provides that the system of choosing between applicants must be fair and non-discriminatory. That addition makes all the difference: it enables us to support the new clause.

While we are thinking about fairness, we should bear in mind that A-levels are not the only measure of ability and potential. I was somewhat surprised, but nevertheless delighted, to find in Committee that the Conservatives held that view as well. There had been some concern about the issue over the past year. Some independent schools had seemed to think that A-levels were the only important measure of ability, and that those with the right A-levels should be chosen on those grounds alone. That, of course, has become impossible in the case of our most prestigious universities: so many applicants are achieving three or four A grades that it is impossible to choose between them purely on that basis.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

While we are discussing the central issue of enforcing fairness, may I make a point about Oxford university? I should mention that I went there from a state school. Oxford accepts a proportion of applicants from state schools, but it is also true that more people from state schools will end up with better degrees the corollary being that those from the private sector will end up with worse degrees. Does that not imply that something is going badly wrong at the margin, and that there should be more factoring in of social backgrounds? That is the job of the regulator, and it should be enforced.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

I do not think that those from state schools necessarily get better degrees. What is certainly true is that those from state schools who have lower A-level grades tend to do at least as well as those from independent schools who have higher grades. I do not think that that is quite the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, but it is my reason for thinking that A-level grades should not represent the only way of choosing between applicants. If we do not have other mechanisms, our most prestigious universities will not have the opportunity to admit applicants with great ability and potential who come from state schools and whose A-level grades may not be as good as those of others in their age group.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

I think that the hon. Gentleman has misinterpreted my hon. Friend's point. The other side of the picture is that when people who have been carefully nurtured and groomed, and on whom an enormous amount of money has been spent in the private system who have been glossed up reach university, the glossing up does not persist. It gets them into university because they look good at their interviews and have plenty of self-assurance and yes, they have achieved three As at A-level but when confronted with the rigours of a university degree course, they do not perform as well as people from state schools with similar qualifications.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

I suspect that, in fact, we are all misunderstanding each other. I think that what I was saying is exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Those from state schools will not necessarily get better degrees than those from independent schools, but those from state schools with lower A-level grades tend to end up with the same degrees as those from independent schools with higher grades.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 1:45 pm, 31st March 2004

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in commending to Mr. Sheerman the Chairman of the Select Committee and to Geraint Davies a report prepared for the Higher Education Funding Council? It concerns the effects of schooling on higher education achievement, and concludes that the difference in the degree performances of students with the same A-level scores from independent schools and state schools is very small indeed at the most selective and highly academic universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

I think that we are all saying much the same thing, and that I should now make some progress.

At present, independent schools are selling themselves largely on their ability to produce better A-level grades than state schools for pupils with the same ability. Universities should therefore take the opportunity of choosing state school applicants with lower grades, rather than those from independent schools; but the choice must be made on the basis of a number of criteria. Past exam success clearly makes a difference, and it is one of the measures that universities can use fairly not just in respect of A-levels, but in respect of earlier exams. Current tests of potential along the lines of the American SATS are a possible method of differentiation. The application form itself may give universities a hint, and pupils could perhaps send examples of written work to show what they had achieved in the past. Interviews are another possibility, as are teachers' assessments. If teachers are at all fair in their assessments, the best way of judging the ability and potential of young people may be what is said by those who have known them best at school.

New clause 1 would, I hope, produce a fairer way of choosing university students than the methods currently used in some universities. It is only fair to add, however, that a certain level of resources would have to be invested. It is quickest and simplest for universities to choose between applicants on the basis of A-level grades; if these more complex and subtle, but fairer, methods are adopted, universities must put in more money than they do at present.

New clause 2 would remove from the Welsh Assembly some of its rights to determine how university admissions are handled. That clearly conflicts with the whole principle of devolution to the Assembly. I should like the maximum number of powers to be devolved, and I believe that these powers should be included.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, new clause 2 is effectively consequential on new clause 1. Is he saying that he supports the principle that universities should not be subject to political interference in England, but does not apply that principle to Wales?

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

No, I am not suggesting that Welsh universities should not have a fair choice of applicants. What I am saying is that it should be up to the Assembly to determine how it will put pressure on universities to employ a fair and sensible way of discriminating between applicants. We in this Parliament should not make that decision.

