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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a Bill to make provision to require all institutions of further and higher education in receipt of public funds to allocate places on merit, something that I understand my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for universities and higher education very much supports. I hope, therefore, that the Government will support the Bill today;
and if they do not I hope that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who I am pleased to see on the Front Bench, will spell out in detail exactly why not.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has given way at this early stage. There is no doubt about our shared commitment to the principle that people should advance on the basis of merit. It would clearly be precipitous for me to say more about the Bill, but I give him the absolute assurance that that principle guides all that we do in the Department, and that it is a view shared by all Ministers who have responsibilities in this area.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is obviously demonstrating that he has an open mind on this subject, which is more than I can say for the Government in relation to another Bill that I have on the Order Paper, the Minimum Wage (Amendment) Bill. Yesterday, before he had even had a chance to the listen to the arguments for that Bill, the Leader of the House said that the Government would be against it. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has an open mind on this issue.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is a lot of confusion at the moment, among universities in particular and other institutions of higher education, because the Government seem to be at sixes and sevens in developing their policy in this area. Originally, the Government said that they would publish guidance to the Office for Fair Access by the end of January to enable it to give guidance to universities by the middle of February on their admissions policies for the academic year starting in 2012. Despite full guidance having been issued in the middle of February, with the Minister for Universities and Science saying in a press statement at the time that OFFA would be able to advise universities by the end of February, as of now, in the first week of March, there is still no information from OFFA on the principles that universities should apply for next year’s admissions.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. The reason is that I thought that my Bill was exemplary in putting forward an argument in simple language that everyone should be able to understand, and that it did not need any guidance. I will come to the detail of the Bill shortly. I hope that, having read the Bill, he accepts that it is plain about what it seeks to achieve.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. My point was that if he had issued guidance, the House might not need him to make such a long speech explaining his Bill.
My right hon. Friend has just succeeded in getting his Bill through its Second Reading, Committee stage and Third Reading very fast. I hope that my Bill will make similarly rapid progress. That is why I look forward eagerly to hearing what the Government’s attitude to it will be. As a general rule, I am not sure that the length of the explanatory notes, or the fact that there are explanatory notes, is a good guide to whether a Bill will make progress. If I recall correctly, the Wreck Removal Convention Bill, which was brought forward by my hon. Friend Dr Coffey and which we will discuss in a fortnight, has quite extensive explanatory notes. I am not sure that that is necessarily an indication of how much time will be spent discussing it.
I return now to one of the principal reasons for my concern about the guidance. The full guidance that was issued by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Universities and Science to the director of fair access in February was based on the draft guidance that was issued on
“There have been no changes in the legal constraints on your powers as Director of Fair Access. You are not empowered to interfere in institutions’ decisions about the admissions of students and you may only set conditions that clearly relate to promoting participation and access.”
When the final guidance was issued last month, that paragraph was omitted. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Universities and Science, asking why it had been omitted. Unfortunately, the fact that I received a holding reply rather than an immediate substantive reply makes it obvious that he had to think about why it had been omitted. Eventually, he came back with an answer pursuant to the holding answer of
“Paragraph 6.1 was unnecessary as it provided no new information.”—[Hansard, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 981W.]
I am not convinced by that and remain very suspicious. Indeed, the full guidance is more extensive than the draft guidance. The full guidance is some seven and a half pages long, whereas the draft was only five and a half pages long. That clearly expressed paragraph is omitted from the final guidance.
I share the concern of many people in universities that the Government are trying to increase regulation and interference to tick boxes on social engineering and social mobility, and that that is ill conceived.
In the guidance—I am not sure on what date the guidance I have was published—have not the Government directed OFFA that it must be “fair, transparent and evidence-based” in all that it does? Does my hon. Friend have an issue with that? It seems quite clear from the guidance that I have read.
Well, we will have to see what happens. If one looks at the detailed guidance—I do not have the paragraph to which my hon. Friend is referring to hand—one can see that it is full of contradictions. The director of fair access said that, based on the guidance, he would issue advice to universities before the end of February to meet their tight time scales. The fact that he has not yet done so perhaps indicates that he is finding it a bit problematic.
This issue even appears in today’s newspapers. In The Times, there is a letter from John Foster, a former chairman of the council at the university of Leicester, expressing strong concern about the Government
“digging itself into an ever-deeper hole” over universities and student fees. In particular, he states that the Government
“now proposes to penalise some universities that wish to charge the maximum level by cutting their student numbers and diverting thus-frustrated applicants to lesser institutions.”
“Many will regard this as confirmation that the Government is viscerally opposed to students in general and to higher education in particular. Others will interpret it as a deliberate discouragement to excellence and a reward to mediocrity. I have no doubt that it will weaken the international standing and competitiveness of some of our finest universities.”
Such comments are coming thick and fast from people on the front line in higher education, and they reflect the concerns of, for example, the Russell group of leading universities. It issued a press release on
“admission to university is and should be based on merit, and any decisions about admissions must also respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.”
That is four-square with my Bill, because clause 1, which is headed “Duty to allocate places on merit”, states:
“It shall be the duty of all institutions within the further or higher education sectors in receipt of public funds to consider applicants domiciled in England for any course of study below post-graduate level on the basis of merit alone unless the circumstances in section 3 apply.”
Yes, I will explain that to my hon. Friend. It is because under our conventions, it is not possible to have an Act that applies exclusively to England. Acts have to extend either to England and Wales, to England, Wales and Scotland or to Northern Ireland as well. Although my Bill has to extend to England and Wales, it would actually apply only in England, because the issues that are the subject of it are reserved matters for the Welsh Assembly. I did not think it would be right for the House to interfere with the Welsh Assembly’s discretion on them.
But does that mean that a Welshman who applied to Oxford could be admitted not on merit, but an Englishman who applied would have to be admitted exclusively on merit?
My hon. Friend is very good at interpreting the words in the Bill, and that is obviously a factual situation. He will know from his constituents who apply to universities outside England that they are sometimes concerned whether they will be accepted purely on merit or whether, for example, a different set of criteria applies to students from Scotland compared with those from England applying to Scottish universities. I recognise that that is a potentially contentious matter, and I thought it would be better to limit the scope of the Bill in the way that I have.
As vice-chairman of the all-party group on universities, I hope to speak a little later.
Does my hon. Friend feel that a higher, philosophical question that should be uppermost in our consideration of the Bill is the importance of underpinning the freedom of our universities? It seems to me that they are crucibles of free inquiry, free speech and the freedoms that we as a society cherish. Although I recognise the intent behind his Bill, I worry about any Bill that places more burdens on our universities. Does he agree that the principle of freedom should be sacrosanct?
Absolutely, and my Bill is designed to promote the freedom of universities to decide the issues in question for themselves and to restrict the Government’s ability to interfere in the governance of our universities, many of which are international institutions of high repute. They are expanding and raising their standards in the global higher education context, and they are highly respected. They do not need an interfering Government, who are pledged to reduce regulation, increasing the regulatory burden on them. However, that, of course, is exactly what the Government’s current policy seems to be.
As I understand it, one of the biggest problems that the Government are trying to solve is that people of merit from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have not been getting to good further and higher education institutions. Does it not concern my hon. Friend that the Bill could restrict such people’s ability to get into our universities?
Looking at the Bill, I do not see how that can be the case. I define merit in clause 2 as
“academic ability, potential and aptitude as assessed by the institution of further or higher education”,
thereby emphasising not just academic ability as reflected in exam results but potential and aptitude, to be assessed exclusively by the institution in receipt of an application. That emphasises the importance of giving institutions the freedom to make the judgment themselves.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen if, once the Bill had been passed, an institution did not admit students on the basis of merit?
That institution would be in breach of a statutory duty, so all the remedies that flow from such a breach would be available to anybody who wished to challenge it. Putting a mirror to what the hon. Gentleman says, I believe that the same problem is writ large in the guidance to OFFA. It looks as though it will tell universities that are considering charging more than £6,000 a year in fees from 2012, “Unless you come forward with an access agreement that we support, you will not be able to charge those higher fees.” What will happen if a university applies to charge fees above £6,000—we have read in the newspapers in recent days about some that intend to do so—and OFFA tells them that they cannot? What will the sanction be? Ultimately, the less interference there is in the process, the better.
It is a pity that it is necessary to encapsulate in a Bill such as this something that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science has said is already as plain as a pikestaff in legislation—the idea that the Government cannot and should not interfere in universities’ access arrangements. My problem, and the problem of a lot of people involved, is that although the Government say that, the whole rationale of OFFA’s director seems to be to interfere rather than leave judgments to the universities themselves.
One must consider the concept of interference alongside the concept of fair access to universities for people from less privileged backgrounds, because there is a difference between the two. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that such people can go to the highest-performing universities, and if we can assist in that through legislation, it is right and proper to do so.
The essence of what my hon. Friend says is in the phrase “if we can assist in that”. I do not believe that the Government can assist in that. The premise of what he says is that the universities themselves do not want to facilitate wider access or ensure that the best people can gain access on merit. All the evidence that I have seen suggests that they want to achieve that aim, but they resent the fact that the Government are using OFFA to try to impose additional criteria on them. That is certainly the view of the Russell group and other universities.
My hon. Friend’s perspective and the Government’s are close. We have a perfectly proper desire to widen access in the way that has been described, but we differ on the admissions system. I shall speak at some length about that when I reply, but he needs to address it too.
I shall certainly address that, and I look forward to responding at the end of the debate to the Minister’s comments.
Perhaps one way to address the issue is to look at what the Russell group says. It states:
“We share the Government’s commitment that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination whatever their background has the opportunity to gain a place at a leading university”,
but emphasises that
“the most important reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the required grades at school.”
If the main reason why students do not apply is that they do not achieve the required grades, why do the Government, who are responsible for almost all primary and secondary education in the country, not concentrate on that problem, rather than interfering in an area of education in which they have not hitherto interfered? That is a typical approach of the Government: rather than focus on their failure to undertake their responsibilities, they try to introduce more regulation for things that run perfectly adequately. That is the difficulty.
