University Admissions Policy

– in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 25th October 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education 3:31 pm, 25th October 2004

I beg to move,

That this House
believes that universities should be solely and wholly in charge of their own admissions policies, without regard to any externally imposed quotas, targets or benchmarks;
affirms that access to higher education should be determined on the basis of academic merit, not social, economic or geographical background;
welcomes and supports the efforts of universities to seek out, find and encourage talent in all parts of society, endeavours which long pre-date Government intervention and which are threatened, not encouraged, by it;
recognises that attempts to force universities to use politically-determined criteria threaten academic excellence and independence alike;
notes that the Government's policies on these issues have sparked deep-seated anger and resentment among universities, whose leaders have in consequence warned Ministers not to interfere with university admissions policy and even openly contemplated self-privatisation as a means of escape;
regrets the appointment of a University Access Regulator who has declared himself to be of the view that the principal issue facing higher education is class;
and urges the immediate abolition of the Office for Fair Access and the removal of state interference from issues which lie at the heart of university independence, freedom and standards.

The debate is about excellence, independence and freedom. All are essential prerequisites for the standing of the UK's world-class universities, all are the fundamental bulwarks of achievement in both research and teaching, and all are profoundly under threat from the Government's misguided policies. As ever, the Government try to have it both ways. They try to send different messages to different audiences. The Minister is all reassurance, all charm, as he naturally would be inclined to be, when he is speaking to an audience of academics. When he is speaking to an audience of his Back Benchers, he is breathing fire, he is determined to change things, and he will not put up with what universities are doing.

A classic symbol of the confusion, whether deliberate or unintended, at the heart of the Government's policies appears on the Order Paper, in the amendment to which the Minister will speak. The Government accept the first few words of the Opposition motion. In particular they accept

"that universities should be solely and wholly in charge of their own admissions policies".

Excellent. Admirable. What could be better than that? But unfortunately they delete the next words, which read

"without regard to any externally imposed quotas, targets or benchmarks".

It is difficult to see how universities could be in charge of their admissions policies if they were to have regard to

"externally imposed quotas, targets or benchmarks".

Perhaps it is the words "quotas, targets or benchmarks" to which the Government object, but later in their amendment, referring to statistics that have recently been published, they say they abhor

"the recent misinterpretation of those indicators as targets or quotas".

So it is not the word "target" that they object to, or the word "quota". Perhaps it is the word "benchmark" that they object to, except that the Minister is on record as saying:

"Universities will not be penalised for failing to meet their benchmarks", so it is difficult to see why those words are deleted from the Opposition motion unless, as we all suspect, the Government want universities to be obliged to have regard to externally imposed targets, quotas and benchmarks.

That is at the heart of the debate today—whether our universities will improve their quality, their international reputation, their ability to research and their ability to attract the best minds not only nationally but internationally, if they are subject to external interference on a wholly unprecedented scale. Let us remember where all this began: in a very unfortunate speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject of a student named Laura Spence. The Chancellor chose to take the view that he, as someone who had no experience of Oxford's admissions policies, was in a better position than experienced Oxford admissions tutors to judge who should and should not be admitted to a course which was heavily oversubscribed. After announcing that he, as the person in charge of the nation's purse strings, concluded that Laura Spence should have been admitted, he failed to tell Oxford which of the exceptionally well qualified alternative candidates would have had to be ejected to make way for Miss Laura Spence.

Throughout the process, the Labour party in government has attempted to use university admissions policies as a party political football, a means of scoring with Back-Bench Members and reassuring core activists that it remains a socialist party at heart and retains the old class war instincts.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

For the avoidance of doubt, will my hon. Friend make it clear that he supports the principle of equal opportunities for all, and that, when people are qualified to go to university, from whatever school but especially from state schools, they should have the opportunity to do that?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Conservative party has always believed in equality of opportunity, whereas the Labour party believes in equality of outcome, which is fundamentally different and bears no relationship to merit.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

It is extremely generous of the Opposition to allow children from state schools to go to university. Does the hon. Gentleman admit that questions about admissions to our leading research universities need further examination to guarantee the equality of opportunity that he endorsed? Does he genuinely believe that there is there no problem in the admissions policies of our leading research universities?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

The hon. Gentleman puts the case in a characteristically light, welcome and subtle way. Nevertheless, his comments go to the heart of the debate. I am sure that he knows that admission to our leading universities from state schools is lower now than 30 years ago. Academic selection in higher education is the unsurprising result of doing away with academic selection in secondary education.

To the charge that a problem exists, we contend that universities do their level best to get people of all social backgrounds through their doors. I have never met a university vice-chancellor, teacher or don who wants to teach those who are more stupid than they should be. They want to teach the most able and most academically talented. They are determined to do that. However, Conservative Members believe that the state has no role in telling universities whom they should admit and whom they should not. If we followed the route of the state's dictating admission, it would lead to a profoundly unequal position whereby the least articulate, the least able to lobby their Members of Parliament and the least able to get the state to intervene on their behalf lost out the most.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

The hon. Gentleman is right about the Laura Spence case. He showed how foolish it was of the Chancellor to cite an individual case, especially that case, because it was unfair on the admissions staff at Oxford. I hope that he agrees that Oxford faces the problem of getting enough state students to apply in the first place. That problem is not solved by stereotypes and caricatures such as the one the Chancellor used. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that judging on A-levels alone may discriminate against students from less good educational backgrounds, and that that is why the interview process is so important at some universities?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I agree almost entirely with the hon. Gentleman. As he would expect, I naturally endorse his comments on Oxford and citing a specific case. I also agree that, if universities are allowed to proceed in some freedom, they will increasingly move towards the form of selection that he suggests. He knows from his constituency experience that Oxford has invested a huge amount of effort, time and commitment in outreach programmes. Indeed, a note from Oxford that was widely circulated before the debate states that, on almost every day of the working week, some outreach activity occurs.

The university is determined to expand bursaries, and to penetrate some of the most difficult and deprived local education authority areas to encourage students with aptitude and ability—they are certainly to be found in every part of our country, from every social and economic background—to apply. It goes out of its way to do that.

Oxford is equally adamant, however, that it is for it to determine who goes there; it is not for Government, or for any Government appointee, to do so. The phrase "Get your tanks off our lawn" is being used. This is the fundamental difference between the two sides of the House: we believe in academic freedom, and we take it seriously.

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

We welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said about Oxford university. What we are saying is that if universities are to impose higher fees on students, they are obliged to do exactly what he says Oxford will do. We want all universities to do it. If they do not reach out and encourage groups of people from working-class backgrounds to seek admission, they should not be allowed to charge higher fees. That is perfectly reasonable.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

Let me ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question. Will he name a university that does not do that?

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

I am not going to name a university—[Interruption.] I am not going to name a university, but that is precisely the role of OFFA. That is why we are creating the post: so that we can draw comparisons between those that are engaged in good practice, working hard to reach out, and those that are not. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that, he ought to read the briefs with which Labour Members have been provided.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I think the hon. Gentleman's problem is that he has been reading those briefs rather too assiduously. He has no answer to the question "Which universities do not already do that?", because they all do. His justification for OFFA's creation seems to be that it will force universities to do what they are already doing, universally and fully. That is not compatible with the assurance given by the Secretary of State to the House and the country that OFFA would be non-bureaucratic and powerful, that it would make a difference, and that it would empower those who have previously been unable to go to university.

The fact is that, when pressed, Labour Members cannot come up with any example of a university that is not already doing its level best. It is clear that the creation of this institution is at best bureaucratic nonsense and a waste of time, and at worst an act of political spite and vindictiveness.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

The hon. Gentleman accepted earlier that ability was distributed to all ranks of society. In his report, Professor Schwartz clearly states that

"only 26 per cent. of young entrants to full-time degree courses came from skilled manual, partly skilled or unskilled family backgrounds."

Does it not follow that if universities are trying to reach out to people from such backgrounds they are not doing very well so far, and ought to attempt to do better? That is what we are trying to encourage them to do.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

What the hon. Lady seems not to recognise is that most of the groups she has identified do not take five GCSEs, and do not take A-levels. They are let down by the school system. It is not for the universities to be punished and penalised for the product of decades—for this has not been happening only since 1997—of problems with the state secondary school system. No one can be expected to put everything right among 18-year-olds when it should have been sorted out when they were between 11 and 18, or indeed probably much younger—at the primary or pre-primary stage.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I want to make some progress, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

We have talked a little about what Oxford already does. It is a great pleasure to be able—as I have not been for quite some time—to cite with unqualified approbation and endorsement words uttered by my old friend and colleague, Mr. Chris Patten. He was a very distinguished chairman of the Conservative party some years ago. It must be said that since then he has not always been in line with every aspect of Conservative policy. I am delighted to note, however, that on this issue he and we are once again of one mind. In his capacity as chancellor of Oxford university—he is also chancellor of Newcastle university—he said:

"What the government is trying to do is to press universities to make up for the inadequacies in parts of our secondary education system and what that means is they are pressing for a lowering of standards. It is as brutally simple as that."

He is absolutely right in that characterisation, and that view is widely shared by many people in the worlds of academe.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth Labour, Newport East

The hon. Gentleman set up an Aunt Sally in what he had to say about academic freedom: we all believe in academic freedom. However, I wish to press him on what he means by academic merit. In the words of the motion, his party

"affirms that access to higher education should be determined on the basis of academic merit, not social, economic or geographical background".

Does he mean by "academic merit" simply exams passed, or does he mean academic potential? If he accepts that admissions policies should take account of academic potential, how can they then not take some account of social, economic and geographical background?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I have much sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman on these issues, because he thinks creatively and independently. If that is the reason why he will not vote for our motion, he cannot therefore vote for the amendment, which says that the Government

"agrees that admissions to higher education should always be based on merit".

We are all agreed that admissions should be based on merit: I hope that we could all agree that it is for universities to define what "merit" means, not for politicians or politically imposed regulators.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

On that basis and to be clear about the hon. Gentleman's thinking, does he welcome the practice undertaken by some universities of admitting pupils with lower A-level standards than others, because of their academic potential?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I welcome universities doing whatever they believe to be appropriate in order to recruit the best possible students for their courses. The hon. Gentleman once again makes the case that we strongly adhere to: universities are experimenting, reaching out and doing their level best already to try to obtain as wide a spectrum of talent as they possibly can. They do not need a bureaucratic and party-politically imposed regulator to force them to do so.

The gentleman who has been appointed as the Government's director for fair access is Professor Sir Martin Harris. He is a man of enormous reputation and esteem, and greatly respected throughout the higher education sector. I entirely understand why the Government chose him to take up that remit. However, it was widely felt, not only on these Benches, but through the education world and among the wider public, that it was extremely unfortunate that he made it clear in an interview in The Times on his appointment that, first, he was happy to be described as

"resolutely old Labour", and secondly—and much more seriously—that the fundamental issue facing higher education was class. He said that

"class underlies almost all the inequalities and unfairnesses in our system, and that to focus unduly on any other variable . . . is to lose sight of what actually makes a meritocracy difficult to attain in practice. Until we tackle this issue at its roots, everything else is a distraction."

I very much regret that he said that and so do many people in higher education. There is no systematic, conscious, deliberate class differentiation in universities and it is a throwback to a different decade to believe that there is. It is very worrying that a person who will wield considerable power over our universities—to put in terms what the Secretary of State believes—should think that this country needs an old-fashioned class war. That is the last thing this nation needs as it goes into the 21st century.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

My hon. Friend is right. It says in the Schwartz report in section B.5 that

"DfES analysis shows that pupils from low-income households are over-represented in schools that add the least value to pupils' performance."

That shows that it is the schools that are letting down children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, not the admissions process.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him for putting his finger, in a very systematic way, on one of the most profound reasons why many of our young people are being let down at a very early age indeed, well before the age of 18: the absence of the proper introduction of synthetic phonics teaching, which has such a huge beneficial effect on literacy and numeracy, especially for those who come from backgrounds where they are not familiar with books and whose parents may not be likely to take a primary role in educating them in literacy and numeracy. My hon. Friend is right: that is where we need to tackle the problems, rather than penalising universities for not taking someone at the age of 18 and adjusting for what may well have been more than a decade of being let down by the school system.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend has just said in response to my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb. Does he not think that a considerable part of the blame for the bad teaching of, for example, reading lies with people like Kimberley, Meek and Miller—self-professed experts in the teaching of reading and well-known Marxist academics—who are on the record as saying:

"Within the psycho-semiotic framework, the shared reading lesson is viewed as an ideological construct where events are played out and children must learn to position themselves in three interlocking contexts."?

Does that sort of rubbish not account for the destruction of the life chances of a generation of children in our state schools?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

I am always both amazed and impressed at the ability of my hon. Friend to memorise large sections of text. His ability to memorise that chunk of text is even more impressive than usual, and I am delighted to say that it leads me to a different point that I want to make that relates, funnily enough, to Marxist ideology. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] Professor Crampton, who is the professor of east European history at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford university—a man who therefore knows quite a lot about east European politics in general and Marxist regimes in particular—wrote a letter to The Times a few days ago about the comments, to which have I referred, made by Professor Sir Martin Harris, the new university access regulator. He said:

"Professor Sir Martin Harris is not alone in believing that class should play a significant role in determining university admissions policy; this was also very much the view of the communist-dominated regimes which came to power in Eastern Europe immediately after the Second World War."

He continued:

"Universities were given strict quotas on how many from each class they could admit with the result that, regardless of aptitude, intelligence, interest or attainment, it became very difficult or even impossible for those stigmatised as 'bourgeois' to gain entrance into university."

My hon. Friend, in his characteristic way, has perhaps put his finger on the sinister thing that may be behind what the Government are about.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

In the hon. Gentleman's little rant about reading standards, he ignores the fact that examination results at the ages of 14 and 16, and at A-level, are now better than they have ever been. We should be proud of that. It is useful that we are raising standards in the secondary sector, but I want to refer back to the class issue for a moment. Is it not true that students from non-traditional backgrounds, whom we discussed extensively during the debates in the Committee that considered the Higher Education Bill, have lower aspirations and very often, because they do not know anyone who has attended a top university, do not apply because they think that the university is expensive or not for them? We as politicians, as well as the universities, certainly have a great deal of work to do in persuading those youngsters that they can apply and that they can succeed.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

The hon. Lady makes two interesting and important points. Her first point relates to exam standards, and I refer to the findings of the Government's own Tomlinson report, which indicates that there are accelerating and growing problems with basic functional literacy and numeracy among large numbers of young people who leave school with very good exam results. That is very much what employers are saying. If her view is that literacy and numeracy are getting better in this country, I wish she was right, but I am afraid Tomlinson concludes emphatically that that is not the case.

As for the point about some students from non-traditional backgrounds being put off because they think that university is expensive, what on earth does the hon. Lady think that the implications of introducing top-up fees will be in respect of their assessment of whether university is too expensive for them? I point out that the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills—now the Minister for the Arts, Estelle Morris—said:

"for many lower income families the fear of debt is a real worry and could act as a bar to higher education".

Absolutely. Under the Government's proposals, students will have twice as much debt when they graduate as under Conservative proposals.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

Going back to the point made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell, does the hon. Gentleman accept that not one child who has benefited from this Government's literacy and numeracy strategy in primary schools has gone into further education, higher education or the labour market, and when people claim that there are no improvements in literacy and numeracy they miss that fundamental point?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

The Minister appears to have misunderstood his own Government's figures. They indicate that the literacy and numeracy hour— an invention of the previous Conservative Government under the superb Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mrs. Shephard—did produce some notable progress in literacy and numeracy attainment levels until 2000. In other words, that was in the pipeline—it was working through—but then, at the point when it might have been expected that a Government who had been in office for three years would begin to make a difference, it ground to a halt, and in each successive year since 2000 there has been no further upward movement in literacy and numeracy standards.