I am not sure whether anyone will speak to amendments Nos. 99 and 100. Mr. Allen, who tabled them, did not seem to want to speak a moment ago. In case he does speak, however, let me say that we consider the amendments unobjectionable but probably superfluous. I suspect that OFFA would work more or less in that way in any event. We see no great need for the amendments, but we have no great objection to them.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

New clauses 1 and 2 are important, because they give the House the chance to look very seriously at OFFA. In this context, I must allude to some remarks that I made earlier about Ofsted. Unfortunately, my new clause, which would have made OFFA into a body more like Ofsted, did not get the attention of the Speaker, but new clauses 1 and 2 bring to the House's attention the strength of OFFA. Chris Grayling made some telling points when he spoke earlier, but I disagree with him on the strength of OFFA. If we are to intervene effectively in what is an education market whether we like it or not, whether we would like to reshape it or not, and whether it is imperfect or not, we need the tools to do so. We had a good debate on how people can assess the market and adjust it for the benefit of all participants. OFFA is one of the instruments that could be used to make an imperfect market a little more perfect.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

My hon. Friend will know that the use of the word "market" has heavy political and social implications, especially for Labour Members. Although he accepts that there is now a market in higher education, does he agree that neither the current situation nor that proposed in the Bill will by any means produce a free market? The market is extremely restricted and contained, so that term must be used with the caveat that we do not, and will not, have a free market.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The pretence that there has ever been a wholly free market—which is a theoretical concept—is an offence to logic, but it is equally an offence to logic to pretend that we do not currently have a highly distorted market. The problem is that if we want to clean it up and to the use the language of the market, people unfortunately bring to the discussion a lot of emotional baggage about what that means.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell kindly alluded to my remarks in Committee on how a distorted market affects my constituency. Nottingham, North sends the fewest young people to university of any constituency in the United Kingdom. The people in Nottingham, North are not congenitally thicker than people elsewhere, but their life chances are perverted at an early stage because the market of brains, ability and talent is not allowed to work. The way to solve that is not to preserve the current system in aspic, but to take on the market, make sure that it works effectively and remove as many of its imperfections as possible.

One tool that we can bring to bear on that process is OFFA. Unlike the hon. Member for Epson and Ewell—on occasion I have disagreed with Ministers, too, on this—I feel that OFFA is not the tiger that we need, but something of a pussycat.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

If we all agree that admissions are the sole responsibility of the institution, what additional powers does my hon. Friend advocate that OFFA should have?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I shall gladly explain my request, but my hon. Friend will be bored because he heard it all in Committee. We have heard from Opposition Members, whose view is honest and sincere, that we need a light touch, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has taken that further by saying that we should have a light touch but not a soft touch. However, I think that we need a slightly firmer hand on this particular tiller. Statistics tell us that over the past 40 years, working-class kids' chances of getting to university have not improved one jot. There are still only 20 per cent. of working-class kids, and fewer in my constituency, who make it to university. I do not want to rush into legislation, to use the term of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, but concluding a 40-year experiment is not rushing. The need to ensure that the talent that is out there is allowed to breathe, and that talented young people realise their full potential, is long overdue. People whom we represent feel that it is long overdue, as does our party.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

My hon. Friend knows of my admiration for what he is doing in Nottingham, North to put right what has been wrong for far too long in terms of opportunities for children. However, does he agree that in the period since 1997, we have had the right strategy of intervening as early as we can, with Sure Start, free nursery places, and massive investment in primary, junior and secondary schools and in education maintenance allowances? All of us will agree that in one sense, 18 is too late. We must make the intervention earlier.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

My hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench repeat over and over, rightly, that the subsidy for education, which everyone in this country should be proud of, is far higher at the latter end of education than at the earliest moment. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee for repeatedly renewing calls on Sure Start, on all our schemes to improve emotional intelligence and social behaviour before school and on the effort to bring literacy and numeracy into play at primary school. When those measures were introduced, none of them found much favour from Opposition Members, but Ministers pushed them through with the support of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, and they are starting to make a real difference.

I repeat that the life chances of young people in my constituency and in the constituencies of many colleagues are not falsified at the age of 18; the dice are loaded from birth, and sometimes before. We need to examine a much wider picture and ensure that the money goes in at the earliest possible opportunity. If youngsters are allowed to flourish prior to going to school—we have all read primary school Ofsted reports from difficult parts of our constituency—they will benefit massively from the education on offer. That is how we must look at this particular question, and we must ensure that the process is pursued right up to the age of 18, through an OFFA with teeth.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

Given how my hon. Friend described his constituency and his constituents, does he think that they would agree with the wording of new clause 1, which describes equality of opportunity as desirable? Would he choose a stronger form of words?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I would choose far stronger words, and I did so in Committee. I still hope that the Government might consider my proposal. OFFA is essentially a reactive body. If we look at the way in which it was created through the consultative paper, and the way in which we talked about it in Committee, we see that OFFA is reactive to whatever universities propose in their access plans. However, I want OFFA to make proposals, to be innovative and to tackle some of the problems and their causes, just as we would expect any other body related to educational institutions to do. If Ofsted goes into one of my local primary schools, it comes out and produces not just a bland report on achievement but a sharp report on what is needed in that school, and on how to support teachers and end the problems that have caused under-attainment. Similarly, I want action-oriented proposals from OFFA.