I was here for the universities debate when the Government made it quite clear that through the pupil premium and other support, they will help to ensure that students from less privileged backgrounds get access to universities and improve their grades. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that those from less privileged backgrounds are given the opportunity and support they need to ensure that they get those results. I was the first in my family to go to university and I went on to become a lawyer and an MP. People like me need such help, but the Government have already committed in the universities package, which includes the pupil premium and other support, to support those from less privileged backgrounds.
It is one thing to make a commitment and another to deliver on it. I hope the Government can deliver on that one, but my response to my hon. Friend is that if they concentrate on delivering on it through the pupil premium and other measures, they will not need to interfere in the right of the universities at the other end of the system to choose people on merit.
My point remains: there is something desperately wrong with how many our schools operate. They do not allow the full potential of their pupils to be realised in the form of exam results, which is one barrier to access.
The Russell group states:
“The main problem is that students who come from low-income backgrounds and/or who have attended comprehensive schools are much less likely to achieve the highest grades than those who are from more advantaged backgrounds and who have been to independent or grammar schools”,
and points out that
“this gap in achievement according to socio-economic background is getting wider. Too many students don’t choose the subjects at A-level which will give them the best chance of winning a place on the competitive courses at leading universities.”
That is why everyone in the House, including the Minister and the shadow Minister, will be pleased with the Russell group’s informed choices initiative. It tries to ensure that students choose the right subjects at A-level for the courses they are thinking of taking at university.
My daughter is studying veterinary medicine at university. Had she not discussed her preferences with her teachers before choosing her GCSEs, she might not have made the right subject choices. She made those choices on the basis of information provided to her, but quite often people who aspire to take veterinary or medical courses at university do not take the hard subjects in their preceding exams to enable them to do so.
My hon. Friend once again hits on a key reason for the failure of many students to achieve their potential—the lack of advice and guidance. I hope he will take this opportunity to welcome the Government’s commitment to an all-age career service to deal with some of the disparities he describes.
Absolutely—I am not pouring cold water on that initiative. The Government have demonstrated over the past several months that they share many of our concerns about the failure of the education system to deliver.
The statistics show a desperately serious situation. In the last 15 years, the proportion of A-level students at comprehensive schools who achieve three A grades or more has increased from 4.2% to 8.2%, while the proportion at independent schools has increased from 15.1% to 32.3%. That is a commentary on the previous Administration’s lack of achievement. Anything that can be done to put that right would be a good thing.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but the statistics that he has presented are grossly misleading, because they take no account whatever of the restrictions on admission to many fee-paying schools, which do not apply to schools in the comprehensive sector. He should at least recognise that when he presents such figures.
They are not my figures—they are from the Department for Education, but they speak for themselves. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants more figures to confirm what a miserable failure the previous Government were in that respect, I should tell him that 29.9% of all students who got three A or A* grades at A-level in 2009-10 were at comprehensive schools, which was 8.2% of the total taking A-levels at comprehensives, but that those comprehensives accounted for 46.7% of all A-level students. That shows that the comprehensive schools just did not deliver on the potential of the students whom they taught.
I recognise, and indeed acknowledge, that prior attainment, as well as advice and guidance, is a key factor in subsequent achievement. My hon. Friend might remind the shadow Minister that, as C. S. Lewis said:
“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”
It is a long road for the Opposition and many finger posts.
Let us not think that the universities are doing nothing. They are trying to encourage people to apply and are engaging in outreach initiatives. The Russell group alone is investing £75 million a year in initiatives designed to help the least advantaged students to win places at university, which is quite a lot of money.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. Does not the fact that the universities, whose only interest is in academic excellence, find it necessary to make such investment, tell us everything we need to know about the lack of need to regulate them further?
I am sorry; I did not make myself clear. I meant regulating universities further through my hon. Friend’s Bill, which would further complicate the matter and require them to be guided by the words in the Bill. If it became law, it would place on them a duty to choose only on the basis of merit, as he has defined it. Can we not just trust them to work with the Government? Does not the fact that they already invest such sums in outreach give us all the reassurance we need that they believe that it is important and that therefore it must be?
My hon. Friend is trying to attack my Bill as a regulatory measure, when in fact it is a deregulatory measure. It aims to prevent the burden that the Government are trying to place on universities in a less than transparent way—using the Office for Fair Access—and which is increasing regulation on universities. That would be prevented by the Bill, because it would be at odds with the duty to allocate places on merit other than in accordance with the exemptions set out in clause 3. He stands four-square with me in saying that we want to reduce the burden on these universities. However, at the moment the burden is being increased by the Government under their measures to try to bring about social engineering in a rather partisan way.
Is the key fact not that, whether it was the fault of universities or the previous Government, there has been a failure to get people from disadvantaged backgrounds into our better universities? A piece of research by Martin Harris concluded that
“while there have been substantial increases in participation among the least advantaged 40 per cent of young people across higher education overall compared to the mid-1990s, the participation rate among the same group of young people at the top third of selective universities has remained almost flat over the same period.”
Is it not morally right that the Government are trying to address this issue?
There might be an issue there, but Sir Martin Harris has a vested interest; he is the director of the Office for Fair Access and obviously has to keep himself in a job. He is saying that there has been an increase in admissions to universities from people from poorer backgrounds, but that that has not yet percolated through to the top universities. He is therefore seeking a mandate to have more powers to interfere in those top universities. I am trying to put the point of view of the Russell group, which is a representative sample of those top universities. It points out that it has made enormous progress without that sort of interference. Indeed, it thinks that the Government’s ideas—and, by implication, Sir Martin Harris’s ideas—on this will be dangerous and counter-productive by being too prescriptive.
The Russell group has commented on the question of how we are going to measure success in improving access. It is the same with all these principles: if we cannot measure it, we cannot control it. It says:
“Any measurement of universities’ progress in improving access must be undertaken with great care. The investment of Russell Group institutions into outreach activities benefits the sector as a whole, with many students being inspired to study at other institutions as a result of our widely targeted work with potential candidates of many ages and backgrounds. We believe our universities have a role in helping all students to fulfil their potential, not simply widening access to our own institutions.”
That demonstrates how difficult it is to judge an individual university’s outreach programme solely on the basis of how many students it has brought into its own university as a result of that outreach programme, because that programme might have enabled students from poorer backgrounds to apply to, be accepted by and go to other universities. Obviously, the next question that arises is, how will we possibly measure that? It would be very complicated. That takes me back to the point that we do not need to have all this regulation. Why can we not trust these universities to carry on doing as they have been doing up until now.
My hon. Friend referred to the Russell group’s saying that £70 million will go towards ensuring that people from less privileged backgrounds can go to university, but if I remember correctly—from the universities debate—the Government were looking at providing £150 million for widening access. Surely it has to be a good thing that more money is made available to allow more people from less privileged backgrounds to have hope and aspiration.
Absolutely, but the £150 million is going towards scholarship funds. At the moment, the Russell group, which represents only about 20 universities, is already investing more than £75 million a year. Pro rata, it is already investing more than the Government are promising to invest in the future, yet the Government are saying that if a university wants to raise its fees to anything beyond £6,000, the Government will, through the Office for Fair Access, interfere in its ability to do so and exercise their own judgment on the level of the fees because they are concerned about improving access. I am saying that these universities should be trusted. Many of them are international centres of excellence and should be trusted to make their own judgments. There is no reason to criticise anything that the Russell group universities have achieved, or indeed what some other universities have achieved.
I suspect that at the heart of all this is a feeling on the part of some elements of the coalition Government—I will not spell out, following the Barnsley by-election, which elements I have in mind. [Interruption.] As Ian Lucas says, it is the part of the coalition not represented in the House today.
Order. I think we should get back to the subject, rather than discus the Barnsley results.
Certainly, Mr Deputy Speaker. It would ill-behove either you or me to bask in any glory as a result of that by-election result. It is a pity, however, that there is no Liberal Democrat representative in today’s debate to discuss these very important issues.
I turn to the measures being taken already to improve access. There is going to be a measurement system under the proposals for assessing the ability or willingness of OFFA to allow universities to charge higher fees. The system for measuring the success in improving access needs to include—it does not at the moment—access to other institutions as a result of the work carried out by a particular university. The Russell group welcomed
“the Government’s guidance that institutions should set their own targets and measures of progress”,
but was concerned that
“existing…widening participation benchmarks are unsuitable as targets against which institutions’ progress can be meaningfully measured.”
It quotes Lord Browne—the guru on this issue, who produced his report last year—who found that
“the benchmarks do not provide a sophisticated enough picture of the student population actually qualified to meet the entry requirements of many courses. For example, they take no account of the fact that someone with 4 A*s at A-level might have a high tariff score but would not have a strong chance of being accepted on a Medicine course if these A-levels are in the wrong subjects…Moreover, financial penalties for not meeting these targets would be unfair and unhelpful to our aim of investing in ways to help poorer students win a place at our universities.”
We are having a very interesting debate, but underlying it is the question of whether we should support the Bill. I have to say to my hon. Friend, however, that the more I look at his Bill, the less I think of it. I do not see how it can achieve anything, because clause 3 on exemptions blows a hole in clause 1, under which a decision has to be made on the basis of merit alone. Clause 3 states that a course can be advertised where there are
“criteria additional to or in substitution for the criterion of merit”.
To use an extreme example, if this Bill was the only arbiter that universities have to follow, they could advertise a course for aspiring gentlefolk where the only requirement is that someone can pay the high fees.
Exactly, but my right hon. Friend fails to appreciate the transparency of the measure. If an institution of higher or further education is going to give places on a particular course on criteria other than merit, it should make that clear when people are considering applying to that university. For example, if it offers a sports science course, and welcomes in particular people who are proficient at playing soccer, it should say so in the application so that people who cannot kick a ball at all will not apply, or understand that if they do so it is unlikely that they will be accepted. Clause 3 tries to make sure that where universities give places on criteria other than academic merit those criteria are spelt out openly and transparently. I am surprised that my right hon. Friend is concerned about that. Perhaps he will accept that his interpretation of the clause is incorrect.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he has been generous in accepting interventions. Does he believe that the current system of university admissions is transparent?
