What assessment he has made of the performance of the Aimhigher programme against its objectives.
Aimhigher is making an important contribution to widening participation in higher education. After just 18 months, evaluation shows that Excellence Challenge—Aimhigher's predecessor—was having a significant impact on young people's attainment and aspirations. The proportion of university entrants from lower social classes is increasing, and the number of entrants from Ipswich has gone up from 285 in 1997 to 460 in 2006—almost 63 per cent. higher.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he draw the same encouragement as I do from surveys showing that more than 50 per cent. of pupils from all social classes now aspire to go to university, and does he agree that our job is now to turn that aspiration into achievement?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are making progress. Applications to university are up by more than 6 per cent. for next year, acceptances were up by 6 per cent. this year and the lower socio-economic group classification is also increasing. However, there is a gap between aspiration and fulfilment, which is why we are investing substantially in student grants. Two thirds of students will be eligible from this September. We have also made, for the first time, a radical commitment to guarantee that any young person receiving the education maintenance allowance will have a minimum financial entitlement when they go to university. All of us know that the big hurdle to overcome in young people staying on and progressing in further and higher education is the decision that is taken at 16, not at 18, so that is one of the best changes that we can make to drive the process forward.
Is not the real gap between the Government's rhetoric and reality? This week, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said that degrees are being dumbed down: instead of a third of degrees being first or upper second class, as they were in 1996, two thirds are. Degrees are being dumbed down. People no longer expect to fail—they just go to university and pass. The Government's rhetoric is that we should bring lots of disadvantaged people into university education, but we have learned this week that that is not true—the numbers have hardly changed in the past 10 years. Let us address that gap. Can the Government tell us what they will do to address it?
It is not true. The hon. Gentleman inaccurately describes the views of the QAA, and it is regrettable when comments are taken out of context and misused. We are making greater progress, but we need to do more. It is about a combination of aspiration and support. The fundamental difference between our two parties is that we agree with expanding opportunity and the Conservatives still believe that higher education is the preserve of the elite.