I know that we have had to compromise to get parts of the Bill through, but we must return to that matter at an appropriate point. That is why one of my amendments in Committee referred directly to a proposal of the Chairman of the Education Committee, which has done such superb work in this field. Although it was able to undertake only brief, if comprehensive, pre-legislative scrutiny of the provisions, one of its proposals was that we review the operation of OFFA and see whether we can take it further and give it more teeth, so that we can assess how the problems are being tackled, rather than just providing a snapshot of those problems. I hope that the Minister will take up that idea informally, even if it is not passed as an amendment to the Bill.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:00 pm, 31st March 2004

I do not think that anybody in the House would disagree with the premise that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward—that generations of young people in many constituencies have been denied access to higher education as a result of low expectation, and often as a result of low standards in local education authorities and schools. We both start from that point. What worries me about his language is the idea that, in a constituency such as mine, where about 70 per cent. of young people enter some form of higher education, those very young people should be penalised as a result of their efforts and the fact that many of them have been born into lower or middle-class families. Does he agree that it should not be a question of either/or? We are not seeking to replace certain groups of students with others. That is what worries us about the whole issue of social engineering within this framework.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Of course it is not a question of either/or, but let us be absolutely clear about this: social engineering is already happening, and we need to recognise it. There is already a market, and we need to recognise that. If we think that the current market is imperfect, which it is, and if we agree that the current social imbalance, which certainly exists, has not arrived by accident and is wrong, we need to do something about those things. The pertinence to the new clause is that OFFA potentially gives us a way to strengthen the teeth that will allow talent to flourish—not to give anybody an easy ride, not to give anybody access to university who does not have the qualifications, but to ensure that the abilities that are out there are allowed to flourish. It is a way of freeing up the abilities, not forcing people into university. In many ways, the hon. Gentleman is setting up a straw man, because the people who would like that the least would probably be those who were forced into a university when they knew perfectly well that they were not qualified. I accept that he was not intending to say that.

Photo of Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Labour, Rochdale

I accept the genuine interest and expertise of the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesperson on this issue, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that, over the past 40 years, social engineering has kept able, bona fide candidates out of higher education, as is evidenced by the fact that for 40 years only 20 per cent. of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds entered higher education?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Labour Members should stop being defensive about the idea that intervention takes place in a market. That is exactly what this party is about, if we are about anything. The Conservatives practised intervention for decade after decade to the benefit of the people whom they represent. I do not quibble with them for doing that, but Labour Members must accept that, as John Smith used to say repeatedly, a market is a good servant but a bad master. By using methods such as those that OFFA will use, we can intervene to ensure that the market is properly regulated so that talent is allowed to flourish.

I return briefly to the point that Mr. Willis made. We do of course need to take a comprehensive view of the whole issue. For that reason, I implore my hon. Friends, whatever their views on particular aspects of variability, to vote with the Government tonight. If things do not go as I hope that they will, we might lose the other part of this vital package. The key is to ensure that, now that we have a higher education system in which youngsters can flourish, we allow them to get there.

The biggest problem faced by young people is not the prospect of paying back a fiver a week when they are on £18,000, or —25 a week when they are on £30,000, as a graduate; the biggest obstacle to kids in my patch, and in the constituencies of hon. Members on both sides of the House, is their fear that if they go to university with no money in their pocket, they will be unable to keep body and soul together. I have already written to the eight secondary head teachers in my constituency to tell them that, if the Bill is passed, they should spread the good news at their assemblies and other places and say, "You can go to university and we will pay you £3,000 to do it, because that is available"

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

And they will not be charged. The hon. Gentleman repeats that assertion over and again. It needs to be refuted, even if it is only made from a sedentary position.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I must answer the hon. Gentleman's sedentary point, and then I may give way to his standing point.