I believe that it is pretty transparent, although some academic work has been done that shows that, inevitably, subjectivity is involved in assessing people’s suitability for going to university. There is no way in which someone who has been refused a place at a university can find out the specific reasons for that decision, although it is normally possible for them to obtain informal feedback from the university through their school or college.
I am not suggesting that the current system is completely transparent, which is why it would be better for it to be plain as a pikestaff that admissions should be made on the basis of merit. There is a feeling, borne out in research for Oxford university, that some admissions tutors for that university are inclined to choose pupils who do not come from independent schools, because they believe that independent school pupils have an unfair advantage and they wish to discount that advantage. They do so on the basis of subjective judgments, which very much runs against the principle of transparency. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point. A problem with the speech by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science on
With all these issues, the problems that concern me are problems of definition. If we are going to try to categorise schools, whether they are independent or private on the one hand, or state schools on the other, how do we categorise those pupils who move from the independent sector into the state sector in the last two years of their course, or perhaps leave an independent school and go to a tertiary college to resit their exams and apply to university? There are quite a lot of independent schools with pupils who came originally from the state sector, often with bursaries. Will those pupils be penalised when they apply to university—or do the universities accept those pupils?—because their last place of education was an independent school, even though they started off in the most difficult circumstances? Many pupils at independent schools are in receipt of education maintenance allowance, which may surprise Ian Lucas, and it may cause some people to say that that is another reason why EMA is ill-targeted. However, there are many pupils at independent schools whose backgrounds would be regarded as poor or disadvantaged in the context of the higher education access arrangements that the Government are discussing.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend has not convinced me. It is quite clear that clause 3 is so wide as to blow a hole in clause 1. In response to my earlier intervention, he appears to accept that it would be quite possible, if the Bill were the only arbiter, for a university to decide that it wanted to take unintelligent people with money. It could advertise a course for aspiring gentlefolk when, to use a colloquialism, all that it is interested in is money from rich thickos.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has read today’s press reports about the London School of Economics and one of its erstwhile postgraduate students from Libya. I am not sure whether his remarks would apply to that particular happening. If a university chooses to have a closed scholarship arrangement, as some do, there is no reason why that should not continue under the Bill, provided that it is set out transparently. Ultimately—this is why the desire for ever more Government regulation is ill conceived—why can we not trust those universities to do what is best for them in the great marketplace? No self-respecting institution wants a reputation, to use my right hon. Friend’s example, for taking on a lot of thickos who will not perform at university, because that will push the university down the league tables, and will affect its ability to attract research grants and the brightest and the best. The Government cannot second-guess all those decisions—they have to be made by universities or other higher education institutions themselves.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. Everyone in the House will agree that the educating of thickos, rich or otherwise, is not the role of our universities. However, does he believe that an important role for universities is to develop leadership? In that education sector, are we not sometimes in danger of over-emphasising purely academic criteria? Would we want clause 3 to be used by universities to encourage a wider definition of leadership in society? That is something that our universities have always done, and it is not purely academic.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. My view is that we should allow universities to do that if they want to, and clause 3 would enable them to do so, and would give them that freedom. The debate centres on the overt desire by the coalition Government for more bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to the top universities. It is likely, however, that the consequences of the access arrangements that they are seeking to impose will be counter-productive and certainly discriminatory.
Someone said to me the other day that merit is almost the last taboo in terms of discrimination; that we have outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, gender and all the rest, but we still allow discrimination on the ground of merit, and the Government are really keen to do away with discrimination on the ground of merit. The Bill is designed to ensure that that does not happen, and that the Government’s arrangements for access to further and higher education will not be allowed to be at the expense of merit.
My hon. Friend talks about various forms of discrimination, but the recent education legislation tackled another form of discrimination. For a long time there was discrimination against part-time students, who were unable to get funding on the same scale as full-time students, and who often tended to be mature students. On that basis, it was absolutely right and proper for the Government to put that package through, so that mature students could have their aspirations fulfilled. The Office for Fair Access guidelines mention
“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken to attract mature students—including work with local communities”.
That must be absolutely right and proper, and this Government have already committed to it.
If my hon. Friend is saying that he does not agree with the Government’s regulation and the OFFA guidelines, some of which I have just read out, and if his Bill goes against giving OFFA a number of different guidelines and the option to make sure that more mature students can go to university, then of course it is at odds with his Bill.
If those students are going to go to university on the basis of something other than merit, or on some basis other than the exemptions that are set out in clause 3, but my understanding is that the Government want to open up opportunities for part-time students but not on the basis of anything other than merit. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me.
I have been speaking for longer than I intended, so I shall briefly outline how I think the problem can be dealt with more effectively. Hon. Members will be aware of the Social Mobility Foundation. Sir Terry Leahy, the outgoing chief executive of Tesco, has now joined the board as a trustee. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said:
“The Social Mobility Foundation provides an exemplary service to help academically-talented disadvantaged students achieve their potential. I and many other Cabinet Ministers have been delighted to host SMF students” and he encourages others so to do. It seems to me that that is the way forward. If we want to encourage the brightest and the best to be able to get access to our universities, we can give support to worthy organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation.
What is interesting is that even the Social Mobility Foundation has to set eligibility criteria for those who apply to it for assistance. To join the aspiring professionals programme, students have to be in year 12, in receipt of education maintenance allowance or free school meals, and, significantly, in possession of at least five A grades in five different subjects at GCSE and predicted to obtain at least an A grade and two B grades at A-level. Even the Social Mobility Foundation is accepting that academic performance has to play a part in deciding whether people are appropriate to be taken on for help from that foundation.
My hon. Friend must know that leaving this issue to institutions such as the Social Mobility Foundation will not have anywhere near the same effect as the Government taking a stand and saying that we will select young people on merit, and we must get more people of merit from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. He must know that Government involvement is the only way to deal with that.
I am afraid that I am completely at odds with my hon. Friend, because I think that getting the Government involved will be—even more so than it is already—a disastrous policy, and it would be much better to improve the quality of education in our mainstream schools.
I want to quote a final statistic. In 2009, only 232—4.1%—of students in maintained mainstream schools who are known to be eligible for free school meals achieved three or more A grades at A-level. It is a matter not of trying to get more of those students into higher education but of trying to increase that cohort of students, from 4.1% to maybe five times as many. That is the problem. I am not sure that anything that the Government are proposing to do in interfering in this area will help that problem; instead, it will exacerbate it.
There is a mass of literature on all these matters. I was looking—some hon. Members may say, surprisingly —at a couple of articles in The Guardian. One was headed, “Grammar schools do not improve social mobility for working-class. Study shows little difference in work prospects for poorer children who attend grammar schools and comprehensives.” Earlier this week, on
I had not intended, given the breadth of the material that I shall have to address, to deal with that matter particularly, but I will do so in the form of an intervention, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to allow me to do so. Grammar schools pertain in my Lincoln constituency. I went to a grammar school myself and I hope that my young sons, if they are bright enough, will go to one too. I think that explains my views on grammar schools pretty clearly.
Good. I am glad that I have given my hon. Friend the opportunity to put that firmly on the record.
I was looking at the access agreement 2010-11 for the university of Exeter. The university has been criticised in some quarters for announcing, this week, that it is going to charge £9,000 fees—subject, of course, to being able to get approval for that. Yet that university has achieved an enormous amount in recent years in increasing access to those who are from less-favoured backgrounds. I cannot understand why the Government wish to interfere in the right of that university to charge whatever level of fees it wishes up to the maximum, when it already has a very good record of increasing access to the university. There has been a significant increase in the number of students from state schools and from lower socio-economic groups.
The problem, I think, is that the Government realised that it would not look good if they allowed some universities to have no limit on the fees that they charged, so they introduced a ceiling of £9,000. They then allowed the loan system backing that scheme to be fixed in such a way that it is actually adding significantly to the potential burden on the Exchequer. The Minister for Universities and Science has said that if universities charge more than £7,500, that will add to the costs to the Exchequer, given the generous loan scheme and the fact that the Government expect a third of loan applicants never to pay anything back.
As the Treasury has looked at the figures, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has realised that it has to try to put the brakes on allowing universities to increase their fees to £9,000. It is using the threat of access restrictions and sanctions against those universities to try to get them into line. However, courageous universities, such as those in the Russell group and the university of Exeter, are saying that their first duty is to maintain academic standards in their universities and that if students pay higher fees, it is because they want more investment in the services that they receive. Those universities are not prepared to allow the Government to threaten them with sanctions if they exercise their freedom to take such decisions. My Bill would prevent the Government from interfering in universities any more and effectively forcing them to put quotas on the numbers from different backgrounds who should be admitted. The Minister has told the House that quotas are illegal, but ways short of express quotas are being used to threaten and cajole universities, and the Bill would prevent that from happening.
I am an enormous admirer of my hon. Friend Mr Chope, who usually speaks the greatest sense in the House. I often find myself in agreement with him but, on this occasion, I am sorry to say that I do not.
Let me start at the beginning on access as it has been for many years. Let us think of a young man: the son of a butcher in a country during a time of civil war who goes to his local school, wins a scholarship to Oxford, goes to Magdalen college, gets to the top of his profession, and sets up his own college—now arguably the greatest Oxford college. That man was Cardinal Wolsey and the civil war was the wars of the roses. He went to Magdalen college in the 1480s and then set up Cardinal college, which was later turned into Christ Church by an envious and jealous King.