I am delighted that the Minister has, inadvertently, I suspect, paid tribute to the superb attainments of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk when she was the Secretary of State for Education, but I am afraid that that is not something from which he and his colleagues can take any comfort or credit.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in his powerful speech, but as a further point on numeracy for the hon. Member for Cambridge, would he like to comment on the fact that Oxford university, which has figured rather heavily in the discussions so far, has so despaired of the school mathematics system in this country that it now has a four-year mathematics course instead of the three-year course of a few years ago?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point; there is an issue here that needs to be dealt with in the schools system, not in the university system.

I had intended to spend a moment talking about the absurdities of the 50 per cent. target, but I do not intend to do that, beyond recording that there are now more and more academics, including Professor Michael Sterling of the Russell group, and more and more employers, including the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, who utterly reject the contention that the 50 per cent. target is either necessary or desirable.

That is again a fundamental difference between the two parties: the Government are obsessed with the 50 per cent. target, but we will scrap it. It is sometimes said that there is little to tell between the parties these days, but there are some big differences here. We believe in equality of opportunity; they believe in equality of outcome. We believe that universities should select on academic merit; they believe that just about anyone should be admitted. We believe in fitting the student to the rigours of academe; they believe that if they do not fit together, it is the course that should be dumbed down, not the students who should be better chosen. We believe that we should reward parents who work hard to teach their children to read, to familiarise them with books, to stretch their minds—and who, perhaps, even scrimp and save to get them better teaching. They believe that anyone who dares to encourage their children to rise above mediocrity should be ostracised and punished. We think that becoming a graduate ought to make life better for those graduates' children; they think that being a graduate means that their children should have less chance than them to follow in their footsteps. We believe in more science and more technology—more physics, biology and engineering. They just believe in more social engineering. We believe that universities should be free to decide their own admissions, their own access policies, and to run themselves. They believe that universities should be governed by an old-fashioned class warrior guided by legislators whose shoulders are groaning under the weight of all the chips, and kicked to the ground so that the state can keep its jackboot firmly on their windpipe.

Labour's old tribal loyalties and class hatreds have not gone away—they have just been hidden for a while. The mask is slipping. With an election coming, and core Labour voters to reassure, a blood sacrifice has to be made to the old socialist gods—and butchering middle-class aspirations will fit the bill nicely.

The stakes are high. The reputation, integrity and independence of our universities are in danger. Conservatives will fight for merit, excellence and real fairness. It is essential for our country that we should prevail.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills 3:59 pm, 25th October 2004

I beg to move,

To leave out from 'policies,' to end and add 'a point which was repeatedly made clear during the passage of the Higher Education Act 2004 and is now enshrined in that legislation;
notes that the Opposition opposed the passage of that Act;
welcomes the annual publication of the higher education performance indicators which enable institutions to reflect on their own position;
abhors the recent misinterpretation of those indicators as targets or quotas linked to funding;
agrees that admissions to higher education should always be based on merit;
further welcomes the recent report from Professor Schwartz on fair admissions to higher education;
agrees that it is for institutions themselves to decide how to implement the Schwartz principles;
supports the Government's policies to widen participation in higher education and open access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to benefit;
congratulates the Government and the higher education sector on the steps they are taking to achieve this goal;
notes that the most powerful driver of increased participation is to raise standards in schools;
commends the new student support arrangements which will make higher education free at the point of use and fair at the point of repayment;
further commends the establishment of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) which will result in more financial support for students and more outreach work to boost applications from under-represented groups;
and further notes that universities' admissions policies will be outside OFFA's remit.'.

I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate this issue and that I am able to respond to Mr. Collins, who I thought made a good fist of his argument until his final rant, which was full of silliness and an avalanche of cliché. I welcome the opportunity because so much has been said about Government interference in university admissions, much of which has been entirely wrong. Considering that we have recently had a number of debates on higher education, I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman still labours under so many misconceptions. Like others whose job it is to feign outrage, fill newspaper columns and feed the open maws of radio and television, the hon. Gentleman should know that it is a little inconvenient to let facts get in the way of a good story, but I prefer facts to misconceptions. I am therefore pleased to have the chance to set things straight today, and I know that he will welcome that.

The first misconception is that the Government want to tell universities how to manage their admissions process. Nothing could be further from the truth. Admissions should—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should listen for a moment. Admissions should and will remain the sole responsibility of institutions. It is for universities and colleges to decide whom they admit and how they do it. We made that clear when we published our consultation document on widening participation in April 2003, and we have said the same thing ever since.

The second misconception is that the Government set targets and quotas to dictate how many students from low-income families, state schools and deprived areas each university must accept. It has even been said that universities are penalised if they do not meet those quotas. Nothing could be further from the truth. That myth has wafted around ill-informed circles in the aftermath of the publication of the Higher Education Statistics Agency, or HESA

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

Perhaps that is a better pronunciation. As I was saying, that myth arose in the aftermath of the publication of the HESA performance indicators, despite the fact that HESA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have stated that the numbers do not represent quotas, or even targets. They are simply a barometer measuring where universities are in terms of access, and where they could be, all things being equal.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

I welcome the Minister's comments, but does he think it sensible of HEFCE and HESA to have changed from using A-levels as the comparator to using the Universities and Colleges and Admissions Service tariff points, which include GNVQs and AS-levels alongside A-levels, as a measure for university entrants? Does he not think that they should reconsider that decision?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I wish that those bodies had told me about those figures before publishing them. They came as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman and they certainly came as a surprise to me. Many universities have done a great deal of good work to meet the previous benchmarks and targets, and the change took everyone by surprise. I will be interested in seeing the reasons for it.

The performance indicator figures were developed six years ago by the universities and the funding council as a tool to inform institutions of their relative position compared with their peers. They are published once a year and it is up to universities to decide how to use them. The Government do not force any university to meet them, nor do the Government have any other form of access quota or target.

Far from seeking to impose admissions targets and quotas, we are in absolute agreement with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that students must be admitted to university solely on the basis of merit and potential. The challenge facing universities and colleges is how to measure that. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills asked Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel university, to lead an independent review of the options that English universities and colleges should consider when admitting students. Professor Schwartz's group included members from both higher education and schools. It consulted extensively and produced a set of principles and guidelines by the sector, for the sector. That is why its recommendations have been so widely welcomed and supported, including by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.

The Schwartz report is not a way for the Government or OFFA to interfere with university admissions by the back door. It is a set of guiding principles—developed by the sector itself—that will help institutions to admit students in a fair and transparent way.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I do not want to dispute what the Secretary of State is saying on that at the moment. Earlier, it was said that in effect there are no punishments. Why is it that Northbrook college in my constituency is being penalised financially for what is called under-performing because it would not admit people who it did not think could benefit from the courses on offer?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will give me some details on that. I do not know about that case but I will look at it for him.

The third misconception is that OFFA will have a remit over admissions or will somehow try to interfere with universities' admissions policies. I want to reassure the House that this is not true. I am delighted that Sir Martin Harris has accepted the role as the new director of OFFA. In Martin Harris, I am confident that the Secretary of State has appointed someone who respects institutional autonomy and understands very clearly the great importance of raising the educational aspirations of those young people from lower income families and of encouraging them, and those who teach them, to consider applying for entry to university. I was encouraged to hear the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale say just that, as I was pleased to hear it said by others who intervened on him. It is precisely what we have to do. We must raise the level of aspiration. I know that the poverty that we suffer from in my constituency is not economic poverty. There are poor families in the constituency, but there is a general poverty of aspirations, such as aiming for the best universities and the best education for those young people.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Bearing in mind the Minister's clarifications, will he remind the House of OFFA's budget?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

As I recall, the budget for OFFA will be about £500,000 a year. I will get some details on that for the end of the debate for the hon. Gentleman.

We have heard some quotes from Sir Martin Harris, and I will give the House two more. He said very clearly:

"Access to university must be on merit (including aptitude) alone."

He also said:

"Universities are autonomous. Parliament has frequently upheld this principle . . . and we surrender it at our peril."

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some strength from that.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I listened carefully to what the Minister just said. He said that entry would be on merit including aptitude. That suggests that merit will have to be calculated by other factors as well as aptitude and that those other factors might overrule aptitude. What consideration have the Government given to the famous Bakke case in America? It was a defining case where somebody was refused admission to an institute of higher education and then discovered that he had scored higher marks than someone who had been given a place. The courts in America, in a keynote ruling, decided that that was an invasion of the individual's rights and instructed that that must never happen again.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman about that. I do not know about that case. I will try to read about it. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, and many others, through interventions, have pointed out that the best indicators are those A-levels that we have; no question about it. However, there are circumstances sometimes—it must be left to the universities in question to decide what those circumstances are—where other things should be tested as well as a straight A-level result. That is important.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I shall make a little progress and then I will certainly give way.

We are not simply relying on Sir Martin's respect for institutional autonomy and his willingness to work with the sector on that basis. All along, we have made it clear that OFFA will not have any remit over university admissions. That is enshrined on the face of the Higher Education Act 2004, and the access agreements, which OFFA will oversee, will focus on how best to generate and attract applications from under-represented groups. OFFA will not consider institutions' admissions policies; it will not impose any admissions targets or quotas; and institutions will propose their own milestones, or indicators of success. We expect that the vast majority of institutions will honour the requirements in their access agreements.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

The Minister said that the Government would not impose targets or benchmarks, and now says that OFFA will not impose targets or benchmarks. Will he explain why he accepts the first nine or ten words of the Opposition motion, but rejects the reference to

"externally imposed targets, quotas or benchmarks"?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

The core of my argument is, with respect, that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands OFFA's job. Chris Grayling, who is sitting next to him on the Front Bench, suffered with me as we read OFFA's regulations; it was my first job on my first day in post, and it was terrible. The hon. Gentleman should read OFFA's regulations and then he will see for himself. [Interruption.] He may well have read them, but he has not understood them.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

The matter is important, and the Minister knows that academics and others will study his words carefully. Can I take it that he agrees that

"universities should be solely and wholly in charge of their own admissions policies", the part of the motion that the Government amendment does not delete, and that those admissions policies should proceed

"without regard to any externally imposed quotas, targets or benchmarks"?

Does he agree with those words, and is his only objection that he thinks that we have misunderstood his policy? May I have a yes or no answer to that question?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

Yes; I agree and am trying to make that point clear in my speech. It is not OFFA's job to try to impose conditions on universities. It is up to universities to decide whom they take, how they take them and how they judge them. I hope that together the hon. Gentleman and I have made that clear to the House.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I understand that OFFA's purpose is to improve and monitor universities' access plans and that if a university wants to raise tuition fees above £1,150 a year, its plan must be approved by the director of OFFA. If the director of OFFA does not approve such a plan, presumably the university cannot raise its fees, in which case he has direct power over universities' admission policies.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

That point does not concern admissions within a university; it concerns raising the tuition fee. The tuition fee may only be raised to a maximum of £3,000 if Sir Martin Harris judges that the agreement between OFFA and the university stretches that university on reaching potential students who do not currently apply to university. That might involve a university doing what it does at the moment or doing more than it does at the moment. Mr. Maples looks dubious.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I would like to believe the Minister, but if Sir Martin Harris does not approve a plan, presumably the university cannot raise its fees, in which case OFFA has enormous power over the financing of the universities if it does not approve of what they are doing. It is surely incorrect to say that OFFA has no say or influence over universities' admissions policies.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

The hon. Gentleman is encapsulating what is wrong with the Opposition's argument. This is not about the way in which a university conducts its admissions procedure, but about how it tries to encourage applications from parts of society that do not provide students at the moment. I will give an example of what I mean. Oxford has been much maligned in the course of this debate; wrongly, because it is working very hard in some communities to raise the aspirations of young people who may not have the confidence to go to Oxford and will wish to apply to other universities that are nearer to home or are where they think they would be more comfortable. Oxford is not getting the accolade that it deserves for doing that work. As OFFA would recognise, it is not trying to take X number of students from this social class or from that postal code; on the contrary, it is trying to reach those parts of society that universities are not reaching at the moment. That is a wholly good thing.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

While we are on the subject of access plans, will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the excellent work that is done by students' unions in trying to encourage access? Every year, Cambridge university's students' union sends hundreds of students into the community and into schools to talk to students and to encourage them to apply to Cambridge. Such efforts should be rewarded and applauded.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I am very much aware of the efforts that are made by students' unions, especially in Cambridge. They do a terrific job. I am encouraged by the joint approaches that universities are now taking. They need to tap the potential of those parts of society that are not being tapped because they need high-quality students who will not drop out but stay throughout. OFFA's great role will be to encourage the debate that should be taking place between universities and everyone who is interested in trying to widen applications and increase the number of people who go to university.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

Do not the Minister's comments about poverty of aspiration imply that problems lie not with universities, but with schools, and that he and his Department should examine why our comprehensives are not raising people's aspirations in relation not only to Oxbridge and the top universities, but to life as a whole?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

The hon. Gentleman is right; that is what we have to do. However, I would argue with Chris Patten—or is it Lord Patten?—[Hon. Members: "Not yet."] It is only a matter of time. On the "Today" programme the other morning, Chris Patten gave an interview in which he said that the main thrust of the argument concerns raising aspirations. I do not disagree with that. However, he is wrong, and is being a bit lazy, in that he has not considered what OFFA is designed to do. There is no way of short-circuiting the problem of trying to raise standards in schools, which is the absolute priority of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

The Minister is being very patient and reassuring, but will he clarify one point? If a university decides that it wants to use interviews as part of its method of finding out about the quality of the candidates that are offered, would that be a perfectly proper and legitimate approach for it to adopt?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

Most universities will use a mix of methods, and properly so. A-level results will certainly be the prime mover, but other factors may apply in certain circumstances. In today's edition of The Guardianwhich I rarely read these days, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows—a woman writes about the difficulties that she had in getting into Oxford. She got one interview, which was pretty awful, went back to pick up her coat, and met an historian who persuaded the university to take her.

Although such chances are welcome, they should happen more rarely because they should be built into the system to ensure that opportunity and access are fairer.