The scare that is put about that poor students, poor families, rich students or rich families will have to pay back under this scheme, is nonsense. It will be graduates earning a wage earning £18,000—who will start to pay back at £5 a week, and those earning £30,000 will pay back £25 a week. What the hon. Gentleman does he does it so often that I begin to doubt that he is doing it inadvertently is frighten the very youngsters in my constituency whom I want to grasp this opportunity. It is an easy point; it is an easy misrepresentation. This morning I met a number of people who have lobbied us in the House. I corrected them, and they were amazed because they had swallowed the propaganda and thought this was a great debt burden rather than a very modest repayment that will be made only once graduates earn sufficient repay.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that poorer students currently pay no fees, so when they leave university they have to pay back their maintenance loan, whereas under the new system they will get a £3,000 grant, including the bursary, as they go into university, but they will have a £3,000 tuition fee to repay at the end? So they will actually get a grant of £3,000 and then have to pay back £3,000 in fees. How on earth is that an advantage?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on almost every particular. I wish that I could take more time to refute the arguments that will be made in the later debate. I will be present in the later debate to do that, as I did repeatedly in Committee. Not every youngster will pay a £3,000 fee [Interruption.] I am sorry, not every university will charge

Photo of Mr Jon Owen Jones Mr Jon Owen Jones Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff Central

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your protection. How can you help Members who represent Wales in the House, who, it is now clear, will have no opportunity to debate the important issues, which are currently non-devolved, about how the Bill affects Wales? In its ignorance or with its disinterest, the House is about to legislate on Wales without allowing any Member from Wales to speak on that issue. Can you do anything to protect our interests?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is raising, but the House has decided the programme motion that we are now working under, and as far as I am concerned in the Chair I have no control over that.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

My hon. Friend Mr. Jones makes a strong point, and all that I can say to him is that this matter was covered extensively in Committee. I know that is of little consolation to him

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I have enjoyed listening at great length to my hon. Friend. Given the length of his contribution and in recognition of his efforts, OFFA should perhaps be renamed the Allen key to improve access.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I believe that several colleagues wish to speak and I shall bring my remarks to a close. I simply emphasise that we are creating an instrument for intervention in a highly imperfect market, and we should give it the necessary teeth. Unfortunately, this will not be the opportunity to do that, but I hope that perhaps under the auspices of the Select Committee we shall revisit this matter and ensure that OFFA is a regulatory body worthy of the name.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee

Mr. Allen has just taken a third of the entire debate. I shall certainly be briefer, not least to try to allow some Welsh Members into the debate.

My hon. Friend Chris Grayling described amendment No. 1 as consequential. It may be, but I think that it also reflects amendment No. 268, which he tabled in Committee, in that it removes from the Bill the clause that allows the Secretary of State to give guidance to the regulator. That is the issue that most concerns me, because it allows the Secretary of State to give the regulator guidance, so the regulator will not be independent of the Secretary of State or of Government.

One can make a case, when dealing with rail, water or other issues, for the regulator to be directed or guided by the Secretary of State or the politicians of the day, but higher education is not the same as energy, water or railways. On the contrary, universities—even if Labour would wish it otherwise—are not public institutions. They are private institutions, and what is studied at universities and those who are admitted to them should, in the final resort, be matters for universities themselves. That is the principle of academic freedom, which I have yet to hear addressed, on Second Reading or today.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee

No, I have very little time.

The Minister was brutal on that point in Committee. When he answered the debate on amendment No. 268, he said that the Government wanted the powers because

"we want to direct the regulator." [Official Report, Standing Committee H, 4 March 2004; c. 523.]

He made no bones about it: he wants the powers so that the Secretary of State can direct the regulator.

We have heard today Labour Members say—as they are entitled to do—that they want a regulator with teeth. Indeed, that was the gist of the 20-minute speech by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. That is fine, but the Bill will mean that we will have a regulator with the Government's teeth. It is wholly wrong of the Government to interfere in the operation of the regulator.

I shall lay my cards on the table and confess that I do not think that we need a regulator. Better practice could be spread in different ways, and there is no case for a regulator. However, if there is to be one, it should be independent of the Government and of the Secretary of State. It should carry out its duties, subject—of course—to the law and perhaps to review by the courts, but free from political interference.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

Mr. Willis rightly said that we do not want an either/or situation: we want to promote the opportunities for young people from working-class backgrounds to fulfil their potential and gain access to higher education institutes. We have heard a lot of scaremongering from the Conservatives about what OFFA will do, but the idea that it will involve social engineering is ridiculous—[Interruption.] I am sorry that Mr. Simmonds greets that with incredulity. OFFA will, with a light touch, spread good practice to ensure that institutions reach out to communities that are less well represented in higher education. OFFA will not be a punitive weapon that the Secretary of State can use, and that suggestion was clearly rebutted in Committee—and Chris Grayling knows it. Mr. Collins nods, but we remember the language that he used. He said that OFFA would be used if the Secretary of State took offence at an institution and that he could use OFFA in a vendetta against it.