From the 15th century onwards, although I am sure that we could go back even further, it has been possible for people of great ability to get to our country’s highest and grandest universities, and to have the basis of education that allows them to go on to achieve great things. Cardinal Wolsey could have become Archbishop of Canterbury or Pope, but other than that, he had every great job that was open to him. He was the King’s First Minister, the Lord High Chancellor, a cardinal and the Archbishop of York. We see throughout our history that there has been social mobility through education and that universities have been free in the way in which they admit people for most of that time.
As an aside, I mention the admissions process of my own college—Trinity college, Oxford. It kindly admitted me, although it knows better than I do whether that was on merit or for any other reason. In the 18th century, Trinity managed to admit our greatest Prime Minister and our worst. It admitted Pitt the Elder, who founded a great empire and won all those wars—mainly against the French, actually—in Canada and India, and it later admitted Lord North, so admissions policies do not necessarily work. We might wish that Lord North had not been admitted to Trinity and that we still had the American empire.
“the prestige of universities in the Middle Ages was enormous, and rested on an admiration for education.”
The book states that that admiration, in our present age of universal literacy, is difficult to recapture. It says that mediaeval men seem to have thought of universities in a way an impoverished craftsman regards a brilliant child for whose education he is making sacrifices.
The Minister makes an absolutely brilliant point. The prestige of universities ought to be great. In fact, it should be very difficult to get into the best universities because they provide such opportunities and a career path for the ablest in our society.
Let me move on to more modern times and come to the great lady—perhaps the greatest peacetime leader of this country in the past 100 years or more—Margaret Thatcher. She was not the daughter of a butcher—unlike Cardinal Wolsey, the son of a butcher—but the daughter of a shopkeeper who was born and who lived over a shop. She got a scholarship to Oxford and transformed this country. It was not only in the 15th and 18th centuries that university admissions policies allowed great people to get to university, to be enormously successful and to transform their nation’s success as a result. That is a thoroughly good and worthwhile thing, and it was all done without the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
I have agreed with everything that my hon. Friend has said thus far, but does he not agree that all that happened without the Bill because the Governments at those times did not try to stop universities from recruiting people on merit?
It is very depressing when we get to a state at which there is a bit of legislation that we do not like, about which we have doubts and that we think ought to be changed, and yet instead of arguing to get rid of that legislation we say that the clever thing to do is to have yet more legislation. We go on and on legislating so that the British people are weighed down with a mass of rules, regulations and complications that mean that they do not know where they stand. If the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is that we should scrap the controls in place, he should argue for that and his Bill should be a repeal Bill, which might then be supported by other hon. Members.
I think the Bill should have said that in the first place. I am even more suspicious of the new Labour approach of a Bill that says one thing initially and then does something completely different.
I stand corrected, but I am not quite sure that I can go along with that monstrous slur on our coalition partners.
We must have Bills that do what they say, not ones that set off in one direction, hare off in another in Committee, and then say something that was never intended or given a Second Reading by the House.
Let us consider the question of merit. My right hon. Friend for a Yorkshire constituency—I forget precisely which—talked about how clauses 1 and 3 operate.
I thank my hon. Friend. Yorkshire is a big county. It is almost as good a county as Somerset, but Somerset is particularly favoured by God.
If we are considering the basis of merit alone, how do we define merit? The Bill defines it as
“academic ability, potential and aptitude”,
but that is desperately woolly. Ability can be measured, but do we think that all exams correctly measure a student’s further success? I knew, as I completed my physics O-level, that I knew no more physics than that and that that was the limit of my ability in physics. I actually got an A grade in my physics O-level, of which I am rather proud, but if I had gone on to do physics at A-level, I would have sunk like a stone. I am sure that that is true of people doing other examinations. They might apply to university, but the university has to determine whether he or she has taken the subject to the limit of their ability and whether they would therefore find that they could go no further.
Is there not, though, some virtue in those constraints on understanding knowledge? T.S. Eliot said:
“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
At least my hon. Friend knows exactly how tall he is, with regard to physics.
I absolutely accept what the Minister says in his helpful intervention. I know how tall I am, or was, in terms of physics. Just as many people shrink as they get older, I feel that as I get older I begin to shrink in my ability to do physics, and cannot remember much of it. Universities need to take in people who can go further, and do better than the ability yet measured. To consider the Minister’s comparison and talk about how high people grow, we do not necessarily know how high a 16-year-old will be at 18. One has to make a judgment on it, and that judgment becomes subjective—it has to be, by its very nature.
Is it not always dangerous to put legislative constraints on subjective judgments? How does one then take them through the courts? How do they become justiciable? It is simply replacing one person’s judgment with another’s, and we cannot tell who was right until after the fact. I therefore have my doubts about the early definition of merit. Potential is even more subjective. We may think that the person whose height we are considering will grow to be a giant; we may be wrong. We cannot guess the qualities that we are talking about from an interview or a series of examinations.
We can, however, get a broad feeling or understanding, and a tutor can understand whether a person is someone whom they can teach. That is obviously important, because some dons at Oxford—I tend to stick to Oxford because I know it, but I am not speaking to the exclusion of all other universities—want to be able to get on with the people whom they are to teach. If a person comes for an interview and the tutor dislikes them at first sight, they may find that teaching them for three years would be neither to the pupil’s nor the tutor’s benefit, because it will be a constant battle of wills, with hostility and difficulty, without the tutor being able to express their knowledge to the pupil, or the pupil being able to learn from the tutor. The question of potential is even more deeply subjective than that of ability, and aptitude is, in a sense, the same.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech, and I speak as an Oxford graduate, so my experience is, in that respect, somewhat similar to his. He has touched on an interesting issue as far as the attitude of the tutor, and his resistance to someone different, is concerned. Does that not support a transparent admissions policy, in which the student, and the institution presenting the student to the university, are aware, before the student applies, of the criteria that will be used?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. That is absolutely right. Transparency is, in a sense, everything. As long as people know where they stand, they will be able to see what they ought to do. It is a tremendously beneficial reform for the Russell group to have said which subjects it views as being proper subjects, because now pupils from across the country can say, “If I do history, classics and double maths, I have a really good chance of getting in, if I do well; but if I do knitting and photography, I won’t have a very good chance of getting into the top-rate universities. My chances and opportunities will be limited.” It is absolutely right to let people know at an early stage the way that they ought to be going. Understanding the interview process when one applies to a university is also extremely helpful. If one is going from a public school to Oxford, one will be very well trained in what to expect in the interview, and that should be made as widely available as possible to people from other schools and backgrounds. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his point on transparency.
We have, I think, established that in terms of merit, the Bill has a lot of waffle in it. What it says is fundamentally subjective, cannot work in practice, and, if taken to the courts, would be impossible to adjudicate on. It is hard to see where the Bill is going, in that respect. The exemptions are glorious, because they are so splendidly old-fashioned. By and large, I rather like things being old-fashioned, and I do not normally use it as a term of disapprobation, but in this case it means that one could reintroduce the closed scholarships. At New college, Oxford, which has a close connection with Winchester, places could be reserved for Wykehamists. People may think that that is all fine and dandy, but as an Etonian, I would feel that I was being prejudiced against, and that it was wrong to give places to Wykehamists rather than Etonians—or, more seriously, to deny them to people from all over the country. Allowing the reintroduction of a system of closed scholarships cannot be what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is really trying to do. That cannot be an advance for universities, and it does not make this a sensible Bill to pass.
The Bill applies only to places that are funded by the taxpayer. Does my hon. Friend not accept that if a university wishes to give closed scholarships, at its discretion, to students who will not be funded by the taxpayer, it should have the freedom so to do?
We should always deal in the realms of reality, and not assume that people would be so barkingly eccentric as to run off down that route. Universities want to be places of great academic excellence, and they want to be able to have a system that admits people fairly and freely. We are sometimes too suspicious of people’s motives. I accept that the Bill applies to publicly funded universities, but most universities receive public funding of one kind or another, if only via their charitable status.
That helpfully moves me on to another point—the key point of money. Money is always relevant to our discussions, but it is one of the most dangerous things with which Governments have to deal. We give money to an independent institution—great universities—and say, “Now we’ve given you some money, we must decide how you spend it,” and then, “Now we’ve decided how you should spend it, we must take a little more control”—and it becomes more and more control, until independent bodies become agents of the state. The Bill continues that process. Instead of our saying that the money will now come from students, and universities will become more independent of the state, the Bill is an effort to claw back state control. We see in the charitable and university sectors that when Governments spend money, they always want their pound of flesh, and the pound of flesh is interfering in the day-to-day running of organisations, denying them their freedoms. In some cases, that does not really matter, but it is crucial that academic freedom, as a fundamental good, be maintained as an absolute priority.
Let me carry on dealing with the details of the Bill. I raised this matter in an intervention: I am very much against passing Bills that are slightly absurd—I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for being so harsh as to use that term. To have a Bill that applies to England and Wales only, and also only to people domiciled in England, does not seem to work. Surely, the universities in England should admit on the same basis anyone who comes along. To say that they will admit English people on merit but that they can admit the Scots, Irish and Welsh and people from the Commonwealth or European Union not according to merit does not make any sense. If we are to pass laws of this kind, there must be the same principle of application and entry for everyone who is eligible to enter subject to public funding. One might say that it is a good idea to take some overseas students because they can pay a vast fee that will subsidise some of the rest of the university’s operations, although after the Gaddafi affair one might not think that quite such a clever idea, but one really does not want to say that people from Scotland can be taken in on a completely different basis from the people of England.
I am also concerned about the term “domiciled in England”, because I am not quite sure, legally, where it comes from. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will explain it. I understand that with tax laws for which domicile is relevant, it is United Kingdom domicile that matters, although that may change with the Scotland Bill. I am not convinced that there is an agreed English domicile classification.