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

Will my hon. Friend confirm that it would be appropriate for OFFA to intervene in a case in which it had approved a university's access plan that included the provision of a £300 bursary, but that sum was not provided? Surely everyone thinks that there should be a system of recourse in such circumstances. Although that situation is highly unlikely, provision to address it should exist in legislation.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House that that is precisely what would happen. If a student entered what could be an expensive contract, yet suddenly found that the rules had changed, OFFA would have a responsibility to intervene. He is right that I would expect OFFA to take such action.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

May I pursue that point? Although I fully accept that hefty benchmarks are not targets to be imposed, is it not the case that there are enormous discrepancies between the benchmarks and real situation in several of our leading universities? Does my hon. Friend think that, if more of our leading universities accepted the best practice described by OFFA, the gap between performance and benchmarks would gradually close?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I would expect OFFA to fulfil a role that would do much to spread best practice, but different universities will do things in different ways. The university of Glamorgan, which is in my constituency, has a fine record of being what it calls a "community university". It has an excellent symbiotic relationship with local industry and communities, but it is a different creature in many ways from some of the Russell group universities, including Cardiff university, which is only 15 miles away from it. I do not think that universities will be drawn more closely together or that there should be a single model or paradigm to define what a university should be. Different universities will fulfil different functions, and universities themselves should decide which students to take and how to judge that.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

I am pleased that a few other universities have been mentioned, because I was starting to think that we were talking about only Oxford. Does the Minister agree that, although universities must determine their own admissions, they must also be more transparent by making what they are looking for and the way in which they will assess merit clear to applicants? Their admissions tutors need to be properly trained in, and rewarded for, carrying out that process, but sometimes they are not.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I agree with my hon. Friend that that sometimes does not happen, but the situation is getting better. Universities are taking admissions tutors and the process of admission far more seriously than before. I have been impressed by people whom I have met and I have witnessed terrific outreach and bursary award schemes. The distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman, seemed to agree that it was about time that other universities were mentioned. His own university in Huddersfield—although I suppose that his own university is the London School of Economics—is doing terrific work and has an especially good relationship with further education colleges. It is exploring the interesting possibility of offering foundation degrees.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

We appreciate the generosity with which the Minister has given way. Is not the nub of the issue his ability to satisfy and reassure both Conservative Members and Mr. Chaytor on the point about the number of students from specific backgrounds who go to particular universities? He would not be satisfied unless something happens in relation to those statistics. How can he reassure the Opposition that universities will be free to carry on their admissions policies—bearing in mind what he said about attempts to bring everybody in—if those statistics do not change? If those statistics do not change, what is the point of OFFA in the minds of some of his hon. Friends?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

That is a good question and a good point. OFFA must make a difference, or there is no point in its being there. I hope that the difference will be that Sir Martin Harris will be able to have such a discussion with universities, and with each individual university on a university-by-university basis—or a higher education institution-by-institution basis—to try to understand how they can further stretch themselves in reaching out to those communities. But I emphasise that that is not the same as saying that he will have any power whatever to force those universities to adopt new admissions policies, to impose quotas on them or to meet benchmarks. He does not have that power, and he will not have it.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Will the Minister then explain why, when the original draft letter to the director was presented to the Higher Education Bill Committee earlier this year, it specifically referred to the HEFCE benchmarks as something that should be taken into account?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

As I said earlier, the benchmarks are numbers that, all things being equal, one would expect the figure to be at. I would expect Sir Martin Harris to want to take a range of variables into account in his discussions with universities, and that will be one of them, but it will not be binding on any university. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House on that.

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

Can I push my hon. Friend further on that? As he probably knows, having done his homework since taking his new job, the Select Committee did not want, or did not see the necessity for, OFFA. Everything that he has said in his speech seems to suggest that it does not really have a role. What would happen if a university, or a college in a university, were making decisions about admissions that were absolutely reprehensible, and everyone could see that it was swayed in a particular way? Is he saying that OFFA and the Government would do nothing, even in the case of a glaring injustice?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I can only repeat to my hon. Friend what I have already said: OFFA has no responsibility to intervene in the admissions policy of any university. However, I would expect OFFA to have an adult conversation with the vice-chancellor or the board of that higher education institution to try to persuade them that they should be considering things differently. By the way, I do not know of any higher education institution or university that is behaving in that way—looking for that kind of trouble would be perverse in the extreme and I do not expect them to do so. I was lucky to have dinner with the Russell group on Thursday evening, and I did not detect that any university was looking for that kind of confrontation, or that they saw any sense in it, as they would essentially be cutting themselves off from a huge potential reservoir of bright students.

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

To take the argument a step further, is OFFA therefore a substitute—rather an expensive one—for a good chat in the Athenaeum, or does it have a substantial role? My hon. Friend, who is an old friend of mine, has not convinced me and even other Labour Members that OFFA still has a role.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I have tried to describe the role. Perhaps my hon. Friend does not like it. I have not been in favour of storming the Athenaeum since about 1968, and I thought for a long time that only permanent secretaries went there to discuss how they appeared before the Public Accounts Committee. Clearly, however, vice-chancellors go there too.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

The whole House recognises how generous the Minister has been with interventions. I think that he accepts that Oxford's problems in not having enough state school attendees are partly due to the shortfall in the number of applications that it receives from state school students. If he accepts that even more research evidence is showing that higher prospective debt will put off people from state school and poorer backgrounds, does he agree that it is wrong for Chris Patten to argue, as he was reported as doing in The Times, that increasing top-up fees and the level of debt is a solution to getting more state school applicants? How does the Minister solve the funding problem that Oxford faces: increasing top-up fees, increasing debt, fewer state school applicants?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I do not accept that apocalyptic vision of the future of Oxford. Oxford gets a good deal of money from the taxpayer—there is no question about it—and it will get more, but I think that the basic problem is not a financial one for most families. The deal that our young people will be offered after 2006–07 as a consequence of the Higher Education Act 2004 is probably one of the best deals that they will ever be offered. I do not get irritated very often these days, having survived the Utilities Bill, when Mr. Gibb was pouring scorn on me hour after hour, day after day, week after week, but the fact that so many young people from poorer families do not go to university is not because they are scared of debt. That may be a factor in the case of some people but it is not the main factor. It is about aspirations and applications.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I will not give way again—well, I may give way to my hon. Friend Dr. Francis, who used to be my boss.

We have a huge job to do in trying to raise those aspirations on the ground. It is my job to try to explain the benefits of that funding package to all sorts of students. I have no doubt that Mr. Rendel will disagree with me about that, but we must take a far less condescending attitude towards so-called working-class families. They have produced brilliant academics. The professor in charge of the CERN project went to Mountain Ash grammar school. His brother was the National Union of Mineworkers lodge secretary at Deep Duffryn colliery. There is nothing to stop these young people going forward. The difference is that he was a Mountain Ash grammar school kid, the same as I was, and we had our aspirations raised. What we have to do is try to raise aspirations throughout society.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Labour, Aberavon

I was going to help the Minister with that irritation that he was talking about. Peter Evans was one of the students whom we taught 20 years ago. What I am hearing is both encouraging and a little worrying. The picture that is being presented on both sides of the House is specific to full-time and young students. What will OFFA do to assist adult and part-time students?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend what the Government will do. We will make grants more available to part-time students and they will be important. We will talk to universities about part-time students, because it will be a problem for universities and there is no ducking that problem. They can get more money out of full-time students than they can get out of part-time students. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. If we are going to encourage universities to reach out to communities, to provide bursaries and to try to widen access, one of the areas that they will have to look at seriously is part-time students. I expect that to be part of the offer that they make. I would not talk about forcing that upon a university because that is not what we intend to do, but it is an important issue.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, let me make absolutely clear what our policy is and what it has always been. Our policy is that universities should be solely and wholly in charge of their own admissions. There should be no externally imposed quotas or targets to admit students from particular backgrounds. OFFA will not have any remit whatever over university admissions. I hope that that has laid the myths to rest.

I want to move on to what the real issues are and what the Government are doing about them. We face an historical and stubborn problem in our society: the underachievement of many young people who come from less advantaged backgrounds. That social class gap starts to appear very early on in the lives of young people, to the detriment of our society and economy. By the time that people enter higher education, the gap in participation between higher and lower social classes remains stubbornly and unacceptably wide. Young people from professional backgrounds are five times more likely to enter HE than those from unskilled backgrounds.

We are determined to continue to address the problem, and we make no apologies for doing so. To ignore it would be grossly irresponsible; we would be denying many with the potential to benefit from higher education the opportunity to do so and denying our industries and services the opportunity to benefit from the skills and knowledge that such people could bring.

Social engineering is not, and never will be, the way to widen participation. To widen participation in HE, three essential conditions need to be met. The first is attainment. The ultimate driver to widening participation is increasing attainment in schools. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that, right from the early years, the education system enables every individual to realise their full potential, and we are doing that. As my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell said, this year's exam results were the best ever for those aged 14 and 16, and at A-level.

The second condition is raising aspirations. We have talked a good deal about that. It grieves me that there are so many bright young people with very good A-levels who are not applying to the best universities, in terms of the money that those universities receive for research and so on. Schools, colleges and universities are already doing vital work to raise both attainment and aspirations by offering, for example, summer schools, master classes, mentoring, visits to universities and talks by undergraduates or university staff. We strongly support those efforts and the commitment that is being shown to widening participation across the HE sector.We also recognise that the Government have a role to play, which is why we are supporting universities' efforts through the "Aimhigher" programme and other initiatives.

The third condition that needs to be met is applications; applications, not admissions, are the real issue in access. As I have said, the evidence shows that many young people with top A-level results are not applying to the universities that may be the best match for their talents.

I am proud of what the Government are doing to broaden participation in HE through the new student support arrangements, which will make higher education free at the point of use and fair at the point of repayment. It is worth pointing out that all students will benefit from greater support while they are studying and all graduates will repay less per week than they do now. Those earning up to £15,000 will not have to make any repayments and those earning £18,000 a year will pay just over £5 a week, so no matter what their social or financial background, students will have nothing to fear when considering whether to enter higher education. I challenge anyone to find a better deal.

I hope that I have made our position clear, so that we can stop debating the myth of Government interference in university admissions and talk instead about the real issues. There is no Government interference and no admissions conspiracy. We are not in the business of social engineering; we are in the business of seeking to extend opportunity and finding ways to open access to HE for those from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to benefit. We are proud of the steps that we are taking to achieve that goal and of the efforts being made across the HE sector to develop and seek out talent in all parts of society.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills 4:38 pm, 25th October 2004

The Minister has just challenged us to find a better deal; he may find that, at the next general election, when we offer the young people of our country the chance to get rid of top-up fees and current tuition fees, and offer to introduce grants for less well-off students, they think that that is a better deal.

The most prosperous countries are those that invest the most in higher education. Ensuring that our most capable citizens get a place at university is critical to the future of our economy, so there is no question but that university admissions policy is an important subject for us to debate. However, it is staggering that the official Opposition have chosen this subject as its top priority. Had this been the Liberal Democrats' Opposition day, there is no way that we would have let the occasion slip by without using it to allow the House to scrutinise last week's hugely significant change of policy on our troops in Iraq. Matters of life and death and war and peace are the most crucial that any Government have to decide, yet the official Opposition simply have nothing to say. So university admissions it is.

There are two important principles. The first is that access to higher education should be fair. It should not depend on people's ability to pay or on their background. It should depend only on their ability to make the most of that higher education. That is why we oppose any tax on learning. Labour taxes learning by imposing tuition fees and top-up fees. The Conservatives intend to tax learning by imposing commercial rates of interest on student loans. Under both parties, access is about a person's ability to earn, not to learn.

The second principle is academic freedom. The state has no business—I hope that we all agree on this—interfering in academic decision making. It is not competent to do so. The state has a legitimate and important role in ensuring a level playing field in university admissions, but it should not interfere in the management of admissions. That is the crucial distinction. Hon. Members will be aware that Conrad Russell's contribution to discussions on higher education will be sorely missed. As he so succinctly put it in another place:

"the market cannot select and the state cannot manage"—[Hansard, House of Lords, 14 June 2004; Vol. 662, c. 569.]

Starting from those two principles, Conservative policies fail on two counts. First, the motion speaks about "academic merit", but their policy would result in some top-class students from disadvantaged backgrounds being excluded from university by the fear of debt. Secondly, the Conservatives agree that the state is a bad manager of higher education, but they show no understanding that selection cannot be left to the market if we are to ensure fairness in admissions. The motion suggests that Government intervention is a threat full stop, but to allow universities complete freedom to use taxpayers' money without accountability is an abrogation of responsibility that is as short-sighted as it is unjust.

Recently published performance indicators from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal only a marginal increase in representation from traditionally under-represented groups. In particular, the top research institutions continue to lag behind. The Sutton Trust finds that pupils from independent schools are far more likely to attend a leading university than their counterparts in the state sector with the same grades. Its report states:

"While 45 per cent. of independent school students who obtain the equivalent of an A and two Bs go to a leading university, only 26 per cent. of state school students achieving the same grades do so."

That is not acceptable. It is the duty of public policy makers to do something about it. Taxpayers' money is involved and it is shocking to see the Conservatives so cavalier about its use.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

Is not the situation even worse than that? Increasing research shows that of those students who get the same grades on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff but who come from different academic backgrounds, such as a top independent school with a high teacher-student ratio compared with an inner-city comprehensive, those from the comprehensive do better. We need to move away from simple A-level predictions across the board as a way of judging who would best benefit from higher education.

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

That is the last time that I take an intervention from my hon. Friend because he deals with what I was about to come on to. However, I am grateful to him for making that good point.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

Since the hon. Gentleman will not answer Dr. Harris, perhaps he will answer me. What proportion of young people from independent schools, compared with state schools, get three As at A-level?

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

If the question is what I think it is, I am afraid that I do not know the answer. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell us.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

The figure is 46 per cent.

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

I am grateful for that piece of information, although I am not sure where it gets us.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Surely the real purpose of the question put by Mr. Jackson is not the proportion of those from independent schools with three A-levels but the relationship of those with three A-levels from state and independent schools in terms of the proportion admitted to our leading research universities. That is the issue.

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

I hope that was the point I was making, which is why I was a little confused about the hon. Gentleman's question.

The Conservative motion is critical of a higher education admissions policy in which class is seen as the principal issue. Our criticism of their policy is that they seem intent on making sure that class is very much the issue. They are content with a situation in which fewer than 10 per cent. of pupils—those who attend private school—are privileged above the rest, because admission to university is almost wholly dependent at present on A-level grades.

How do we know that A-level grades are not an adequate measure of the potential of our best students? There are two pointers, one of which has just been raised by my hon. Friend Dr. Harris. It has been shown that young people from state comprehensives, on average, achieve better results in their university finals than young people from independent schools who have the same A-level grades.

The second pointer, which my hon. Friend did not raise, is something I discussed with the chairman of the Headmasters Conference last year, live on the "Today" programme. I asked him whether he would expect two hypothetical young people of equal ability, one of whom went to an independent school while the other attended the local comprehensive, both to achieve the same A-level grades, or whether he would expect the one who had attended his independent school to achieve better grades. Of course, he dared not say that both would obtain the same grades, because independent schools sell themselves on the basis that young people, of whatever ability, will achieve better grades if they attend an independent school than if they attend a state comprehensive. If that were not the case, few, if any, parents would think it worth while paying the huge fees charged by independent schools. However, if pupils of equal ability achieved better grades at an independent school than at a comprehensive school, the principle that pupils with the greatest potential should be admitted to the best universities could be met only if attention were paid to factors other than A-level grades—in particular, the school they attended. Admitting pupils from comprehensive schools with lower A-level grades than those from independent schools is not only right but necessary if those with the best potential are to obtain the best places.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with research by the Sutton Trust suggesting that we need a system of standard assessment tests and more variable ways of assessing students at 18, or any age, before they go into higher education? The A-level is not a good predictor.

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

It is one predictor and should not be excluded from the means for choosing who has the greatest potential. A SAT system is one of the other ways in which we could make better choices. Interviews are another, and application forms offer another way for admissions tutors to seek out differences between applicants. There are many ways of making those choices and the Minister was right to suggest that a variety was best.

Even Keith Joseph, when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science, recognised that an unfair distribution of educational opportunity was the unacceptable face of the free market. That is why he rejected education vouchers. Today, the Conservatives propose a voucher-type system in higher education, which would inevitably curtail the expansion of the sector to embrace historically under-represented groups.

There is one point on which we agree with the Conservatives: OFFA should go. Our argument, however, is not that all intervention is wrong, rather that it would make much sense for the Higher Education Funding Council to do the job. We supported university access plans because we believe that universities need to be held to account for their use of taxpayers' money; the state should not manage admissions, but it should ensure a level playing field.

The Conservatives do not share our views. No surprise there. What is more disappointing is the performance of the Labour party—a party founded in the noble tradition of the struggle for social justice. The Liberal Democrats support widening participation. Ministers deserve congratulation for their commitment to that objective. Our concern is that their policies tend to have the opposite effect. The Minister said in his speech that there was no such research evidence, but the Government's own research for the student income and expenditure survey tells them that. Summarising her findings from the survey, Professor Claire Callender concludes:

"Top-up fees of £3,000 will put even more poor students off university."

