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How many university students in England presented sickness certificates for their examinations in 2005?
That information is not collected centrally by any organisation. Universities are responsible for their own assessment procedures, but they are guided by a code of practice issued by the Quality Assurance Agency and their practice is independently scrutinised by external examiners and QAA auditors. The QAA believes that universities are adopting more systematic approaches to the consideration of medical certificates and other extenuating circumstances submitted by students.
I am not sure how we can know that universities are doing that if we do not know what the statistics are. I am an external adviser for the Oxford theology degree—[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] Well, it just shows what a terrible state education in Britain is in. We have noticed over the past five years a dramatic increase in the number of students presenting sickness certificates and the worry is that faculties and universities are dealing with the issue differently. If we are to prevent a sicknote tendency from growing in our universities, the Government may need to do more to promote good practice.
I am aware of the role that my hon. Friend undertakes, because we have discussed the issue. The role of external examiners is crucial in upholding quality standards in British universities. The QAA is in regular contact with institutions through its institutional audit mechanism. It says that it has identified a trend towards a more systematic approach and equalisation between departments in the management of the process. QAA is not aware of any generic concerns about an increase in the number of medical certificates, and the key point is that acceptance of students' claims about illness are now far more likely to lead to a deferral or resit than an adjustment to students' marks. That should reassure us about academic standards in terms of student outcomes.
Does the Minister agree that students will not reach the point at which they can submit a sickness certificate if they do not reach their final year? Does he share the concern of academics reported in the media this morning that first-year undergraduates do not have the necessary standards of literacy and numeracy? Bearing in mind that they have undergone their secondary education exclusively under a Labour Government, what has gone wrong with their education?
The issue is what has gone right with education and schools under this Government. Over the past eight years, we have consistently increased investment and significantly improved results. We are, however, aware of the concerns, which is why we are reforming the 14 to 19 agenda. We very much want universities to be part of that process. The hon. Gentleman mentioned drop-out rates, but the past several years have seen a reduction in drop-outs, because the system has been improving.