I want to elaborate a little more on academic freedoms. What is it that allows thought to develop? What allows us not just to produce people who can go into the workplace, fill jobs and earn a living, but allows that great development of thought that we have had in this country for hundreds of years? Whom should we go back to as our earliest notable philosopher? One could argue for Shakespeare or go back even further and argue for Chaucer, although one might think of them more as literary figures. One could start with Hobbs and Locke and the development of thought in which this country has been so powerfully involved. When talking about science, one could mention Boyle and Newton, both of whom had strong associations with our great universities. How did they achieve that? Yes, they sometimes got Government money: Chaucer was sponsored by the King and so was Shakespeare. Newton was the Master of the Mint and got an income from his service that allowed him to afford his academic studies. So, there is a connection between the state and academic excellence, but it is not a control: it is not the state saying, “You may do only these things or you must educate only these people.”
We must be very wary of putting constraints on our institutions. I hope that the Minister will consider this point in relation to the current state of legislation rather than just in regard to this Bill. Our institutions need to be free to take in the people whom they think best even though we might not agree that they are the best—indeed, they might seem to us not quite up to the mark. Our institutions might decide to take a bet on someone who has no academic qualifications, because they have been failed by their secondary school—such failure has been a problem—but who appears absolutely genius in quality. They might decide to take people who have that spark of intelligence and thoughtfulness that makes them interesting and exciting and means they can push on the great development of thought.
Many areas of university life are not covered by the academic subjects that are done up until A-level. There are developments that people need to take with a philosophy, politics and economics qualification.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Is not that the paradox that lies at the heart of the paradigm set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch? He argues that universities should be free to select on the basis of merit but not free to select otherwise.
I am in complete, almost sycophantic, agreement with the Minister on that. We really do not want to put on such constraints. Freedom is tremendously important.
I return briefly to the insidious argument that once one takes the Government’s shilling, one has to do what the Government say. It is very hard, as the recipient of the shilling, to say, “No, I am not going to do what the Government say.” It is much easier for a Government who love freedom, who believe in our ancient freedom and who see how strong this country has been because it is a free nation, to say, “We will give you this money—we will allow it to come to you through the students—but as we do so, we will take the shackles off and allow you to stand or fall by your own brilliance—your own success in admitting people.” We must assume that universities want to take the cleverest, the brightest and the best—those who will give the university glory when they go on to their future careers, those who may stay and ensure that its research is of the highest quality, or those who will become, like Cardinal Wolsey, so rich that they can establish new parts of the university.
In that way, our universities can have the freedoms enjoyed by some of the American universities, which have endowments running into tens of billions of dollars, allowing them a freedom from the American state and a freedom to take the best and the brightest from around the world and to fund them through their studies. Surely, that is what we must aim for. We must aim for an ambition that returns our universities to the status they had in the middle ages when they were places that people looked at with envy and when people who went to them, who could be supported in doing so, felt that attending them was the highest possible achievement.
I always follow my hon. Friend’s speeches with interest; they are fantastic. He was making a point about students wanting to meet their aspirations. In line with that, the policy of the previous Government that 50% plus should go to university was completely wrong, because we all have different skills and abilities that need to be nurtured. That is what our Government are pushing; those who want to go to university should have the right support, but the previous Government’s 50% plus policy was wrong.
Yes and no, if I may sit on the fence. We should aim for excellence for everybody, and for as many people as possible to go to university, but university will do different things for different people. Not all higher and further education needs to be the same; we want to get the most from everybody, but the 50% target became a bit of a box-ticking exercise. Box-ticking exercises are a mistake. They do not lead to what we ought to focus on, which is not ad hoc bits of legislation that deal with—
Before my hon. Friend draws his introductory remarks to a conclusion and moves to the main thrust of his remarks, would he reflect on this? He calls for a return to a mediaval view of universities, but the truth is that in the middle ages illiterates were seduced by the mystery of book learning, because most people were illiterate. It may not be possible for us to return to that spirit, given the state of our age.
Most people did not. Many people did not achieve, not because they were stupid but because there were not enough scholarships. I went to Oxford, but I did not have a scholarship and if I had not received a grant and had my fees paid I could not have gone to Oxford and I would not have achieved. That is progress, and although I am a great admirer of the past, I think the hon. Gentleman needs to see that sometimes progress can be made.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I am sorry that we appear to be confusing two things. I am not for a moment suggesting that we ought to go back to the standard of living of the middle ages, or the level of literacy. That is not what we should aim for. It would be bonkers. What I was saying, and I thought I was agreeing with the Minister, is that I would like the status of education to be as high as it was in the middle ages, and to be something that people love and rejoice in. Of course, we want it to be open to everybody rather than only to the narrow, broadly clerical, class that it was open to in the past.
To think of education as a great and exciting thing is tremendously important, and we do that best by allowing the universities their freedom. The less control the Government have, the better. One of the great things about tuition fees is that they will follow the student. Although the Government will provide the money initially, eventually it will be paid back. The Government are beginning to retreat from the financing of the universities, so universities will have greater freedom because they will not be so subject to the Government’s interference.
I am concerned that my hon. Friend accepts too much at face value what the Government say. In paragraph 5.4 of the “Guidance to the Director of Fair Access”, the Government make the point:
“The subsidised loans that Government offers students represent a significant cost to the public purse.”
That is then used as justification for interference. Surely, that is inconsistent with my hon. Friend’s vision, which I share, that universities should be free to charge whatever fees they wish.
We have to evolve. We have to move to a position where freedom is re-established. We are going from a position where most university funding is state-controlled to one where a large proportion of it will come from individuals. The Government would be in a ludicrous position if they were getting students to pay what was the Government’s money. That would not make sense. We have a wise, good and forthright Government, made up of some of the best brains ever born in this country. We are lucky. We know where we are going in terms of tuition fees; we have a well-thought through plan that will aid the independence of universities, particularly once we move through it and we find that the money is being paid back, the loan book can be run profitably and a major cost can be taken off the Government’s balance sheet. I am all in favour of student loans, which will help to achieve the Bill’s aims—the admission of people whom universities want because they have the ability to attend them.
Let me draw broadly to a conclusion.
Before my hon. Friend does so, I wonder whether we can bottom out the issue of the mediaeval attitude to university. The point that I made—I hope that I can make it a little more clearly now—is that it is hard to reproduce the magic of learning that prevailed in the middle ages because of the secrecy of literacy that then prevailed, too. That is not a pessimistic view—I believe in the power of learning, as he does—but in celebrating the middle ages’ perception of university, we must be realistic about how that magic has changed.
The Minister says, “hard to reproduce”, and I accept that, but hard is not the same as impossible. We really ought to aim for learning to be held in the highest regard, because it will lead to our fundamental success and prosperity as a nation.
I should like to broaden the debate for a moment. We are facing decades of competition from countries that we could ignore for hundreds of years—countries that were so corrupt and broken that we could ignore them as we grew rich on manufacturing and services. Now, those nations—China, India, Brazil and Russia—are at the forefront of economic development. Their costs are lower than ours, and we see ourselves as a nation being overtaken. We can compete only if we have the best education in the world—an education that inspires millions of people and leads them to do great things with their lives and to come up with productive ideas.
Now we are finding common cause—are we not?—as my hon. Friend eloquently makes the case for the power of learning to change lives by changing life chances. Perhaps he might add to that by acknowledging what I think we share: a reverence for the past, for only the past can change the prism of our memories.
I am in complete agreement with the Minister on the remark that we learn so much from the past. It gives us an understanding of what we ought to do in the future, and it helps us to avoid making mistakes. Many mistakes were made in the past, and we can sensibly avoid repeating them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is noble in his principle. He is noble in wanting to ensure that education is free from the dead hand of state control, but I am sorry to say that his Bill goes about it the wrong way. Instead of getting the dead hand of state control and throwing it on the bonfire, he has severed the dead hand from the arm of state control and is leaving it lying, rotting on the university funding scheme. I say, “Get rid of this dead hand! Remove this dead hand. Get rid of it, finger by finger. Bury it a 1,000 feet deep. Free up our universities; free up the British people!” Let us have a system that is free from state control, where students and universities can do brilliant things, so that our country can be the success that it deserves to be.
It is always a delight to listen to my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is, without doubt, one of the finest orators in the House. I find myself in the familiar position of being equally persuaded by him and by my hon. Friend Mr Chope. It is a familiar position because they are usually on the same side of the argument, and it is therefore easy to be equally persuaded by them both. Today, I am in the unfamiliar position of being equally persuaded by them when they appear to be on different sides of the argument. That can be explained by the fact that they both seek the same or, at least, a very similar outcome, but appear to differ on how best to achieve that.
Notwithstanding the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I support the thrust of what my hon. Friend the Member for
Christchurch is trying to achieve, which is extremely important. It is quite depressing that the dead hand of political correctness has become so entrenched in society that we must argue, in effect, about whether or not people should be given places at university based on merit.
I apologise for arriving slightly late for the debate, which is partly explained by the fact that I could not see how anybody could argue with the principle that people should be given jobs or allocated places at university on merit. I had assumed that that was so self-evident that everybody would readily agree and there could be no controversy about it. It is depressing that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has to work so hard to make the case for something that most people in the country would consider blindingly obvious—that such things should be determined on merit.
After the Reformation, hard work became more fashionable, as my hon. Friend may know. No one has to work hard to persuade the Government of the case for allocation on merit; it is already the Government’s view.
As the Minister knows, I am his greatest admirer, which probably has not done a great deal for his career prospects. However, it has been widely reported in the media, whether or not there is any substance to the reports, that leading universities will be encouraged or forced, one way or another, to take quotas of students from state schools in exchange for the power to charge tuition fees of £9,000. That seems to fly in the face of the assertion that the Government have a policy based on merit, and merit alone. It appears to be the exact opposite.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made clear, the problem arises from the fact that our state education system is failing far too many people. Rather than addressing the root cause and dealing with the problems of the state education system, perhaps because the Government think that will take too long now that those problems are so entrenched—in other words, instead of going for the real issue, which might be more difficult but is the most important one—they have filed the problems of the state education system under “Too difficult” and gone for the easy solution.