There is no question but that fees, particularly top-up fees, are a deterrent and that is particularly true of those who come from poorer backgrounds. It may not be logical, but it is true.

Moreover, the proportion of English school leavers applying to university has fallen in each of the past two years, so there is evidence that people are being put off applying. The Minister said that applications were the important point. Young people are being put off applying to English universities. Six years of tuition fees and the expectation of top-up fees have done nothing for social inclusion.

We must judge the significance of OFFA in this context. The Education supplement of The Guardian reports that Labour MPs feel let down by the pussycat powers of OFFA. Given the late appointment of the director and the time scale involved, the same report points out that

"Offa will have less than a day to go through each institution's" access plan. But Ministers told us in a document issued during debates on the Bill that OFFA would impose no

"extra monitoring requirements beyond what HEFCE already requires", and that

"Normally . . . a simple assurance . . . once a year that" universities

"have satisfied their access agreement obligations, would suffice."

OFFA was never going to have real teeth. It was always going to be a bureaucratic irrelevance. Apart from anything else, it does not have the resources to do the job. The only significance of OFFA lies in what it was designed to conceal. It was designed to pretend to Labour Back Benchers that top-up fees would have no impact on widening participation.

Given this background, there is no shortage of scope for a serious Opposition party to contribute to the debate. What is on offer from the Conservatives? My hon. Friend Mr. Willis did a wonderful demolition job on Conservative higher education policy in his speech in the House on 14 September. He referred, for example, to the omission of any mention of part-time students from their policy. During the Committee stage of the Higher Education Bill, Chris Grayling said:

"Part-time studies . . . do more to widen participation in higher education than anything done in any other part of our higher education system"—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 2 March 2004; c. 427.]

He was right. Why, then, not a single mention of part-time students in Conservative policy? That puts into perspective their efforts today to claim to defend the disadvantaged student.

The Conservatives' plans are highly regressive. That is the conclusion of, among others, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Higher Education Policy Institute, the National Union of Students, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and the Association of University Teachers. Under Conservative policies the poorest 30 per cent. of students would face a 25 per cent. hike in loan repayments, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. If a newly qualified teacher or nurse were to try to repay their loan over five years, that would eat up 30 per cent. of their take-home salary, before rent, fuel and food. A graduate teacher who repaid their loan over 20 years would end up paying back the equivalent of almost two years of total salary.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I know the hon. Gentleman has taken a careful interest in the Conservative higher education policy. Will he confirm the inaccuracy of his most recent comments? He knows that our policy retains the income-contingent system of repayments that the Minister praised so lavishly and said would be no deterrent at all to anyone going into higher education.

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

I can confirm that the level at which graduates start paying and the amount that they pay once their income rises above that level is the same as under the Government's policy. That is my understanding, and it does not negate either of the two comments that I have just made. It is irrelevant to both. If graduates choose to repay over five years to avoid having to pay massive interest, that would eat up 30 per cent. I did not say that they had to; I said if they choose to. The hon. Gentleman was not listening to my comments. The Conservatives want the poorest to pay extra so that the richest do not have to pay any fees—a sort of socialism for the rich. So much for removing class from their higher education policy.

There is a measure of agreement in the House that perhaps the most important consideration when discussing fair access to higher education is the system of qualifications at secondary school. It is noteworthy that a Conservative motion on university admissions contains nothing about the importance of secondary education. It is widely recognised that individuals who are disadvantaged lower down the educational ladder are much more likely to be disadvantaged in university admissions.

A fair system of student funding and support and an approach to admissions that takes account of potential as opposed to exam results alone are important parts of the equation, but so are rigorous efforts to ensure that no child is left behind in our schools. The key is to increase the numbers from lower socio-economic groups who stay on at school after 16. Tomlinson's model neatly fits the "climbing frame for learning" that the Liberal Democrats propose in our paper "Quality, Diversity and Choice", which recognises different routes into and paths through higher education, catering for part-time as well as full-time study and valuing vocational as well as academic learning. That amounts to a far more joined-up approach to education policy.

The widening participation agenda in higher education cannot be viewed in isolation from the further education sector, schools or early-years provision. In the past two years, a formidable lobby has been constructed in support of our universities. Liberal Democrats want a similar dedication of purpose to deal with the needs of our colleges.

Conservative understanding of educational progression is that of the royal route from school to school sixth form to full-time higher education. However, nearly as many young people take A-levels at sixth form colleges and general further education colleges as at state secondary schools. Young people at the former institutions tend to come from lower socio-economic groups. That is why further education colleges are so important in the widening participation agenda. The need to build strong progression routes from vocational level 3 to higher education is also important.

Conservatives have little to contribute to that wider agenda. The headline proposal in their exams policy was announced by the leader of the Conservative party on 18 October. He stated:

"We will change the system to ensure that the highest grade of A-level should only be awarded to a fixed proportion of students sitting the subject that year."

The absurdity of such a position is clear. It means that the standard represented by the A grade will vary from year to year. Two students who receive the same mark a year apart could receive a different grade, depending on the overall performance of their year group. That has obvious implications for their chances of going to university and makes it impossible for employers to judge fairly between candidates of different ages on their academic qualifications.

Mr. Collins has said that the fixed proportion will be the top 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. That means a reduction of between a half and three quarters in the numbers awarded the highest grade this year.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

Does the hon. Gentleman reject the Tomlinson recommendation that a minority of those who currently get the A grade should get the top grade in future? Tomlinson proposes that the top grade should be A-plus and A-double-plus. If the hon. Gentleman criticises the idea of reducing the numbers who get the top grade at A-level, he explicitly rejects a Tomlinson finding.

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

I was referring to norm referencing. The Tories have got it wrong, because norm referencing means that one cannot accurately compare years.

The Liberal Democrats would redirect funds towards early-years education. The importance of early-years education has already been mentioned and we want the Government to move further towards the goal of universal child care provision, building on the progress that has already been made. Those policies are important because they contribute to the wider distribution of educational opportunity, with long-term benefit in access to higher education.

The Conservatives are hunting a pussycat that they have chosen to believe is a tiger, while their credibility on the main issues diminishes by the day. It is sensible to say that the state should not try to make academic judgments, but it is not sensible to say that public policy has no role in ensuring fairness and a level playing field in university admissions.

Class should not be a factor in determining educational opportunities, but claiming that economic and social circumstance has no impact on the life chances of many in our society is an irresponsible denial of reality. Subsequently to pursue policies that will deepen rather than heal social divisions is unforgivable.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. It may be appropriate for me to remind hon. Members at this point that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee 4:59 pm, 25th October 2004

It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Rendel, and I listened carefully to what he had to say today.

So far this has been an interesting but slightly depressing debate. At one stage I thought that no university other than Oxford would be mentioned, although to an extent that was put to rights later. I certainly had great reservations about listening to a Front-Bench spokesman talk of jackboots and blood sacrifice. A degree of subtlety is required in debate, and I think that that went beyond the bounds of civilised political dialogue. Perhaps I am a little older than Mr. Collins. Let me tell him that using such terms is not appropriate in this democratic parliamentary Chamber.

I have a particular reason for being depressed about the level of today's debate. We are, I suppose, approaching the run-up to an election. People who are normally sensible, and pretty good at understanding the boundaries of debate, are affected by that. Most of them feel that all of us, whichever side we are on, want to improve the education system of our country and do not want to damage it, and we have an unspoken agreement in the Select Committee and in the Chamber; but, especially here today, I detect a pre-election tendency to say extreme things in order to make political points. If those involved only thought for a moment, they would realise that that does a great deal of damage to confidence in the education system out there in the country.

Only last week, I had the privilege of taking the Select Committee to Finland and Norway. One of the most important comments on the British education system that I have heard when abroad came from the permanent secretary of Norway's education department. He said, "You have come to ask us questions about our education system. Now that I have nine British Members of Parliament here, I would like to ask you some questions. We spend much more money per head of population on education in schools, but we do not do nearly as well as you in international tests such as PISA"—the programme for international student assessment—"and TIMMS"—the teacher's instruction management and mapping system. He demonstrated that by showing graphs on his computer. He then said "Something extraordinary has happened in the last four years. You have shifted your educational achievement in schools upwards to a significant extent. Whatever you are doing in the United Kingdom, we want to copy it." It is worth noting that someone outside the normal dialogue of party politics, and outside the country—and, as a civil servant, with no axe to grind—thought that standards in UK schools were being driven up and wanted to know how that was being done. It was clearly not just about money.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale suggested that secondary comprehensive schools were letting everyone down. Evidence to the Select Committee leaves me in no doubt that—regardless of whether we agree with all the Government's reforms—standards in British schools are being driven up. The Select Committee has quite a good memory. In one of our reports, we expressed the view strongly that the 50 per cent. target was nonsense. Indeed, under cross-examination the permanent under-secretary admitted that the target had not resulted from international studies, research or anything else of that kind; the Government wanted a big, round, sexy number. Dr. Harris was there at the time.

All of us who know about British education know that standards are going up. That inevitably means a surge of both young and older people into higher education. We will surge past that 50 per cent. target, and I think it very damaging to impose any restriction. The 50 per cent. target will be achieved because more and more young and older people will be highly qualified. I celebrate that, and I will have cause to do so again and again.

The Committee also said, on many occasions and in at least two reports, that we believed that the only criterion for admission to university should be ability. Governments should not interfere: ability is what counts. However, we have also pointed out that some of the traditional methods of judging that ability are not as effective as we thought they were. Indeed, some of us have visited Stanford, Princeton and other Ivy league and leading universities in the US to see how they manage admissions. Interestingly, they base their judgments on more criteria. They did not base their judgments on one examination, but took into account SATS, school tests, school recommendations, and personal work that they set for the students. However, those universities did not hold interviews. They said that all their experience and the research suggested that interviews were not effective. I can remember asking Stanford staff why they did not conduct interviews. They said, "If we wanted more people like us, we would interview."

If interviews are not acceptable at 11, 16 and 18, I would point out to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we have some mission creep with regard to structured discussions, although my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards assures me that they are different from interviews. All the research shows that interviews are an unreliable way to choose people. Interviewers show a strong tendency to look for people with the same qualities as themselves, which means that students with middle class, professional backgrounds are more likely to succeed.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

What the hon. Gentleman says about interviews may be right, but does he agree that just as it is a matter for Stanford whether it uses interviews, so should it be a matter for our universities to make a free decision on whether to use them?

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

It is to some extent a free decision, but good practice and research results should surely lead our leading research universities to evaluate the techniques that they use. If there is valid research that suggests that interviews are an unreliable way of choosing talent, our universities should be careful about using that means of selection.

Sometimes our debates in this Chamber are divorced from all personal experience, but I wish to give the House the benefit of some of mine. I have four children, all of whom have gone to university. My eldest two daughters went up to university in the same year, although there is 20 months difference in their ages, because one had a year off. When they made their applications 10 years ago, I was astonished by the intricacy of the application process and how knowledgeable parents needed to be. I am very interested in education, I have been a university teacher and I graduated from the London School of Economics. I thought that I had a high level of knowledge, but I was astonished at how complex and—in the case of Oxford and Cambridge—almost secretive the system was.

For a start, kids who went to comprehensive schools were worried because Oxford and Cambridge did not have the same exams at the same time as other universities. The Committee has consistently recommended that they should take place at the same time. Oxford and Cambridge also judged people on predictive grades, not those actually achieved. Long before the Government's conversion to post-qualification decisions, the Committee recommended them. Parents not only had to know a lot about Oxford and Cambridge universities, but—as we went into the detail of applications to individual colleges—we realised that we needed to know which colleges were over-subscribed that year and which were not. We needed to know which subjects were popular and which individual colleges would be likely to be a good bet or a bad bet. The sophistication of knowledge required was amazing. No wonder so many young people from less traditional backgrounds did not apply. Their parents did not have the knowledge to do so. That knowledge was granted only to a few people—usually those who had relatives who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

I want to strike a note of reality. My role as Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills must be balanced by the real experience that I had and which my constituents have when they apply to the universities. There have been big changes in the past 10 years—I have seen considerable change at both Oxford and Cambridge—but it is still a pretty complex world for the average child whose relatives have never been university, let alone to Oxford and Cambridge. We should have some humility about that.

If a vast disproportion of people in the leading research university come from the private sector—public schools—that is a cause for concern. To consider that fact is not to fight a class war; it makes good common sense. We all know, however, what such a debate can deteriorate into. I was sad that Chris Patten—for whom I have a great deal of time in many other respects, such as his attitude to Europe—got into the debate about whether to go private and so on. He is not in the House of Lords—I did know that—but he has seven honorary degrees and is the chancellor of Newcastle and Oxford universities. He is quite knowledgeable, but his contribution added nothing to the debate because the two extremes do not help the discussion.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

On the issue of interviews, if I saw the research, I might agree that an untrained interviewer might not add much to the process, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is about far more than untrained interviewers at Oxford university? We require the opportunity to carry out the extended aptitude tests, which have been developed by the likes of John Stein and Jane Mellanby, to separate the top performing students, all of whom are predicted to get four A-levels, from those who are bright but have been very well coached. We need that differentiation, which is why the interview in our system is so important, given that we do not have the sophisticated techniques that the American universities have already developed.

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

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I should like more sophisticated techniques to be used. The research should be considered in different ways to find out what works elsewhere. For example, there is also a world of research into the interview techniques used in the private sector. I am not adverse to learning from the private sector and applying that information to university admissions, but the traditional way to interview is very dangerous if interviewers think that they know how to interview and to assess without training, a relevant background in the technique or real experience. Perhaps I could be persuaded to accept certain kinds of interviewing.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

If the hon. Gentleman is so impressed by the admissions processes of the Ivy league, can he explain why those universities have a far lower participation rate from lower socio-economic groups than our leading universities?

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

I am sorry, but that depends on which bit of the Ivy league is considered—[Interruption.] I freely admit that there is a problem, which is faced by all developed countries. Good educational opportunity has been vastly extended to a much higher percentage of the population during the past 20 years—I make no party political point about that—but whether in France, Germany, United States or Norway, which last week admitted a 20 per cent. rate of functional illiteracy, the real difficulty is that none of our methods seems to be able to lift the educational attainment of the bottom 20 to 25 per cent. of the population. In every education sector, perhaps outside countries in the far east, no one seems to be able to penetrate that under-achievement. Across the political parties and the developed world, we do not seem to be able to reach those lower socio-economic groups. We all share that problem.

I have only a few minutes left, but I want to finish by saying that the Minister knows about my concerns and those of my Committee about the Office for Fair Access. I look back with some nostalgia to our recommendations on OFFA when we considered the higher education White Paper. We did not think that such an organisation was necessary. We thought that benchmarking needed to be refined because there were some problems with it. All parties agree that we need to know about who is entering university and the social backgrounds they come from, so that if there are challenges we can address them. We agree that we need that knowledge and data, but what we do with that might be contentious between the parties. The view of the Select Committee on Education and Skills was that we should get that data and information, and that what we had instituted in 1999, with HEFCE having benchmarks, was a system that could be improved but that it was a pretty good system.

As the Higher Education Bill passed through Parliament, we had quite a good parliamentary process because OFFA has, in some senses, been modified almost to what the Select Committee wanted; it is a very gentle mechanism. I might have parodied it by asking whether it substitutes for a meal in the Athenaeum discussing shortcomings with a vice-chancellor, but I think the message will get across that it is not quite what some Labour Members expected when it was first mooted and when their votes were needed in the top-up fees debate. That is to be brutally honest; it seemed to be part of the package, but we have moved away from that.