The Opposition said that OFFA would be the Secretary of State's plaything, but that is ridiculous. Universities UK has been clear about the powers that OFFA will have, especially on the plan that will allow universities to charge fees of £3,000. If the plan is altered, it will be on the say-so of the institutions, not OFFA. It is important that OFFA is not involved in admissions, but the Conservatives want people to think that it will be. The universities know that OFFA will not be involved in admissions, the Labour party knows that and so do the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, the Tories know it, but they choose not to articulate it because it does not suit their opportunism. They constantly use emotive words, talking about social engineering, to create a pernicious impression.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton 2:15 pm, 31st March 2004

I support the principles in the Bill, which is why I will not vote against it tonight, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the provisions on OFFA are a cause for concern? The best universities want to try to broaden access: the problem is that only a quarter of 18-year-old A-level entrants get two decent A-levels. We have to find other ways, but that is not what OFFA will be set up to do.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

One in four youngsters from working-class backgrounds who get good GCSEs do not go on to higher education institutions. Perhaps if those institutions reached out, they might get on the radar of those youngsters. We will pile more money into universities and it is reasonable for a light-touch regulator to try to ensure that they reach out. Some of our universities do a fantastic job, while others do not do such a good job. If universities want to raise their fees, they will have to reach out as the best do.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

If OFFA were to be established, would any student of adequate or good financial means from a middle-class background find it difficult to go to university? I find it hard to conceive that that would ever be the case. It is also pertinent that while universities are independent, they rely heavily on public funding. Therefore, we have the right to ask something in return for that funding.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree. The judgment that we have to make is the extent of that intervention. The proposals in the Bill are reasonable. A series of amendments in Committee have assured Universities UK that OFFA will be light touch. It will also spread good practice and, together with other measures not least at nursery level— it will improve access for young people

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

In the unfortunately short time left, I shall be brief. I support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and I also support in their entirety the remarks of my hon. Friend Mr. Fallon. He was right to draw attention to the lack of independence of OFFA. It will be the creature of the Secretary of State and will act under his strict statutory guidance. Hon. Members should ask how OFFA will work under that guidance, because there will be a clear link between admissions and finance, and that is very disturbing.

My hon. Friend was right to refer to the £500,000 fine that can be imposed on universities, but whether universities are allowed to impose a variable fee will depend on the approval of OFFA. Whether they get that approval will depend on whether they carry out the activities required under the access agreement. The key point of how they will be judged on whether they are achieving the targets on outreach will be admissions—[Interruption.] Whoever said "No" should read the statutory guidance, which sets it out in black and white.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have two minutes before the guillotine falls, and clearly the House would like to hear the Minister's response to the debate. Have you received any representations from the Government that they might be minded to extend the guillotine under the programme motion? We would be happy to support such an extension.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Such things are not possible at this stage of our proceedings and would simply take more time from the debate.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

For the reasons that I outlined, OFFA is inconsistent with admissions based on merit. That will create a sense of injustice for many individuals, and might well lead to the lowering of standards in universities. It could result in a large number of this country's students going to universities in Germany—we have heard about that today—and perhaps the United States because they cannot obtain a place at a university in this country. They will be joined by those for whom a vast burden of debt will create a disincentive. I shall finish to allow Mr. Jones the chance to make his point on Wales, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I have been to Wales.

I am delighted that Chris Grayling put on the record the Tory view that democracy is an unhappy accident. It is no doubt also his view that broadening access to university will happen only through an unhappy accident. He says that there is a problem with widening access, and new clause 1 says that it is desirable to promote equality, but his solution is to do nothing except to trust the instincts of those in charge of admissions policies, although they have failed over the years to do anything more, for example, than to lead Oxford and Cambridge to admit people from lower-income groups to 10 per cent. of their places. OFFA is necessary not only to help to develop outreach strategies, but to ensure that they make the difference that will be absolutely essential if the Bill is to have any meaning.

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 216, Noes 378.

Division number 121 Higher Education Bill — New Clause 1 — General Duties of the Director

Aye: 216 MPs

No: 378 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 61 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.