The true way to get more people from state schools and more people from poorer backgrounds to go to the best universities is to raise the standard in state education so that they can get there on merit. But the Government know that that is very difficult and that the problems in the state system are deeply entrenched, so they go for the easy solution, which is to circumvent all that and force universities to take people from those backgrounds, whether or not they have earned their place on merit. Then the Government can say, “Look, isn’t the world marvellous? There is now X proportion of people from state schools or X proportion of people from deprived backgrounds going to university,” hoping that everyone will turn a blind eye to the fact that those people have not got there on merit. That is the depressing situation in which the country finds itself.
All the typical arguments are trotted out as to why we should not give people places on merit. We are told that one of the reasons why getting rid of grammar schools was such a good idea is that certain people do not peak at the age of 11, so it is unfair on those who mature a little later to judge their performance at the age of 11. It seems that the argument has moved on. Now we are told that it is unfair to judge people’s academic performance at GCSE level because they may not have peaked at the age of 16: it is unfair to test them at 16, so we should not look at their GCSE results.
To be honest, it is now utterly pointless to look at people’s GCSE results because one has to work pretty hard to fail at GCSE level. The idea that everybody passes means that nobody passes, so GCSEs have become a worthless qualification. We are getting to the stage where we are told that we cannot judge people’s performance at A-level at the age 18, because there are those who have not yet peaked at the age of 18. These are arguments for scrapping exams altogether. We have to make some kind of judgment at some point and although there are imperfections in all these things, somebody’s performance at A-level is one of the best guides to whether they have a chance of succeeding at university. If we completely ignore people’s A-level results, the whole A-level system becomes utterly pointless. My problem with the idea that people’s exam results do not really matter because they will be given university places irrespective of how well they perform is that it demeans people’s hard work and their achievements.
Why would we want to send the message to people in state schools and from deprived backgrounds that they should not worry about how hard they work for their GCSEs and A-levels or about spending every hour they can becoming an expert in a particular subject, and that if they do not get the best possible grades they can the state will ride to their rescue anyway, saying that it is not their fault they went to a state school or came from a deprived background, and that we will rig the rules to get them into a particular university? That seems the most appalling message that this House can send. Surely the only message that we should send to young people is that it does not matter what their background is, what school they go to, what race they are or what orientation or gender; if they work hard and get the best possible results, they will be first in line for a place at the university they want to go to. It seems obvious to me that places should be given on merit.
As a country, we are trying to impose some kind of social engineering on university education, the same social engineering as was introduced in the state education system when grammar schools were abolished. Let us be absolutely clear: grammar schools were not abolished and replaced with comprehensive schools in order to increase attainment in state education; it was simply a form of social engineering, and it has proved a disaster. I am appalled that the Government seem to be following the previous Government in wanting to introduce that same kind of social engineering into our university system, where it will prove just as disastrous.
I have already put on the record on one occasion my personal views about grammar schools, but let me make a broader point. While my right hon. Friend Mr Cameron is Prime Minister, while my right hon. Friend Michael Gove is Secretary of State for Education, and while I live and breathe, grammar schools in this country will be under no threat whatever from this Government.
I do not particularly want to get sidetracked—I am sure that you will not allow it, Mr Deputy Speaker—but the Government’s position on grammar schools, which is pertinent to my point about merit, is frankly a nonsense. Basically, they are saying, “If you’re lucky enough to have grammar schools in your area, that’s fine and you can keep them, but if you poor swine in Bradford want a grammar school system, you aren’t allowed it.” The Minister’s support for grammar schools extends only so far as those areas that already have them, and those of us who would like them cannot have them. That is lukewarm support—
Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has been sidetracked. I am sure the Minister did not want that because I know that he is very interested in higher education in this debate, rather than grammar schools. I am sure that Philip Davies, as he suggested, will want to come back to the topic of the debate.
I will keep my remarks brief because I am intrigued to hear what the Minister has to say. I want to hear some kind of confirmation, not only that while he lives and breathes he will support grammar schools, but that while he is the Minister and while our right hon. Friend Mr Cameron is the Prime Minister, he will ensure that universities recruit people on merit alone and that people are not allocated places simple because of their background, the school they went to, the socio-economic environment in which they live or the wealth or otherwise of their parents. If we started going down that route, it would be a disaster for this country. The idea of positive discrimination, which lies behind such proposals, is a disaster. Positive discrimination is discrimination, and we should not advocate it, because it demeans people. Many parents make terrific sacrifices to send their kids to private schools. People who cannot ordinarily afford to do so make the most amazing sacrifices, because they understandably want their children to have the best start and opportunities in life.
My parents made terrific sacrifices to enable me to go to a boarding school that they really could not afford to send me to, and I am immensely grateful to them. I do not see why this Government, in particular, or anybody for that matter, would want to say to such parents, “Well done. You’ve made these sacrifices to help your children get the best possible start in life. What we’re going to do now is rig the rules to make sure that all your sacrifices have been in vain, because we’re going to stop your daughter or son having the opportunity to go to the university they deserve to go to, based on the hard work that they put in, as you don’t meet the criteria, you’re not from the right socio-economic background or they didn’t go to the school we would have preferred them to go to.” What an appalling message.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Does he share my concern that the Government, in their desire to bring about social engineering, are going to penalise people who pay off their loans early— perhaps with the help of their parents making the sort of sacrifice to which he refers? Does he condemn that as a gross interference?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As it happens, I voted against the Government on tuition fees for the simple reason that I did not want people from poorer backgrounds to be denied the opportunity to go to the best possible universities. Tuition fees are being increased to pay for more and more people to go to university, and the argument is that if we want more people to go to university, students are going to have to pay a higher price. That is a perfectly logical argument, but I do not want more people going to university. Too many go to university; I want fewer to go. I want universities to be the bastion of high standards again.
In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti inadvertently touched on that point when he asked, “Shouldn’t people who want to go to university have the opportunity to do so?” My answer to that is no. It should be a question not of whether someone wants to go to university, but whether they have the aptitude and have reached a high enough mark to do so on merit. That should be what determines whether they go.
Otherwise, it is like asking athletes whether they would like to compete in the Olympics—I am sure they all would, but surely nobody is advocating that any athlete who happens to fancy a crack at the 100-metre sprint should be allowed to compete at the Olympics. Most people accept that athletes have to reach a certain level before they are even considered for the Olympics, and the same should apply in education: people should not go just because they want to; they should go because they have reached the level in their education that allows them to go. That is the whole point of merit and, as I see it, of this Bill.
All the other factors that people are trying to introduce into the system can only devalue our education system—dumb down the standards. Then the Government will say, “Isn’t it marvellous? Haven’t we been good for education, because now X% of people have a degree?” Well, no it would not be marvellous—not if the result had been achieved only by dumbing down standards.
My hon. Friend notes that fees have gone up to £9,000, and I, like he, opposed that measure. He says that they are going up to allow more people to go to university, but are they not going up, at least in part, to pay for students from the European Union to go to university? EU students go to university for free in Scotland, while students from England have to pay. My hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg supports loans, but 46% of EU students who take out such loans are not paying them back when they should be. What does my hon. Friend Philip Davies have to say about that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As he knows, I share his robust opinion on the merits of being in the European Union—that is, that there are no merits of being in the European Union. One problem with allowing more and more people to go to university and increasing tuition fees is that the people who go there on merit end up paying over the odds to subsidise those who do not go there on merit and who will not end up paying back their loan. That is, in effect, the system that the Government have introduced. I think that that puts a penalty on merit. I do not see why people who go to university on merit should subsidise those who are not going on merit.
I thank my hon. Friend. I do not accept his description of the Government’s loan programme, because one would not be able to get the interest rate that will be paid by students in the market for an unsecured loan. Therefore, there is no penalty for those who get to university on merit.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, but my point is that people who go to university on merit would not be expected to pay £6,000 or £9,000 if it were not for the fact that the Government want to get more people to go to university. They are being penalised in that sense. If the Government restricted the proportion of people going to university to 30% or 40%, there would be no move to increase tuition fees. It is in that sense that people are paying over the odds, or more than they would if the Government were not pursuing this strategy.
I wonder whether, in developing his argument with his usual penetrating insight, my hon. Friend might reflect a little on the need to balance the magic of exclusivity, which he seems to be attracted to, with the absolute need to ensure that people from humble backgrounds get their chance for glittering prizes. He seems to be making the case that exclusivity is more important than that social mission. That is not the case for me, because I am a Conservative.
This is rare, but I do not follow my hon. Friend’s logic. I am as committed as anybody to ensuring that people from the poorest backgrounds have the opportunity to go as far as they can within the education system. My view is that the education system should allow them to do that on merit, not that the Government should rig the selection criteria so that they can go to university whether or not they have achieved that objective on merit. The challenge for this Government is to undo all the damage that has been done to the education system in this country over the past 40 years or so by both Conservative and Labour Governments—neither side has a great track record on the state education system. The Government should concentrate on that and not be seduced down the easy route of trying to achieve the same outcomes by more dodgy means.
I understand that point, but my hon. Friend made a second case. I have freely accepted his first case about merit. The second case he was making was about exclusivity. As I understood it, he was arguing that too many people were going to university and that fewer people should have the opportunity to do so. That is the case that I was beginning to explore with him. I wonder if he would expand on it, because in practice it would mean limiting opportunity for some of the people who have the merit that he celebrates.
I do not accept that, because we have ended up with a system whereby people go to university because they have been put on a conveyor belt to university by the state, which has encouraged people to go down that route. Many people go to university who are not best served by doing so, and who would be far better served by vocational education. We seem to be obsessed with education in this country. One of the places where one can learn an awful lot is at work. I learned more in my years at Asda than I ever did at university or school. Rather than spending three years at university, many people would be better served by getting three years’ work under their belt and learning the skills that are learned in the workplace.
I object to the idea that everybody should be on the conveyor belt of university, because I do not believe everybody is best served by it. That is demonstrated by the fact that I believe 20% to 25%—I am sure the Minister will know the figures better—drop out of their university courses. They have clearly gone to university and discovered the hard way that it was not the best thing for them. How many more stay on their degree course while probably realising in their heart of hearts that it is not right for them? They are stuck on a conveyor belt, when better alternatives for them exist.