Finally, I return to the matter of where we want to be. Members of all parties want people of the best ability to get into higher education. Those abilities are very different. No one should pretend that our higher education institutions are the same; they are diverse. My hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned Huddersfield. Huddersfield university is very different from Sheffield, York or Leeds; they are very different universities with different missions. They are different again from the London School of Economics and Cambridge university. Those two universities were not mentioned in the opening remarks, but they are moving up the international competitive league, unlike Oxford, which is languishing.

We have diverse institutions of very different quality, and they are always looking for the best students for the education they deliver. No Government, including this one, should try to get in the way of that process, and I celebrate that.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage 5:17 pm, 25th October 2004

The public have a legitimate interest in university admissions policies, and it must be recognised that that interest is bound to be most acute at a time when the state is restoring the payment of private fees by students. There is a natural concern in the public mind that that should not result in social exclusion.

The universities will benefit in every way from the greater freedoms that will come with private fee paying, but they must respect these legitimate concerns, which I want to emphasise are, and always have been, shared by every academic I have ever known.

Having said that about the legitimacy of the public interest in university admissions policy, I agree with my Front-Bench colleagues and my good friend Mr. Sheerman, who chairs the Select Committee, that the procedure that the Government have adopted is highly dubious. They have decided that university admissions policies— not admissions themselves—will be supervised by an external regulator. I want to make four points about that.

First, the head of the Government's deregulation unit produced an interesting report last week in which he pointed out the danger of regulatory creep. That is a standing danger, and I hope that the Government will keep a close eye on it.

Secondly, it is always a mistake to have two different and distinct regulators operating in a single field. That is the situation that we have now with the Office for Fair Access operating alongside the higher education funding councils. A problem is built into the architecture there.

Thirdly, external regulation necessarily involves quantitative performance indicators. I agree that that is not a bad thing in itself, but we all need to be aware of the slipperiness of the concepts that this involves and how they can be widely misunderstood by everybody—not only by the people inside the education business, but more importantly, by those outside.

In spite of all the Minister's good words, it is the easiest thing in the world for "benchmarks" and "projections" to come to be understood, within universities and outside them, as "targets" and "quotas". The Government must ensure that the vital difference between a benchmark and a target on the one hand and a quota on the other is always respected; above all, they have a duty to ensure that potential students are not put off by the thought, which might be put into their mind by some sections of the press, that there is a quota operating against them.

Fourthly, and most fundamentally, the Government should reflect on the tension in this sphere as in many others between self-regulation and external regulation. At the Labour party conference last month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made an eloquent speech—even containing poetry by an American academic—about the need to nourish and respect the ethos of public service and public responsibility in our public institutions. He needs to ask himself how that project fits with the culture of external regulation that the Treasury continues to propagate under his leadership, not least in the matter of university admissions.

There has been some little debate about the appropriate benchmarks for our top research universities. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Rendel, talked about young people with one A and two Bs at A-level. He seemed to be unaware of the position of those with three or more As. To him I say that the standard of admission for our world-class universities is not one A and two Bs; it is three, four or even five As. Distinguishing among people of that standard is the problem.

Mr. Chaytor understands well the point I am about to make. Of the young people who come to our universities with three or more As at A-level, 46 per cent. come from independent schools. It follows that the universities that recruit students with three or more As at A-level are bound to select disproportionately from the independent schools. Oxford and Cambridge, recruiting 45 per cent. and 42 per cent. respectively from the independent schools, are in fact recruiting below the 46 per cent. benchmark.

Anticipating what the hon. Gentleman might say, let me point out that I agree that our great universities have a job of work to do to communicate what they have to offer and its relevance to people in state schools. It is a terrible fact that 40 per cent. of state sector pupils who get As at A-level do not apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Those universities have to make a real effort—but so also do the schools. I heard a head teacher of a comprehensive school in my constituency, which is not far from Oxford, say that he does not recommend that his young people apply to Oxford or Cambridge, neither of which he attended.

The only way to change the pattern will be to increase the proportion of students at state schools who achieve good academic results at A-level. The Minister expressed his surprise at the recent HEFCE benchmark revision; I ask him to see to it that HEFCE has as a relevant consideration the benchmark of three or more As at A-level.

My final point is about globalisation and its implications for our universities. Our debate so far has been rather parochial and introverted. Universities have always been ecumenical institutions, and never more so than today. The House should reflect on the real point of the Laura Spence story. When she was refused a place at Oxford, she did not take up the place that she had been offered at Edinburgh—the university attended by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Instead, she went to Harvard.

In a significant development that has not yet been sufficiently noticed, the American Ivy League universities are opening their "means-blind" admission to students from the European Union. If we in Britain allow the impression to grow that well qualified students will be denied access to our own world-class universities because of the type of school that they attended, it will follow, as night follows day, that they will find their way to world-class universities in America, where they will be welcomed with no hang-ups and no prejudices. As most people will choose to stay in the country where they have done their university studies, most of that talent will be lost to us as a nation.

We need to understand why the Americans cherish their universities—they spend almost twice as much as a share of gross domestic product on them as we do on ours—and not least why Americans of all classes and backgrounds cherish their Ivy League universities. We need to understand also why American universities are ruthless—I use that word advisedly—in their pursuit of the best and the brightest students from throughout the world.

Some mistaken commentators think that the Americans back their universities because they are rich—a sort of indulgence that a rich society can afford. On the contrary, the United States is rich because the Americans have always backed their universities. They have recognised, as we in Britain and in Europe still have not properly recognised, that in today's global knowledge-based economy the best brains are a critical strategic resource. They are the prime source of intellectual innovation, and the worldwide recruitment of the best brains by American universities is at the root of that country's current technological supremacy and cultural and political dominance.

We need to rise above the parochialism of our traditional focus on class in this country, which is reflected in this debate. If Britain and Europe are to become the world-beating, knowledge-based societies that the Government have told us they want in the famous Lisbon agenda, a good beginning is to recognise how this will require a network of world-class universities, preferably more than two, recruiting world-class students, whatever their national origins, or their social origins within this country. We look to the Government to ensure that this new OffToff will never be allowed to forget this.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North 5:26 pm, 25th October 2004

I begin by picking up on the point that Mr. Jackson made quite powerfully towards the end of his speech about the significance of the United Kingdom maintaining its ability to identify and to keep its very brightest and best young people. He is telling us that this is a deadly serious debate, in contrast to the comment of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Rendel. There may be good reasons to use an Opposition day to debate the policy in Iraq and the redeployment of the Black Watch, but that should not undermine the importance of a debate about widening access to and increasing participation in universities.

Over the years I have made something of a special study by observing the ways in which the Conservative establishment in Britain—I use the word loosely and generously, I hope—has deployed an enormous range of devious practices and procedures to protect its own historic pleasures and privileges. Usually, when they get to the end of the line in deploying rational arguments to protect those pleasures and privileges, they decide that it is all a communist plot anyway. The House owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Collins, who resorted to that sort of rhetoric at the end of his speech. He exposed the bankruptcy of the Conservative party's criticism of OFFA and everything it stands for.

I was surprised that in the great flurry of self-indulgent rhetoric with which he completed his speech he did not use the term "social engineering". In every previous debate that I have been involved in on this issue with Opposition Members, they have always resorted, if not to communist plots, then to social engineering. It was up to my hon. Friend the Minister, to his credit, to say that the debate is not about social engineering. The difficulty that I have with the concept is that it implies that the system that we now have, which has developed over many decades and longer, is a value-free, non-socially engineered system.

What we have now in our university admissions system is in fact social engineering of the highest order. It is social engineering that was originally built and designed to create an elite and to limit the privileges and pleasures of university entrance to that elite. That must change for precisely the reasons that the hon. Member for Wantage has spelled out. Intellectual capitalism is the essential commodity of every successful economy in the 21st century, and any nation that tries to limit the development of intellectual capital or stunt the opportunities for all our young people to extend their potential or to develop it as far as possible will lose out. Such nations may well lose out to the United States, which may happen at the moment, and in years to come they might lose out to India or China, which is the No. 1 reason why we must take access issues seriously.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair to the Conservative establishment. Under the last Conservative Government, the proportion of our young people going to universities rose substantially. When we entered government, 6 per cent. of our young people went to university, and when we left the figure was pushing beyond 20 per cent., which does not square with his picture of a designing establishment.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

That is true, but the rise was entirely the consequence of the decision by the Labour Government of the 1960s and early 1970s to reduce selective admissions policies in secondary schools, thereby enabling far more young people to acquire the qualifications to give them admission to university. We should not forget that point.

When we make comparisons, we must remember that unemployment is one of the biggest triggers to increased participation in universities. When unemployment is high, more people—young people as well as mature students, but particularly mature students—apply to university. When unemployment is low, other options exist, which is why it is particularly encouraging to see numbers increase by 1 per cent. year on year, although we have had record employment levels for the past seven years.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House that the only time in living memory when participation by state school students at Oxford and Cambridge universities met the recent Higher Education Funding Council benchmarks was in the 1960s, before the abolition of grammar schools, which he just described?

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

No; that is not the case. The change was not the abolition of the grammar schools but the decision by some grammar schools to move into the independent sector. If one redefines what constitutes a state school, clearly the number of young people coming from state schools also changes. If we compare like with like—the number of young people coming from state schools now with the number who came from what were state schools in the 1960s and 70s—the year-on-year increases are significant, although they are not enough.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's point and ask him to comment on whether it is appropriate to support grammar schools without also mentioning secondary moderns. Will he recognise that the assisted places scheme removed role models for state school students and put them in the private sector? Now, many such students are returning to the state sector and applying to university, and they will become role models for their peers.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I agree entirely. It is not appropriate to discuss one half of the system without reference to the other. I am tempted to do so, but if I did, I would get carried away and would use up all the time allotted for this discussion of access and participation.

We all agree that the issue concerns how merit is defined and assessed. Without wishing to revisit the Laura Spence affair, I find it interesting that in justifying the decision not to offer her a place at Oxbridge, many people at the Conservative end of the spectrum say, "Having five As at A-level is not the sole criterion of merit, and leading universities must take many other factors into account." However, those same people now challenge any move away from a rigid dependence on A grades at A-level. Frankly, they cannot have it both ways: either we accept that A-levels, or some other examination grades or marks, are the be-all and end-all of the definition of merit and potential or we accept that they are one part of a wider picture. The debate does not concern whether merit should be the main criterion but how we measure merit and the different factors that must be introduced into the equation.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

In relation to the Laura Spence story, the hon. Gentleman should remember that all the applicants had brilliant A-levels. It was an extraordinary farrago, given that of the six people admitted to study medicine at Magdalen in that intake, four came from state schools and only two from independent schools.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I do not want to revisit that saga, because we could spend a long time discussing it. My point is that we must be consistent in our assumptions about the best way of assessing potential, which, as is increasingly evident, is not to rely purely on A-level grades.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that some of those who thought that the Chancellor's Laura Spence allegations were unfair nonsense agree with him, for exactly the same reasons. He should understand that all applicants to study medicine at Oxford and Cambridge, even the two thirds who cannot get in, are predicted to get straight As at A-level; that is why we need to find ways of identifying, through interviews and further testing, those with the most potential.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I am not quite as confident that the system of interviewing that he advocates is the best way of identifying the students with the highest potential. It is not simply a matter of further testing, but of different testing. A progressive consensus is emerging on the need for a broader base for assessment. Professor Schwartz makes that clear when he says in his report, which is the background to much of this debate, that the evidence, which he summarises, shows that

"equal examination grades do not necessarily represent equal potential".

The challenge for university admissions tutors is to ensure that they have the tools to provide the finer degree of differentiation that is now needed.

When we consider the differences between students' backgrounds and schools—I would not expect any Minister to express this view, but I hope that they have some sympathy with it—it must be self-evident to any objective observer that a young person who has been to a school where about £20,000 a year per pupil has been invested in the educational process must have an easier task in obtaining three Cs, three Bs, three As, or whatever is required, than someone who has been to a school where £10,000 a year has been invested, and that that student must in turn have an easier task than someone who has been to a school where only £4,000 has been invested. Whether we are considering education from the ages of 11 to 18 or five to 18, we cannot discount the impact of small class sizes, well-motivated and well-paid teachers, and a high level of resources in terms of books, equipment, computers and playing fields. All those factors contribute to a student's A-level grades, in addition to their natural ability and potential. If we are serious about identifying those with the best potential, it is entirely logical, reasonable and fair that the student's background and the school that they attended must be factors in that consideration.

Much is made of the state's having no responsibility for intervening in the admissions process. That is true. No Government or state agency could intervene directly in the admission of about 250,000 students to British universities every year—that is a task beyond their capacities. We therefore need to draw the distinction between intervening in the process of admitting each individual student and intervening in universities' admissions policies in a benevolent way that ensures that their policies reflect best practice. The Schwartz report provides one or two models of good practice, although they are not necessarily the only ones. We must not see this debate as one about how we get more or fewer of our preferred kinds of students into leading research universities, because it affects every university in Britain, including the smallest modern university serving a largely local catchment area.

Campaigning for Mainstream Universities has done sterling work on admissions, although some of its members have a long way to go to improve their records. It has also produced models of good practice. Who could possibly be against OFFA making it a requirement that a British university that wishes to charge the higher fee should adopt an admissions policy that reflects best practice and on which there is broad consensus? It is beyond belief that anyone would challenge that concept.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

The hon. Gentleman assumes that best practice will always be uncontroversial and something on which everyone will agree. He must understand that universities may well disagree among themselves about what constitutes best practice for admissions. Does he agree that that must be respected?

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I agree completely, which is why I said that there should not be a single model that constitutes best practice. However, universities must be obliged to defend their concepts of best practice.

There is a view that the strength of our universities lies in the purity of academic freedom. Professor Schwartz defines that as the freedom to choose

"what will be taught and to whom", but I am not sure that that is the best definition of the concept. In other aspects of public life in which huge quantities of taxpayers' money are invested, people have an interest in ensuring that the money is well invested and that all taxpayers and their children have a reasonable chance—preferably a reasonably equal chance—of benefiting from that investment.

For some reason, UK universities have managed to create the myth that they should not be held accountable in the same way as primary and secondary schools and further education colleges and that they should not regulated in the same way as the nuclear, water or gas industries. However, it is a basic principle of any broad social democracy that it must be in the public interest to have regulation so that the use of taxpayers' money is accounted for.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we were to pursue that direction carelessly, we would end up running UK universities as a form of nationalised industry? Surely we would not want that.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I do not think that that is the case. The water and gas companies are not forms of nationalised industries, and our primary and secondary schools are increasingly unlike nationalised industries. The key issues are the amount of public money that goes into the sector and the mechanisms for accountability.

To go back to a point that I made earlier, anyone who is under the illusion that there is not a problem should examine the figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency over the past few days. They show the enormous discrepancies between the benchmarks and the performance of some of our universities. I recall reading out a long list of such statistics in Committee on the Higher Education Bill because I believe in the principle of accountability and that such figures should be on the parliamentary record.

There is not only a question of elite universities versus the rest, because there are large differences between the performances of individual universities that are, to all intents and purposes, at the same position in the pecking order. There are large differences among members of the CMU and among Russell group universities. However, the average discrepancy of Russell group universities is 8 per cent., and that of CMU universities 1 per cent., so that situation must be addressed. We are having a serious debate about a matter that is integral to the success of both our universities and the British economy, because in this century each successful nation must recruit its best talent from whatever source it can.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon 5:44 pm, 25th October 2004

I would go along with some of what Mr. Chaytor said, but what he must face is that, while it may be legitimate for Parliament to take an interest in university admissions policies, if it tries to interfere in them, it is necessarily at the margin—saying to a university, "You should accept B rather than A, when you would have preferred A rather than B." That seems an inevitable consequence. If we start doing that in pursuit of a political objective, we will get less able people in our universities, and our universities, which are currently the best in Europe—although not in the world, because we are way behind the Americans—will be in danger of ceasing to be so.