It is a mistake to think that going to university is a panacea for everybody. For some people it is absolutely the right thing to do, and we should allow those people to go to university irrespective of their background and where they have been educated. We should say to others, who are not best suited to university, that that is no disgrace at all. We should raise the value of vocational qualifications and careers and allow people to pursue what they are good at. Everybody is good at something, and we need to find out what people are good at and allow them to develop in it. That does not always mean that they have to go to university to develop their expertise.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that even if people choose to go into business to pursue their ambitions, there is now a suggestion that we should select directors based on their sex rather than merit? Does he agree that we should put an end to such creeping social engineering?
Order. We are not going to go down that line. We are going to stick to the subject in hand. As tempted as Mr Davies will be, I know he will restrain himself.
I will follow your guidance as always, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is fair to say that you know my opinion just as much as my hon. Friend does. We can leave it there. I must say in passing that my hon. Friend is probably the best person in the House to speak about job opportunities, because of his marvellous work in his constituency helping with jobs fairs and trying to get people into work. He will have seen at first hand in his constituency the skills that people need to get jobs, and he will know that a university education is not always essential for a person to get the right job. He should be commended for what he has done, and we should listen to his advice, because he knows more about the matter than most.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, because he has raised an important matter, notwithstanding what I would describe as the technical opposition to the Bill offered by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. Whether or not we agree with the Bill, I think we all agree that the Government should not feel it necessary to stick their nose into university recruitment. They should allow universities to do what they have always done, which is to recruit people on merit, and merit alone, irrespective of their background, gender, race or any other factor. Those things should be irrelevant, and people’s ability alone should be decisive.
First, I commend Mr Chope for initiating this interesting and wide-ranging debate by introducing his Bill. I agreed with him at the beginning of his speech when he said that the Government’s higher education policy was mired in confusion and that the Government were at sixes and sevens. I also agreed with him at the end of his speech when he talked about the difficulties that the Government are having because of the decision by an increasing number of universities to charge £9,000 a year for fees under the rules passed before Christmas. That is causing the Government increasing financial difficulties, because their approach to higher education was predicated on the basis that the fees would be rather less than that. Perhaps that explains why, as we have heard, the higher education White Paper, which should be a framework for discussion, has been deferred again. The opportunity for us to discuss the matter has therefore been delayed. More importantly, those students who are in what I still call the lower sixth who are planning to go to university in 2012 will be looking at a menu with no price list, and no description of the dishes on offer, which is a great abdication of responsibility by the Government.
The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair. The previous Government, of whom he was a member, commissioned the Browne review, agreed its terms of reference and fixed the timetable. The hon. Gentleman could hardly have expected this Government to come to office when the Browne review was still considering its recommendations and immediately introduce a White Paper, still less legislation.
The Government told us initially that the White Paper would be published in March this year, but made the decision not to abide by their timetable—the timetable was theirs, not that of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
The Bill states that admissions to universities should be on the basis of merit, but frankly, that is a truism with which no hon. Member would disagree. The difficulty is that there is so little agreement on what constitutes merit in a student. That lack of agreement exists not only among hon. Members, but among universities, which use very different admissions criteria.
Philip Davies interestingly focused on A-level grades, which are an important reflection of the academic ability of those who are seeking to go to university. In very many cases, universities look at those to determine whether someone will be a successful applicant for a course, but they are not the only criterion that universities currently use. The advantage of the A-level is that it is transparent. The student is aware when he applies and is given an offer of what he needs to achieve to gain admission to a university course. However, the grades that are now expected of applicants are extremely high. For example, I am personally aware that the leading universities in the country offer mathematics applicants two A* grades and an A grade, or two A grades and a B grade or three A grades.
That is a transparent process, but some universities have a standard offer—an offer made to all applicants, no matter what school or further education college they come from or their background. The standard offers are also high. One university makes an offer of two A* grades and an A grade for the subject in which it has a very high reputation.
The sixth term examination paper exam, which is additional to A-levels, is increasingly being relied on by universities when they consider whether to admit candidates. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of that, but the Minister should take note of it. STEP exams require a particular type of teaching, and commendably, some universities have recognised that and are providing support for students who come from institutions that do not provide such teaching, to give a fair chance to individuals who have the academic ability to achieve the results they need. Many schools, particularly those from the fee-paying sector, provide preparation for STEP exams that is not provided in many state schools, and that prejudice is, I am afraid, working against the chances of talented individuals—including today’s Cardinal Wolseys—achieving admission to universities on the basis of their A-level and STEP-level results.
The system as it stands disadvantages applicants from schools and institutions that do not have good provision for the teaching of STEP exams. STEP exams are a very recent innovation—I happen to know something of them because I have children at the age when these applications are made. I would like to hear whether any consideration has been given to introducing STEP exams into offers made to individuals, and whether the Minister has looked at the provision in place in institutions and schools for teaching in that area. It is an area of great concern to me.
What puzzles me is that the hon. Gentleman seems to feel that after 13 years of a Labour Government pumping so much money into the state education system, people in the state system still cannot compete equally with people who go to private schools, and therefore an adjustment is needed. If what the previous Government did to the state education system was so marvellous and raised standards so high, why cannot we just have fair and free competition between the state and private sectors?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is bringing party politics into the debate, because I am trying to approach it in a measured way. I am talking about offers made by universities to talented students, including in his constituency, who happen not to have the provision in their own institution, whether in the private sector or public sector, to support their applications to university. I think that the Government should be looking at support for that.
This is relevant now, as opposed to when the Labour Government were in power, because back then the requirement for STEP exams when university offers were made had not been implemented. This year, there is a particular issue relating to university applications: an enormous number are being made to universities owing to the prospect of fee levels next year. There has been a huge rush of applications, but fewer offers are being made by universities. Furthermore, higher offers are being made this year than I think will be given next year, because so many more people are applying.
I also want to touch on issues of transparency and merit. I raised this point in interventions earlier. Transparency is a great quality, particularly when one is looking at the very complex process of applying to universities. There are lots of different universities and lots of different courses, and it is a big job for any individual student, or parent advising a student, to deal with the complexities of the university admissions system. It is particularly difficult when the admissions system is not transparent. Mr Chope at times suggested that the current system was transparent. In my view, it is not transparent when not based on admission by academic performance, and it is not based on academic performance when it is based not on A-level or STEP results, or any other exam results, but on an interview. The disadvantage of an interview process is that, if a student achieves the required grades, passes the exam and is called for an interview, but is then rejected, they do not find out why they have been rejected.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. What is emerging is a certain unity of view between him and my hon. Friend Mr Chope. He seems to be saying that he wants to curtail universities’ freedom to take into account other circumstances that might prevail in precisely the same way as my hon. Friend. The freedom of universities, which we cherish, is under assault.
How profoundly ironic that the Minister, who has proposed the restrictions to which the hon. Member for Christchurch vociferously objects, should suggest that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I agree that admission to university should be made on the basis of merit, but I disagree with the assumption that the system is currently based on merit. In fact, the system discriminates against students from non-fee-paying schools.
Jacob Rees-Mogg made an interesting aside in his very interesting speech. He raised the subject of individuals at, for example, Oxford university, who conduct the interviews that I have just discussed, and who meet applicants who challenge them. They may feel uncomfortable with discussions at interview, and they may not like the prospect of teaching them, not because of their academic potential or achievement but because of their own preconceptions. The disadvantage of the interview process is that it allows that to happen.
It is therefore important that we have a transparent admissions process. It is very important indeed that we have independent universities and that we use all the potential that we have in our schools, whether fee paying or in the state sector. What is the best thing for Britain is that everyone with potential should realise their potential through school and bring it to fruition at university. The tragedy is that, for too long, too many people with the ability and the potential have not been taken through university because of the ivory towers and walls that exist.
I should like to elicit from the hon. Gentleman his precise position. On the one hand, he says that he believes that universities should be “independent” and that people should be able to fulfil their potential but, on the other, he seemed to suggest—and we need this on the record—that he was against universities interviewing candidates. Would he make it illegal? Is he suggesting that it would be entirely forbidden were he ever to hold the position held by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science?
The Minister, having given his personal views on grammar schools at the Dispatch Box, even though he speaks as a Minister, could not possibly tempt me to make binding commitments from the Front Bench in a way that I might have done had I been on the Back Benches.
There was a great expansion of the university system under the Labour Government, and there was great investment in it. The continued independence of the university system was cherished under the previous Government, and that sat alongside the fact that there was increased state investment in the system. I am afraid that as fond as I am becoming of the hon. Member for North East Somerset, we part company on the important role that the state plays in our university system. I think that it is a good thing that more people go to university. It is a good thing that people who have the potential to go to university should realise that potential. I do not believe that if the state stood aside entirely and did not provide support, either through a grant system or another form of system, that would be a good thing for the United Kingdom, because fewer people with the potential to go to university would do so. That is why the grant system was originally introduced, and that is why I went to university. I went to Oxford university—and my father left school at 14, as did my mother. If I had been limited, as Cardinal Wolsey was, to securing a scholarship, I am afraid that my intellectual capability would not have enabled me to go to Magdalen college, and indeed to found my own college. That may be something for the future.
The issue that sits between those who support the Bill and myself is merit. No one disagrees on what constitutes merit. Our difficulties lie in how we define the procedure by which that is identified in applicants. The hon. Member for Shipley talked solely about A-levels. Some universities are currently choosing systems that are not transparent, and which do not disclose the criteria that apply. When one couples that with the fact that the price list on the menu is very unclear for students who want to go to university, particularly for the year after next, it is virtually impossible for students to make sensible, informed choices about their future.