We have a legitimate stake in this argument because a lot of public money is involved. I want to examine the purpose of university education. There are personal and public benefits to educating someone at university. The personal benefit to those of us who have been there is obvious—it broadens our minds, teaches us to think and opens areas of intellectual enjoyment that we would not otherwise have open to us. Undoubtedly, almost everybody who goes to university receives a personal benefit. There is also a public benefit in that, if I need an operation in the health service, I benefit from the consultant's education. It is in our interest as a society to ensure that able people become judges, permanent secretaries, professors of medicine, consultant surgeons, doctors, lawyers and even, dare I say it, politicians, and that there is a group that is really well educated.

From the public point of view, it is important that the people who get that education are those who are most likely to benefit from it and get the best degrees. The current system of A-levels is perhaps not the way to ensure that; perhaps rather than trying to adjust A-levels, we ought to try to improve them. However, the question is: how do we get those most able people into the system? I do not care whether they come from a Huddersfield comprehensive, Stratford girls grammar school or Winchester, as long as the country ultimately gets the best people that it can to do those jobs.

We must face the fact that there is a problem with the 50 per cent. target. I doubt whether 50 per cent. of 18-year-olds want or could benefit from sitting in lectures, writing essays, researching in libraries and doing experiments. Some people absolutely do want to do that, and are capable of taking advantage of it, and for them we should provide it. By definition, however, once we reach 50 per cent., we are reaching the halfway ability range—traditionally, it is thought that people who are at about 125 on that scale can benefit from universities, which may be wrong—and I suspect that that is territory in which vocational education is much more important. I do not know a lot about that, but I suspect that we are weak in vocational education. Were I advising an 18-year-old who was a marginal case as a university entrant, I think that I would say, "You'll have a much better life, and probably make more money, as a good electrician than as a bad lawyer."

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

I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech, but it is a stereotype that most of our students are 18-year-olds. In fact, most of them are not. People come into higher education at all ages and 18-year-olds are the minority now. Mature students are a larger percentage of those coming into higher education than 18-year-olds. In addition, much of the higher education in our expanded system is vocational of a sort.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I hope that he also takes mine: there is no point suggesting that 50 per cent. of the population should study academic subjects in the way that those at our leading universities do. That is absolutely right for some people, but I suspect that it is not right for as many as 50 per cent. The basis of those two educations is also different. Someone who will benefit from studying Latin and Greek, for example, at Oxford or the London School of Economics, may need a different kind of education between the ages of 14 and 18 from someone who will not do that.

I want to take that point a little further. I went to university in the 1960s, which dates me horribly. I went to a college at Cambridge where 75 per cent. of my year's intake came from state schools. I went to an independent school, and I and those others who went to independent schools were in a minority. No prizes for guessing where most of those 75 per cent. came from—state grammar schools. Many of them were working-class kids. Those state grammar schools gave a bright working-class kid a way into Cambridge or lots of other good universities, although there were not anything like as many then. We can argue about whether we should have abolished grammar schools, but we must provide a route so that the bright working-class kid finds it easier to get into Oxford or Cambridge than he finds it at the moment; apparently, it was a lot easier 43 years ago than it is now.

What did grammar schools do to give those children that opportunity? There are a few things that we need to try to replicate. Here are some concrete suggestions. Much of the problem is not about universities' admissions policies but about the quality of secondary education.

There was an academic ethos in those schools. That is difficult to create at inner-city comprehensive schools. It certainly can be created but it is difficult. I do not say that it is impossible; there are some schools that do it.

I have represented both kinds of constituencies. At the moment, I represent a prosperous middle-class constituency where comprehensive schools can do that. I represented an inner-city area for the first two Parliaments that I was here. At the main secondary school there, 10 per cent. of the kids got five A to Cs at GCSE. That was not only the level of attainment but the level of aspiration. To inculcate that academic ethos there would have been very difficult. Kids who did their homework and talked about going to university would have been considered freaks by many of the children. It is difficult to maintain that aspiration, that work ethic and that academic ethos in that environment.We must therefore find a way of reintroducing—the Government have tried to do it, and I noticed it in comprehensive schools during my own education—pretty rigorous academic streaming. It should be very flexible.

The problem with grammar schools was selection at 11. I have grammar schools in my constituency. At 16, there is another selection, when many kids go to the grammar school sixth form to do their A-levels. Actually, at sixth form, it is not a grammar school but more a comprehensive, so we need much more flexible transfers. We need to realise that, if we are to get that bright working-class kid into a good university, we must provide the academic foundation at an early age.

Two of the three grammar schools in my constituency are used effectively as sixth form colleges. They take the kids who want to do A-levels from the comprehensive schools, bringing them into a school with a strong academic ethos. They get very good results.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman responded to two brief points. First, what evidence does he have that the proportion of working-class students—not state school students—in the 1960s in Cambridge was higher than it is now? Secondly, does he have anything to say about secondary modern schools?

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I understand the argument about grammar schools and why many people felt strongly about abolishing them, but the hon. Gentleman has to acknowledge, as other people do, that when we abolished grammar schools we abolished a route for the bright working-class kid to get to Cambridge. Seventy-five per cent. of my year in my college at Cambridge came from the state sector and many of them were working class. I do not know the exact proportion, but in abolishing those schools we abolished one of the ladders by which bright kids climbed. Our present system is failing those children. It is reflected in the figures that people are talking about. The challenge is not to manipulate university admissions but to raise the quality of state education for bright kids, particularly in inner-city areas.

I spent a couple of hours last night talking to the former senior tutor at my old college and the head of a college at Oxford about that issue. They both described the enormous trouble that they went to in their outreach programmes, with fellows going around schools that never traditionally sent pupils to Oxford or Cambridge. The head of the college at Oxford said, "We interview everyone who applies to our college. Our benchmark is three As at A-level but we do not say we will not interview you unless you get them. We are trying hard to encourage that but we meet resistance. We do not just meet inertia—we meet prejudice."

Some schools are saying, "Don't apply to Oxford and Cambridge. It's not the university for you," or something like that. They are prejudiced against them. That must be overcome, too. There is a push and a pull. Schools that do not send people to our top universities must think of encouraging those kids and raising their aspirations, at which point they might go. I do not mean to talk as though Oxford and Cambridge are the only good universities. There are 20 fantastic universities and it applies to them, too.

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

The hon. Gentleman and I were almost contemporaries: I was at the LSE and he was at Cambridge. The range of universities one could choose from was tiny compared with now. Students now regularly have the choice to go to Warwick, a fast-moving university, or Nottingham, for example. There is such a range of excellent universities, even for the most academic subjects. Oxford and Cambridge have far greater competition for the brightest students. Is not that the truth?

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I agree. There is a range of universities. People would argue about where the line is, but the Russell group provides fantastic education. The hon. Gentleman is right. When he and I went to university, not only was the percentage smaller but there were hardly any women there. I suspect that it has got more difficult for a man to get in.

Much has been made of A-levels being a bad predictor of success at university. That is well enough established for us to take it on board. My two friends at the two universities to whom I spoke yesterday described how they try to make that up by various means. The interview is not just about whether they like the guy or not. It is much more sophisticated than that. Many universities are introducing a legal aptitude test that is designed to test people's aptitude and likely ability in studying law. It is difficult, if not impossible, to coach someone for it, which is one of the criticisms of A-levels; people can be coached for them.

There is also a lot of adjustment. All admissions tutors say, "We are desperate to get bright kids from comprehensive schools, if only to get the Minister off our back and we will make adjustments for it. If someone has two As and a B, we will think, 'Perhaps if they had gone to a grammar school or an independent school they would have got the three As. We will let them in.'" Often, adjustments are made. To encourage, cajole and pester universities about that is fine, but to try to interfere in the process is probably dangerous.

American universities use SATs. I do not know whether those could be applied here but the vice-chancellor of Warwick university, who used to run an American university, is something of a believer in those, and aptitude tests have a future, too.

One of the things that Tomlinson has come up with gives us an opportunity to improve the A-level as a predictor of whether people will do well at university. Many of us have a problem with the idea that there can be some arbitrary adjustment to one's A-level results, with people saying "This is what you must do to get to university and we are going arbitrarily to adjust it to the school you went to, your postcode or how rich or poor your parents are." We need a system that is transparent, understandable and objective, or as objective as possible, so that people will know that, if they got in, they did so on merit and there was not some arbitrary adjustment to their results.

What Tomlinson is proposing with the A-level could achieve that. As the senior tutor of the Cambridge college said to me, "Everyone who applies here has three As or is going to get them. This is no test for us of how able people are. We are getting three or four times as many applicants as we can take. Some of them have four or five As at A-level." We need a better predictor than that. The A-plus, the A-double-plus or whatever Tomlinson proposes may be a way of doing that. The extended essay may be another.

I suggest, too, that we drop the business of grades and publish the marks. Then we would see what marks the person got in the individual exams that were part of the A-level course. The Americans do that and we have something to learn from them on higher education.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what we do not need is a better predictor of A-level grades? We need to move to a post-qualification admission system where the student already has the A-level grades, whether they are published in the form of marks or not.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I think that, with the top universities, that will not make any difference, because all the people who apply either have or are going to get three As anyway. It may help with other universities. I was talking about amending the A-level so that it is a better predictor of what degree people are going to get. I thought that that was the criticism of the A-level: it is not a good predictor of how well one will do at university. I suggest that we need an exam that does that. Part of the problem is that we designed an A grade at A-level and more than 20 per cent. of people now get it. I do not think that that is an adequate differentiator of who should go to the top universities and who is meeting the standards.

One can study some subjects at university without having done the A-level. I studied law and there was no A-level in law. However, if someone wants to study chemistry or French, they will have to reach a basic standard before they get to university. Tripos courses at Cambridge in maths and natural sciences are being extended from three to four years because of people's relatively low ability in that subject when they arrive. I am told that, in classics, the first term is often spent in intensive language training to bring people up to the stage that they should have been at when they got there. We must be careful not to erode the entry level of knowledge, regardless of whether the A-level is a good predictor of how well one will do. It is also a benchmark of knowledge. I worry that, if we start to interfere in the admissions process, our world-class universities will not be very good.

I was not going to speak in this debate, because I said what I thought about OFFA in the debate on the Higher Education Bill, but the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education—I am sorry that he is not here—succeeded in confusing me. I thought that OFFA was pernicious; he said that it was not pernicious, but irrelevant. It may be that he has performed a clever trick: he may have persuaded Labour Back Benchers to vote for tuition fees on the ground that he would interfere in the admissions process, and then produced this toothless tiger to reassure people such as me. Unfortunately, he then appointed a real old, hoary left-winger to run OFFA. That was presumably to reassure the people who had become unassured by the lack of teeth in the tiger.

I was provoked to get involved in the debate by the remark by Sir Martin Harris, who said:

"class underlies almost all the inequalities and unfairnesses in our system".

Do people like that still exist? The Government must have found that guy in some intellectual Jurassic park. Apart from anything else, I thought that new Labour had abolished people who thought like that; I thought that that was not allowed any more. I find it unbelievable that a serious academic, the vice-chancellor of one of our universities, appointed to this job by the Government, can actually think like that. However, four days earlier he said that some state schools, particularly in the inner cities, were

"not able or willing to stretch their ablest pupils so that they can begin to climb the meritocratic ladder".

The quotes were four days apart; one was in The Times and one in The Daily Telegraph. I do not know which of those things he believes, but I worry that that is the attitude of the person who will run OFFA. If we want to get the best kids and more mature students from whatever background into our universities, we need to do two things.

First, we need to change the nature of the A-level, so that it becomes a more objective test of whether someone is suitable or qualified, so that the best people can take advantage of university education, and so that it is not simply an exam that people can be coached for at an expensive independent school. Secondly, the Government would do much better to concentrate their effort—and even, dare I say, the £500,000 that OFFA will cost—on trying to raise the quality of academic education for bright kids in inner-city comprehensives.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Labour, Aberavon 6:01 pm, 25th October 2004

I am encouraged by this debate. I have found it very hopeful, if only for one reason: the number of times that we have discussed part-time and adult students. However, we have not discussed them sufficiently, so I want to concentrate my remarks almost exclusively on them.

Just before I entered the Chamber, I chanced upon a book by one of the great academics and adult educators, an organic intellectual, Raymond Williams, who died in 1988. It was a collection of his essays, published posthumously and called "Resources of Hope". That is what we have been talking about today. A great deal has been said about poverty of aspiration, but not enough has been said about poverty of opportunity, and that is what the Prime Minister means by an opportunity society. There are echoes of the Prime Minister's recent speeches in the writings of Raymond Williams. We should be talking not so much about social inclusion and exclusion or about social engineering, but about social justice and an opportunity society—for all classes, both genders, the part-time and adult, and the local and not-so local. That is what I want to focus on.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education is not in his place, but I was greatly encouraged by his support for part-time and adult students, which I greatly welcome. I am sure that his words will encourage that great educational institution established by an earlier Labour Government, the Open university. It will also encourage the adult learners' body, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and the Universities Association for Continuing Education, as well as all departments of continuing education throughout the country, which have done, and continue to do, excellent work in widening access. I was also encouraged by the support that Mr. Rendel gave part-time students.

On a personal level, I am pleased that we are having this debate; I welcome it and congratulate the official Opposition on it. While we are giving bouquets to one another, I should say that one of the most encouraging periods in my academic life was the time of the Educational Reform Act 1988 and onwards, when the then Conservative Government developed the third route to higher education and made official the strategy of widening access. In that period—the 1980s and 1990s—initiatives of the Labour Governments of the 1960s, including the Open university, were again taken forward by another party and Government.

It is good to focus on what has already been said. The majority of students in higher education are now part-time students or adults. It is insufficient to focus on Oxbridge, as we tend to do; the 18 to 21 club, as some call it; and full-time students. Also, when we are discussing universities' admissions policies, we should not focus only on the work of OFFA—although it is admittedly important—as if the encouraging of widening access could not be done by other bodies throughout the country.

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

My hon. Friend makes a telling point about the diversity of the population. It is good for students to be not just with 18 to 21-year-olds, in a club. It does them good to meet more mature students, part-time students and a diversity of students from different social and economic backgrounds. That is the beauty of true higher education, is it not? We should all encourage that.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Labour, Aberavon

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Government's welcome policy of higher education being free at the point of entry and fair at the point of repayment. Of course, until recent times, that was not at all the case for adult students, and certainly not for part-time students. In nearly three decades of teaching part-time students in higher education, my experience has been one of identifying and trying to eliminate piecemeal the barriers that have existed for the under-represented groups of students.

The first group that comes to mind are those students that my hon. Friend the Minister and I tried to teach back in the 1980s. In those days, he did not call me his former boss; we were comrades in the class struggle. I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear that.

Among the remarkable people who failed to get to grammar school—who failed the 11-plus, as I did—were rather remarkable steelworkers and miners. Three come to mind. One is Tyrone O'Sullivan, who is now the managing director of the most famous co-operative in the world, Tower colliery. The second is the late Charlie White, the most sensitive and eloquent writer and orator that I have met, an Afro-Caribbean photographer who worked in St. John's colliery and died in 1985; he was a most remarkable man. The third was the most difficult and awkward student I ever had, now newly appointed professor of continuing education at Swansea university, and a miner in the early 1980s, Professor Colin Trotman. All those escaped through the net, so to speak. For every one of those whom we taught, there were thousands of others who could and should have gone to university.

In the mid and late 1980s, our department of continuing education focused more on other under-represented groups, such as women returners—the women who came to the fore during the miners' strike. That was in partnership with bodies such as the Dove Workshop, which was founded by women who had their first political and learning experience on the picket lines in 1984 and on Greenham common. They created bodies such as the Dove Workshop and, eventually, the Community university of the valleys, which now exists in many communities across the valleys. Those bodies identified the critical barriers that prevented people from advancing to higher education. They identified ways in which new opportunities could be created by providing advice, guidance, transport support, fee remission, crèche support, flexible learning and part-time learning. Those now are—or should be—mainstream activities in the most advanced-thinking universities.

Next month I will visit four such universities with excellent track records in widening access to higher education: Staffordshire, Swansea—my old university—the Open university and London South Bank. I shall be going for two reasons. I visited them last year just before we debated the Higher Education Bill. I discussed with their vice-chancellors, students and staff their concerns, hopes and aspirations. I am revisiting them to discover how they feel about the progress, or the lack of it, that we have made.

There is another more personal reason why I intend to visit those universities. I declare an interest as vice-president of Carers UK and as promoter of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I want to talk to them about that other under-represented group—perhaps the most under-represented group—in higher education: unpaid carers. There are 6 million unpaid carers, nearly 20,000 of whom are in my constituency. I probably have as many carers in my constituency as my hon. Friend Mr. Jones has full-time students in his constituency. That is an interesting contrast.

We are hoping to run local pilot schemes with three groups to encourage carers to take up learning opportunities. The first involves the 600 young carers—children under 16—in my constituency. We are interested in the extent to which their opportunity for higher education is limited as a consequence of their circumstances and will see how we can assist them. The second pilot scheme involves young parents who want to enter further and higher education and involves the special needs activity centre in Taibach. The final pilot scheme involves older adults who are caring for elderly parents.

We should be discussing such issues in debates on university admissions policy. I hope that the official Opposition and the Under-Secretary will have something to say about that. My hon. Friend spoke strongly and eloquently in my Adjournment debate last year on part-time students, and I thank him for that.

I warmly congratulate Mr. Jackson on reminding us that we should not be parochial in our higher education debates. There is a wider world that needs to be recognised as part of the phenomenon of globalisation. I remind him, however, that we should not only think global, but act local. Almost all mature and part-time students access universities locally. We must not forget that.

I was struck by my hon. Friend the Minister's reference to dinner in the Athenaeum. The next time he reflects on developing university policy, perhaps he would be assisted by coming with me to the Community university of the valleys and have lunch at midday, although people there would probably call it dinner, at the Sarn Helen café in Banwen. The celebrated comedian Colin Price, who was from that community, once jokingly referred to Banwen as the road to oblivion, but as Banwen has pioneered the Community university of the valleys, it will not be the road to oblivion that my hon. Friend witnesses, but the road to progress and higher education, and a land of opportunity in an opportunity society.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton 6:15 pm, 25th October 2004

It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Francis, with his years of experience. He is right to raise the issues relating to part-time students.

The Schwartz report is an important study that highlights major problems in our state education system. It is a concern that only 26 per cent. of entrants to a full-time degree course come from skilled manual or unskilled family backgrounds when that group represents 40 per cent. of the population. It is also odd that in a country in which 93 per cent. of children are educated in the state sector, only 57 per cent. of Cambridge university's intake is from that sector. At Oxford, it is just 55 per cent. and at Imperial college it is 63 per cent. At the London School of Economics, the university attended by Mr. Sheerman, it is 66 per cent. That pattern is repeated for all the top universities whereas for a large number of post-1992 universities the figures are 95 per cent. or higher. Indeed, at the university of Glamorgan, which the Minister cited, the figure is 97.9 per cent. whereas the benchmark figure for that university is 93.4 per cent. What is being done to encourage more students from the private sector to attend that university?

The reason for the disparity is not that the admissions tutors at Oxford or Cambridge are deliberately excluding state sector pupils out of a snobbish delight. As Steven Schwartz says at paragraph B1 of his report:

"It is important to note that across all universities and colleges, and all subjects, admissions processes . . . appear to be fair."

So the reasons for the disparity are far more serious, as my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson said. At paragraph A18, the report says:

"Its principal cause is the continuing pattern of lower prior attainment by young people from poorer backgrounds."

Why is that? Again, the report says:

"DfES analysis shows that pupils from lower-income households are over-represented in schools that add the least value to pupils' performance."

In essence, what Schwartz is saying, what the whole row is saying and what the figures clearly demonstrate is that our state schools are not as good at preparing children—in educating children—as the private schools. If the admission tutors at Oxbridge and the top universities are not biased, which they are not, and if the proportion of entrants to those universities is hugely disproportionate to the balance of state/private education, it is clear that the problem is with the state schools delivering the grades and not with the admissions process.

I fully understand the temptation to tweak the admissions process to help a bright student from a poorly performing comprehensive. I went to a poorly performing comprehensive in my sixth form and understand the problem. I wish that that had happened in my case. However, if we are trying to create policy to address a problem, surely we should look at the cause of the problem, and not simply address the symptoms.

To counter that argument about state schools, people often cite evidence such as that given in paragraph B7, which says:

"other things being equal, students from state schools and colleges tend to perform better at undergraduate level than students from independent schools and colleges."

Some people cite that as evidence that state schools prepare students for university better than the private sector even though they are not achieving the grades that the top universities require. However, that is not what the evidence demonstrates. The reason why, other things being equal, students from state schools tend to perform better is that they have to be brighter and more self-motivated to achieve a given grade in the state sector than to achieve that same grade if they were educated at an independent school. That is the reality behind the evidence. So the evidence again points to the fact that our state schools are not performing as well as the independent schools.

We then come to the left's argument that the reason the private sector does so well is that all its pupils come from middle-class, educated families who push their children. The left argues that anyone could perform well if that kind of atmosphere prevailed in all our schools. I do not accept that argument either. Of course, some children are more difficult to teach than others and of course a school's GSCE results will be driven, to an extent, by its intake; but the value-added results will not, because they take the intake into account. There is huge disparity in the value-added results of our schools.

The truth is that such things as school ethos, teaching methods, intellectual rigour and competition within the school make a difference. When I put the argument that we should apply practice in the best performing schools—whether state or independent—to all our state schools, it is greeted with horror by many on the left and by many teachers. They say, "Oh, those methods wouldn't be appropriate for children from this or that socio-economic group". I regard that view as utterly patronising nonsense.

I have read reports of the important speech made recently by the Chancellor about the public sector. Of course, there is a role for the state in the provision of public services. I am a passionate believer in state education and in a state-run national health service, but by the same token we have to ensure that the state provides high-quality services. It is wrong to think that the state sector carries some aura—some glow—and that in the name of equality it will persuade people to tolerate a second or third-class service. We live in a wealthy country where we all expect first-class service and quality products. I regret that too much state sector provision is second rate—producer focused rather than customer or user focused. Too often, it looks like something from a 1970s nationalised industry. It is up to politicians to ensure that our public services come up to scratch. Too often, we abandon their stewardship to the producer interest.

If we allow our public services to decline, people will turn against them and look elsewhere. Parents, whatever their background, want high-quality education for their children. It is up to all of us in this place to ensure that our education system provides that high quality. To do so, we need to look at more than funding—the £20,000 spent on private schools, to which Mr. Chaytor referred; we need to look at what is actually happening in our schools, to ensure that they use the methods that evidence shows produce the best results.

Is it really the best approach that 60 per cent. of lessons in our secondary schools take place in mixed-ability classes? One in five maths lessons is given in mixed-ability classes, as are half of all English lessons and three quarters of history and geography lessons. With the enormously wide range of abilities in our comprehensive schools, is that really the best way to deliver high levels of achievement? Is that what the best schools in Britain are doing? Is it supported by the evidence?

In fact, the evidence says the opposite. Academic evidence on the efficacy of mixed-ability teaching shows overwhelmingly that streaming or setting produces far better results. Two American academics, Kulik and Kulik, carried out a huge amount of research on the matter and found that setting by ability and then tailoring the curriculum to particular ability groups produced enormous improvements in attainment at a high level, good improvements at other levels and no fall in attainment at the bottom. At that lower level, one could target extra resources and adopt smaller class sizes to ensure that there were improvements there, too.

The Schwartz report states:

"Prior attainment is the main known determinant of undergraduate performance."

If we want to create a fairer admission system, we must look closely not only at our state secondary education system, but also at our state primary school system. As my hon. Friend Mr. Collins pointed out in his kind words earlier, phonics teaching produces far better reading standards. I could cite a large amount of academic evidence to show that it would ensure that 100 per cent. of primary school pupils could achieve level 4 by the age of 11, regardless of the degree of poverty in the school's area.

The Schwartz report is important, not because of what it tells us about the admissions process for university, which appears from the report to be fine, but because of what it tells us about our state schools. I hope that the Government will learn the correct lessons from the report and will deal with the problems that face our education system, not the symptoms.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition 6:24 pm, 25th October 2004

The debate has been interesting, and I am pleased to back the motion proposed by my hon. Friends.

I was puzzled by the response from the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. I am still unsure whether he can ride the two horses that he tried to ride at the beginning of the debate. Can he reassure Opposition Members and those in university life that OFFA will do nothing more than put a benevolent arm around the shoulders of those who are already doing as much as they possibly can to ensure that everyone from the widest possible social background has the chance to go into higher education, and that it will do that without threat or influence and telling the universities what to do? Can he possibly reconcile that form of reassurance with some of the statistics cited by his colleagues, especially Mr. Chaytor, who pointed to the discrepancies between what he described as the benchmarks and what was happening not only in some of the major research universities but also in some others?

I have a simple question for the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis—God bless him—who will shortly respond to the debate.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

Indeed. The Bury mafia is at work.

My question to the Minister is: if, in five years, the proportions of those from independent schools going to Oxford, Cambridge, University college London, St. Andrews, Imperial and Bristol are about 44 per cent., 42 per cent., 38 per cent., 37 per cent. and 36 per cent. respectively, what will that say about the work of OFFA? If those figures remain the same, will the Minister intervene at that stage and say that there must be some change, or will he be content to leave universities be, because they will be seen to have been doing all they can? Much hangs on his answer to that question.

If there had been enough time in what has been an interesting debate, I would have developed this point: I am not convinced that Martin Harris's remark about class being the root of all the problems in our universities is correct. If we asked universities what is most on their mind at present, they would tell us that it was, first, competition. We sometimes forget that universities are in competition for students, as well as in competition with universities all over the world. They want the best students and are working actively to ensure that they get them. If they do not obtain the best students, they will suffer.

Universities also want the best teachers. I was intrigued to read that Martin Harris's former university, Manchester, in its strategic view foreword, states that by 2015 it must be attracting

"at least five Nobel laureates . . . with three appointments secured by 2007" and that it must treble

"the number of staff who are fellows of the Royal Society".

I wonder whether the university will worry about their socio-economic backgrounds, or whether it will simply recruit the very best.

If universities cannot compete on a worldwide basis, they will suffer. The university of Shanghai now produces tables showing the world standing of universities. Universities will look increasingly to such tables; that is what will motivate them, rather than necessarily ensuring that their intake has a particular quota and follows a particular pattern.

At present, Britain's universities do well in international comparisons. Two are in the top 10 and four are in the top 25; only one other European university is in the top 25. Our universities know what they are doing. Are OFFA's aims truly compatible with universities maintaining their current competitive position?

Of course, universities are worried about China; they are worried about losing out to competition world wide, and increasingly worried about the baseline for their raw material. What has been said on that point is true. During the past couple of years, I have spent some time at four universities: Kingston, Royal Holloway, Bristol and Imperial. Without exception, they report, first, that they have to do remedial work in science when students enter university and, secondly, that they are working exceptionally hard to bring people in. They are building relationships with neighbouring schools and going out around the country. They are especially concerned that the science base is not strong enough and worried about the type of teaching that is taking place. They also all say, without exception, that they do not believe their students are any less bright than previously. They believe their students are as bright, but there is a problem in the teaching and in bringing them up to university level that used not to exist and exists now. That concerns them.

Class is not the major issue facing our universities. If one of the major issues is ensuring the widest possible participation, class is not the problem. As colleagues in the House have said, this is an old debate. Trying to reopen it will get us nowhere. It raises all the old suspicions in this place. We want to improve participation but we must ask the right questions, and asking about class is not one of them.

I was not the first person in my family to go to university. I was, however, the last generation to go to a direct grant grammar school and I regret that. Severe damage has been done to that ladder of opportunity for youngsters from a poorer background, the very people about whom we are concerned now. Whatever we do, we will not improve their position, we will not improve the raw material of university entrants, and we will not ensure that our universities are among the best unless we ask the right questions. I am not convinced that OFFA answers the right question or is in the right context for the question in the first place.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education) 6:31 pm, 25th October 2004

We have had an interesting and important debate. We have discussed the matter extensively this year, so what is new? Why the debate today? Two things have happened very publicly in the past few weeks that have given us in the Opposition and many people in the higher education sector real cause for concern. The first was the appointment of the new director of OFFA, a man who describes himself as an unreconstructed old Labour class warrior. Is that the right approach for someone who holds such an important position? Secondly, there has been the publication of the HESA benchmarks, sending a ripple of concern throughout the higher education sector.

As the Minister knows, there are also details behind the scenes—the minutiae now coming out from the Government on the level of fines that can be levied on universities that do not do as they are told, on the detail of the guidance to OFFA and so on. We heard fine-sounding words from him today, as we have before. He may remember that mythical children's book creature, the pushmi-pullyu—the gazelle that has a head at either end of its body, pointing in different directions. As I heard him speak to the Opposition and to his own Back Benchers, he reminded me of someone trying to look in two directions at once. The problem is that one cannot do that.

The evidence makes clear what the Government are trying to do. The previous Secretary of State, now Minister for the Arts, admitted as much in 2001 when she said that widening access

"is not a sideshow that can be confined to the admissions or careers office".

Martin Harris said about class that

"everything else is a distraction."

What about the international competitive threat from US universities? What about the challenges to our science base in key subjects such as chemistry and physics? What about funding, which we have debated so much in recent months? It is an extraordinary statement from the outgoing vice-chancellor of one of Britain's leading universities, and it raises a key question. If it is the Government's intention not to interfere in university admissions, why would they appoint as access regulator someone who clearly has a mission to do just that?

In his opening remarks my hon. Friend Mr. Collins set out concerns that are shared across the Opposition and the higher education sector—concerns that the Government, for all their fine-sounding words, are set on a course that will eventually damage our higher education system. Our position is straightforward: it will never be the job of politicians to tell our universities whom they can and cannot admit. For all the Minister's comments, it is clear that that is what the Government are trying to do.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

My hon. Friend made an important point about the detailed guidance from OFFA, from which the Minister demurred. The Minister tried to give reassurance about that. Is my hon. Friend aware of the milestones that are set for universities and vetted by OFFA, and on which the universities will be judged, to assess whether they are doing enough to meet OFFA's terms? Does he share my interest in knowing whether those milestones will include—[Interruption.] I am referring to the detailed guidance given by OFFA in paragraph 9.5. The Minister should read it. Is my hon. Friend interested in knowing whether those milestones will include details of school type, socio-economic background, parental background and so on?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government have slightly changed their original guidance, rather conveniently. As I said to the Minister in an intervention, they have specifically linked the HESA benchmarks to the milestones that they expect universities to pursue. Although the Government have been careful to say that they will not penalise universities for not meeting those milestones, in the paragraph to which my hon. Friend refers, when it comes to renewing an agreement, which is a different issue entirely, the Government say, "You will want to take this into account when considering renewal, so if you don't do as you're told, you may not get your access agreement renewed."

That is what we are dealing with, and it is only part of the truth. Last month we debated the new regulations that will allow financial penalties to be levied on universities. As the Minister mentioned, it was his first debate in his current role. After some pushing, he was quite frank—more so than the Government have been up to now—about the implications of his plans. The new regulations go much further than we were told in Committee. Yes, universities will get fines of up to £500,000 if they do not do as they are told. There is more: they face a surcharge of 10 per cent. of their fee income if they fall out with the regulator.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (Universities), Department for Education and Skills

The hon. Gentleman knows, because he served on the Committee with me, that that can happen only in specific circumstances. If universities put up tuition fees to a particular level and do not stick to the deal, there must be some way of protecting the students who have entered the university on that contract. Is he saying that if a university reneges on a deal with students, it should be allowed to get away with it?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

What I am saying is that when the Government told us in Committee that the fine could be £500,000, they did not tell us that they would slip through provision to fine the universities millions of pounds more if they did not do as they were told.

Universities can be fined a further amount if they do not spend all their widening participation money. They can be forced to repay that money with a surcharge. In total, they can be fined millions of pounds if they do not do what the access regulator tells them. The access regulator, remember, is an unreconstructed old Labour class warrior. What conclusions should we and the university sector draw? Is it any wonder that last week I was told by a board member of one of Britain's leading universities that universities will have no choice but to discriminate against applicants from independent schools?

Then there are the benchmarks that HESA has just produced, criticising 17 universities for not admitting enough state school pupils. The figures show, for example, that Cambridge university should increase the number of state school pupils that it admits from 57 per cent. to 75 per cent. We do not believe we should have a national benchmark telling Cambridge university how many state school students it should admit. My hon. Friend Mr. Jackson and I have not always seen eye to eye in recent months, but his point about 46 per cent. being an appropriate benchmark was a telling one that the Government should listen to carefully.

I thought that even the Prime Minister agreed with our proposition. In response to a question from me last year, he said that

"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.]

He is right, so why is he presiding over a Government who have the express goal of doing the opposite?

The publication of the benchmarks prompted widespread criticism. Senior figures at Oxford reopened the issue of that university becoming a wholly private institution. The warden of Trinity college told the Government to

"get its tanks off our lawns".

The Minister said today that benchmarks are of little importance. He played them down and did not explain why they were mentioned in the original official guidance to the access regulator. Let me press him: will he or the Under-Secretary who winds up the debate give a clear commitment to scrap the benchmarks? Why are they called benchmarks? Referring to statistics is fine, but benchmarks or performance indicators require a purpose.

No Conservative Member wants bright young students to be deprived of educational opportunities. We want universities to continue their good work to attract students from different backgrounds. However, all the evidence shows that the Government are missing the point with their ill-thought-out policy, which will do damage to the country.

The problem is not the university admissions system. Mr. Chaytor seemed unaware of that when he spoke of the actions of what he dubbed "the Conservative establishment." Almost all young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds who have good GCSEs go on to higher education. The problem is not post-GCSE attainment but that those young people do not get good exam results initially.

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

The hon. Gentleman may recall that I was not in total agreement with the Government about variable tuition fees. However, in many communities such as my constituency, fear of debt is a genuine issue, whatever the attainment. How will the Conservative party's imposition of a commercial interest rate on student loans help to provide more fairness and equality of opportunity to get to university?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman knows that many of those entering university for the first time choose to do that in a local college or university. They suffer from the Government's ill-thought-out policy of imposing tuition fees. People who live at home and some mature students will be clobbered by the Government's fees. Under our scheme, that will not happen: they will leave university without debt. Under the Government's scheme, they will leave with heavy debt.

If the Government want more young people from lower socio-economic groups to go to university, they must tackle the poverty of aspiration that exists in too many parts of our society. That was well described by my hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). We need to ensure that fewer young people are trapped in what the Government described as "bog-standard comprehensives". We need to ensure that we have more discipline in schools, that we allow teachers to teach and not only work to maintain order in the classroom. We must look after our schools. That is the route to solving the problem.

Mr. Sheerman mentioned rising school standards. He should ask himself why, if standards are rising so high, so many universities need to hold remedial classes for students when they arrive, to pick up the pieces in maths, English and foreign languages, in which our schools have failed to do their job.

A worrying aspect of the debate is the way in which the Government are so hung up on Oxford and Cambridge. They appear to believe that only Oxford and Cambridge matter. Many of our universities are deeply disappointed in the Government's approach. Every university has its strengths, as, to give him credit, Dr. Francis pointed out. Throughout the country, there are universities with departments that are at the forefront of their subject. To suggest that going to a modern university is bad for students is to do a disservice to all the hard-working teams in modern universities.

Students in Northumbria university's excellent law school do not view their counterparts up the road in Newcastle with awestruck envy. They believe that their course is better. Students at the sports science department at the university of Hertfordshire mingle with some of the greatest sportsmen and women of our nation. Modern universities are quick to challenge some of the broader assumptions. The third highest performing university in terms of graduate starting salaries is not Oxford or Cambridge but South Bank university. It was proud to point that out to me when I visited it last week. Our modern universities do a first-rate job and we should not talk them down, as the Government seem to do.

The Government's approach has nothing to do with the interests of this country, helping our universities to excel on the world stage or delivering higher-quality academic achievement. It has everything to do with perpetuating class envy, which, we believed, was part of the Labour party's history. Sadly, it still appears to be present in the Labour party today.

I spent yesterday afternoon at Old Trafford watching Arsenal's unbeaten run come to an end. Next May, we shall ensure that the Government's unbeaten run comes to an end. When that happens, we shall return some sense to higher education policy. Under the next Conservative Government, students will be judged on merit, ability and potential. We will abolish the access regulator. There will be no more access agreements or fines if universities do not do what the Government tell them.

Our alternative approach to student funding will scrap fees and cut debt for all students. It will strengthen our universities financially, with no strings attached. We will tackle the real cause of problems in our education system—the standard of education in our primary and secondary schools—by giving teachers more control and parents more choice.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education) 6:45 pm, 25th October 2004

Like my hon. Friend the Minister, I welcome the debate because it shattered some myths that are often repeated and truly exposed the differences between us and the Conservative party on issues that are vital to the character and destiny of our nation.

The debate matters because it concerns the aspirations, ambitions and anxieties of many young people and their families as they chart their path to the future. As politicians, we should never underestimate how the apparent need for short-term point scoring deeply affects many teenagers who are working hard to gain a place in higher education.

Several important contributions were made and, in the short time available, I shall try to answer some of them. First, let me deal with the contribution of Chris Grayling. Let us be clear about Conservative funding policy for higher education. As defined by the shadow Chancellor, it is to match the Government's spending on schools. The implication is that there will be cuts in early-years and higher education and in adult skills. Although Conservative Members claim that they would no longer cap the numbers who go into higher education, the funding available to universities would be cut and we would return to the days of the previous Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of determination to break our unbeaten record. The structural problems that we are discussing today were caused by the unbroken 18 years of Conservative Government, which created the low achievement and low aspirations that are endemic in so many parts of our community.

Now that Sir Martin Harris declares himself to be an old Labour class warrior, he is unacceptable to the hon. Gentleman, but when he was vice-chancellor of one of the best universities in the country, the hon. Gentleman would have given him autonomy in decision making.

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

There has been a character assassination of Martin Harris. He is a distinguished academic and a fine university administrator with a great record. Some of his remarks have been taken out of context today, and that has done him and the House a disservice.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The Conservative party did not make the point that it has made today when Martin Harris was an incredibly successful vice-chancellor at Manchester.

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

Is it the Under-Secretary's understanding of Conservative policy that total academic freedom over admissions would mean that such a man, if he were an unreconstructed, left-wing Marxist, would be free to allow only those who came from the state sector to go to his university?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

That might be one consequence of the Conservative view.

I stress to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that the debate has been bogus in that it presents a false choice between raising standards in early years, schools and colleges of further education—the Government are more committed to raising standards at every stage of a child's development than any previous Government, through financial investment and a clear reform programme—and tackling the problem of endemic, cultural low aspiration in some communities, whereby no one in a school or family has had the opportunity to go to university. That is a false choice. Any responsible Government should address standards and the quality of education in institutions and raise the aspirations of those whom we wish to make best use of the education system.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

If the Under-Secretary accepts our analysis that the problem lies with the schools, why does his policy provide for financial penalties on universities but not schools?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

The hon. Gentleman is clearly not listening. I question the standard of education in the school that he attended. To claim that we have to tackle either standards in pre-university institutions or communities where there has been no experience and evidence of higher education is to present a false choice. Surely the responsible policy involves bringing together an undying determination to improve standards—as I have said, from the earliest years until the further-education stage—and an equal determination to tackle the low aspiration and low attainment that have held back too many of our communities for too long.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

I will not give way again.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell talked of the virtues of the Conservatives' financial package for the future of higher education, and of a new-found friendship with Mr. Jackson. What he did not say was that the hon. Member for Wantage had described the Conservatives' proposed package as regressive—and, as a distinguished former higher education Minister, he should know.

My distinguished colleague, my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman, the Chairman of the Select Committee, told us about the questions that were asked of him when he went to Norway to talk about relative performance in education. The Norwegians, he said, respected our progress—and we are making progress. We have a long way to go before we achieve the educational performance that the country needs and that we desperately want, but it is in the Conservatives' interests to do nothing but talk down our achievements and the improvements of recent times.

As my hon. Friend said, the process of applying to university is very complex for many young people and their parents. It is difficult and challenging. Asking universities to engage with young people of 14 or 15 and talk them through that process is an important part of presenting university as a serious option. He also pointed out that universities are diverse institutions. They are indeed, which is why we are not proposing a one-size-fits-all agreement between OFFA and the university sector. We are talking about individual negotiated agreements that are fit for the purposes of individual institutions.

The hon. Member for Wantage said that admission policies were being supervised by the external regulator. That is simply not true. Access agreements will deal with outreach work, bursaries and the provision of accurate financial information to help students make the right choices. He said that there was a danger that benchmarks would become targets and quotas because of the way in which this is being reported in certain sections of the media. He could have added, "and because of the way in which certain members of my party are presenting this debate and these issues."

I am always interested in the contributions of my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor. He spoke of establishment pleasures and privileges being sustained by the Conservatives. I might point out, in an historical context, that establishment pleasures and privileges have sometimes been combined with communist plots in at least one of our top universities—but we need go no further. My hon. Friend also said that pupil funding was almost the only determinant of relative performances of which we should take account. I do not agree. I would expect anyone who had ever represented Bury to accept that, although pupil funding has improved considerably more under this Government than under our predecessor, it is not the only determinant of higher-education achievement.

Mr. Maples referred at one point to the danger of an intellectual Jurassic Park developing on the Labour Benches. His is the party that has just returned Mr. Redwood to the shadow Cabinet. The Conservatives know all about intellectual Jurassic Parks.

We heard how much better the education system used to be when we had grammar schools and secondary moderns. Not only is that untrue; it is not as if the Government are seeking simply to perpetuate the status quo in the quality of education available to young people. The move towards foundation specialist schools, the creation of city academies, the emphasis on basics in primary schools, the key stage 3 strategy, our new approach to 14-to-19 policy, education maintenance allowances all constitute a recognition that the status quo is not acceptable. However, I accept his point about schools' responsibility to engage with higher education institutions, as well as vice versa.

My hon. Friend Dr. Francis spoke passionately, as he always does, about part-time and adult students and about the importance of tackling poverty of opportunity and creating social justice for all. He was right to focus on the barriers that still face many carers, especially young carers, who want higher education.

I have considerable respect for the independent and thought-provoking contributions of Mr. Gibb to political debates of all kinds, but especially to education debates. Let me say to him again that, while low prior attainment is the main issue, it is not the sole issue. The idea that state schools are not as good as private schools—and that aspirations and skills, and parents' support for their children, are nothing to do with that—is nonsense. It is equally unacceptable, however, to excuse poor state school performance on the basis of a difficult and challenging home background. That is why we are modernising public services in exactly the way described by the hon. Gentleman, personalising them and putting customers at the heart of what we offer.

I have a great deal of respect for Alistair Burt, another Member from Bury. He asked whether we would intervene in decisions on admissions if the figures remained the same. We will not, but I can tell him this: I am extremely confident that the figures will not remain the same. The results of tests on seven, 11 and 14-year-olds are improving, and inner-city schools' performance is improving faster than the performance of schools elsewhere. We have introduced education maintenance allowances and relationships have been developed between higher education institutions and local communities in which going to university has not been the cultural norm.

The tactics deployed by Mr. Rendel and his party—scaremongering about young people not being able to afford to go to university—will be what helps to deter young people, not the Government's financial package. Our package offers income-contingent payback and the reintroduction of maintenance loans. Whatever package of financial support has been available in the past—grants for all, among others—there has been no break at any stage in the link between social class and access to higher education. The answer to the question, "What will the new system mean in terms of that link?" remains to be seen, but I believe that our other reforms will make a significant difference.

The truth is that neither the Government nor the main Opposition parties favour state interference in determining admissions to higher education, which is properly the responsibility of universities and colleges themselves. That, however, is where the consensus begins and ends.

The Conservative party stands firmly and proudly in the finest traditions of its past. It believes that higher education should be confined to an unrepresentative socio-economic group, that low aspirations in disadvantaged communities are inevitable and that higher education is for the middle classes, while the working class should be sent on vaguely defined vocational courses.

When exam results improve and the current generation of teachers is described by Ofsted as the best ever, the Conservatives claim that standards are not what they used to be. Their leader proposes a system whereby a young person who works hard to achieve a high grade will be penalised simply because an arbitrary number—or perhaps even a quota—of students achieve that grade. That is the real quota issue that has developed recently in higher education policy.

The Conservatives' higher education funding package and their student support proposals are regressive for graduates, and will leave a gaping hole in universities' finances.

This Government will not interfere in universities' right to determine their own admissions, but we will not betray Britain's interests either. Any country achieving economic success in the 21st-century global economy will have to energise and use the talents of all its people. A civilised and fair society will be real only when individual destiny is no longer determined by postcode, family background or social class. That is the age-old difference that divides the political parties, and I strongly urge the House to reject the Opposition motion this evening because it is designed to promote myths and propagate division and is not an accurate reflection of the Government's policy to improve participation in higher education and ensure wider access.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 136, Noes 332.

Division number 275 University Admissions Policy

Aye: 136 MPs

No: 332 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Question on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House believes that universities should be solely and wholly in charge of their own admissions policies, a point which was repeatedly made clear during the passage of the Higher Education Act 2004 and is now enshrined in that legislation; notes that the Opposition opposed the passage of that Act; welcomes the annual publication of the higher education performance indicators which enable institutions to reflect on their own position; abhors the recent misinterpretation of those indicators as targets or quotas linked to funding; agrees that admissions to higher education should always be based on merit; further welcomes the recent report from Professor Schwartz on fair admissions to higher education; agrees that it is for institutions themselves to decide how to implement the Schwartz principles; supports the Government's policies to widen participation in higher education and open access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to benefit; congratulates the Government and the higher education sector on the steps they are taking to achieve this goal; notes that the most powerful driver of increased participation is to raise standards in schools; commends the new student support arrangements which will make higher education free at the point of use and fair at the point of repayment; further commends the establishment of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) which will result in more financial support for students and more outreach work to boost applications from under-represented groups; and further notes that universities' admissions policies will be outside OFFA's remit.