When I speak to business people in my role as shadow industry Minister, they often tell me that they want more engineering graduates. They also want apprentices, and I defer to no one in my admiration for apprenticeships and foundation degrees, but they do want graduates of the highest quality, in science, maths and engineering. We need a system that ensures that everyone who has the potential to secure a future—to expand and extend their skills as far as possible—achieves that potential. That clearly requires a role for the universities, who have their own skills in identifying those candidates, but it also requires a role for Government, because the Government invest in the university sector, and it is important that public money is used in a positive way and for the benefit of the country as a whole.
It is at that stage that I disagree with the hon. Members for North East Somerset and for Christchurch, because I believe that means we have a responsibility in the House to hold the Government to account on the use of public money. I want as many young people and students as possible from my constituency to go to the best universities. I happen not to have a private school in my constituency, so if a young person living in my constituency wants to attend some of the best universities in the country, the facts and figures show that they are less likely to be admitted to those universities than if they went to a fee-paying school. I regret that. The current system is not fair. We need to devise a system that takes into account and re-establishes the position of the universities as independent institutions, but also recognises the legitimate role of Government in ensuring fair access to them.
In terms of the responsibility to ensure that those from different backgrounds can go to university, the role of OFFA and the criteria that it applies to ensure that those universities—the top end, the Russell group—can get people from less privileged backgrounds have to be right. The hon. Gentleman said that some people from schools in tough catchment areas may not have the right experience for the interview process at Oxford, but in the OFFA criteria,
“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken (singly or in partnership) with local schools and colleges—such as mentoring,” will be taken into account, as will targeting schools in tough catchments. Therefore, what the Government have put forward in the wider package for higher education, along with the role of OFFA, which will certainly help to ensure that people from less privileged backgrounds get that assistance to go to some of the high-performing universities, have to be right.
I am very confused about the Government’s rules that will allow a university to charge £9,000 rather than £6,000. The criteria for universities are extremely unclear.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the figure of £9,000, but he needs to consider the overall package. He must accept that it is right and proper that there are no up-front fees, which would have deterred a lot of people from less privileged backgrounds—I put myself in that category. It must also be right to increase the threshold from £15,000 to £21,000.
There have not been any up-front fees since the Higher Education Act 2004 was passed under the previous Labour Government, so that is a complete red herring. The existing system is being continued, but the difference is that this Government are tripling the debt that students will take on, with which I profoundly disagree. I voted against the 2004 Act—I was a Labour Back Bencher at the time, and I continued to be a Back Bencher as a result—because I disagreed with the concept of fees.
The hon. Gentleman talks about finance, but he must accept that we are in a difficult financial situation. The Government have inherited one of the worst financial situations in the G20 and one of the worst structural deficits in the G7. He responded to my point about up-front fees. The fact is that the Government could have considered introducing up-front fees, but they ruled them out categorically. The overall package is good for part-time students and helps mature students. He must accept that there is a real problem with discrimination against children with disabilities and learning difficulties who wish to go into higher education, and the package will improve their situation, too.
The Government are tripling student debt in the years ahead, but that is profoundly wrong. Their policy will deter individuals from poorer backgrounds from going to university, so I shall continue to disagree with it.
I am with the hon. Member for Christchurch on the question of merit, but I am against him on exemptions, so I will not be able to support his Bill. The existing situation is unsatisfactory because insufficient students are admitted to university on the grounds of merit. Many people are frustrated because some universities are sending them the message that if they do not go to the right schools, it is not worth their applying, so as a consequence they do not apply. That is why there has not been the progress that should have been made. Young people should be able to achieve their potential, but they need support. We need a fair system that supports individuals who want to go to university and, above all, ensures that every individual achieves their full potential.
“A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.”
Our debate, albeit a short one, has given us the chance to explore some of those concepts. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Chope for bringing forward the Bill because it has provided the opportunity to debate an extremely important topic.
Further and, in particular, higher education have attracted a great deal of debate in the House in recent weeks and months, and indeed they have been debated elsewhere, too. Key to that debate was the central issue, which the Bill addresses, of university access and admission policies, and learners’ opportunities for progression from further to higher education.
Let me say this, for if I did not, the House would wonder why, given the publication of the Wolf review yesterday: we should not confuse higher education with higher learning. It is absolutely right to say that our society and economy need people to aspire to higher learning. Britain’s future chance of success lies in being a high-tech, high-skilled nation, and because of that, we need to invest in the human capital of our work force through higher learning, although that may not always take place at a university. Opportunity may be found in the workplace and in our further education colleges to obtain the higher learning that will fuel economic success, which is the component part of our chance for growth and prosperity.
The short time available to me does not give me the opportunity to speak on that subject at as great a length as I would like, but I want to put on record that spreading that kind of opportunity—an opportunity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch drew the House’s attention—will necessitate, in my view and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science, teaching more higher education and higher learning in our further education colleges. FE colleges are the unheralded triumph of our education system. They do immense good work, and of course they teach a great deal of higher education already. Their cohorts typically reflect the communities of which they are a part and are, by and large, more widely drawn than the cohorts that one typically finds in our universities. The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, inasmuch as it deals with access to those kinds of opportunities for higher education, draws our attention to where and how that might be provided, as well as to how people might obtain it.
I think that it is a matter of public record that I am no more a social engineer than my hon. Friend. Social engineering was mentioned by my hon. Friend Philip Davies; I almost rose to intervene on him, but I did not want to interrupt the flow of his oratory, so I shall take the opportunity now to say that social engineering is on neither my agenda nor that of the Government of which I am part. I am a firm believer in meritocracy and the principle that people should be rewarded according to their efforts and abilities, whatever their circumstances or background. That principle is at the heart of the Government’s approach.
I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that merit is the driver of access, in the Government’s view. The reason for that is both practical and philosophical. The principle that people should prosper on the basis of their assiduity and talent lies at the very heart of the philosophy of the party to which we both belong—it is a bigger philosophy than that, though, and I will speak about that in a few moments. However, it is also a practical matter—a matter of ensuring that we harness the best talents in the interests of the nation—for also central to our mission is the promotion of the common good and the national interest. The national interest would hardly be served if we let any Giotto remain among the hill shepherds, to use Ruskin’s words. Every talent must have its opportunity to shine, and every kind of person must have their chance of glittering prizes.
That takes me to the middle ages, which we heard a great deal about earlier in this short debate, courtesy of my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg. We enjoyed a brief exchange, but what did not emerge from it was the fundamental feature of the feudal and mediaeval appreciation of universities. That has been lost to some degree, because we have largely come to regard “feudal” and “mediaeval” as pejorative terms, but in fact my hon. Friend shed light on the interesting elements of the opportunities available then, which found their form in universities. Universities were then broad, liberal, rather radical places to which many people from many backgrounds were able to go. Far from being exclusive, they were rather inclusive. My hon. Friend mentioned Wolsey, who was a butcher’s son. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is the son of a butcher, but I had my chance to go to university and I am from a family for whom universities had previously been almost unknown—a distant and detached thing. Though that was certainly the case in the middle ages, later, universities became rather different things, but at the time, which might be described as a golden age, they were inclusive in the way that he described.
The other important philosophical principle to which I want to draw the House’s attention is something that is at the very heart of conservatism but is sometimes neglected—the elevation of the people. Benjamin Disraeli, whom I am determined should get at least two mentions in my short speech, laid out the tenets of conservatism in his Crystal palace speech and identified the elevation of the people as being central to them. That is why I am driven by a desire for social mobility and social justice, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is. When considering the elevation of the people, we should properly consider their chance to gain learning as a way of progressing.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will know, Alan Milburn was commissioned by the previous Government to consider these matters in considerable detail. He produced a report that looked at a series of inhibitors to social mobility, one of which, interestingly, was graduate recruitment. He observed that there was a time when someone could join a firm of lawyers or accountants and rise from being the tea boy to the top of the firm, but that is no longer so. It is interesting that graduate recruitment has, arguably, inhibited the social mobility that we all wish to see. It is certainly true that under the previous regime little was done to improve social mobility.
In those terms, the Milburn report is something of an embarrassment to the Labour party. It identifies access to education and educational opportunity as being critical to the mission I have described, but makes the point clearly that prior attainment limits people’s chance to progress into further and higher education. That point has been made at length. We cannot discuss admissions to universities without looking at applications, and all the evidence suggests not that the admissions system is prejudiced against people from under-represented groups but that too few of those people apply to university because of their prior attainment. We really have to get our schools system right if we want to drive the kind of social justice that lies at the heart of the Conservative party’s mission. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has put in place a wide range of plans to do just that—to drive up standards, create opportunity and deliver the kind of outcome that I am describing. However, you would not let me speak about those too much, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it would be going a little off the subject. As part of our mission to elevate people, it is absolutely right to consider how we can get more people whose tastes and talents take them in the direction of higher learning to achieve their potential.
Now, let me draw attention to the core of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has said today. It is not just the Conservatives who are committed to social justice, although we are peculiarly committed to it. The whole coalition Government completely support the admirable principle that universities and colleges should offer places solely on merit. The Government seek to make far-reaching reforms of the further and higher education sectors, but there are some elements that we do not seek to change. Like other nations with outstanding higher education systems, we recognise that universities and colleges must continue to recruit on merit.
When I look at the issues that the Office for Fair Access must take into account in respect of access, I see no dichotomy between that commitment to merit and the list of considerations that universities are asked to take into account in respect of admissions. They are few but important and it is worth exploring them, because they are salient to our deliberations. The first is
“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken (singly or in partnership) with…schools and colleges—such as mentoring, school visits, student buddying”—
Not a word I would have used, Mr Deputy Speaker, but there we are—and
“master classes in schools.”
Is any of that incompatible with the principle of merit, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch? It does not seem so to me.
Secondly, universities are asked to look at
“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken to attract mature students—including work with local communities.”
Can that be reconciled with the desire to see merit as the key determinant of admission? I think it certainly can.
The third component is
“the scale and nature of summer school programmes” or similar initiatives in which universities are asked to engage. Is that an unhappy marriage with the nature of merit as a driver of access to university? Certainly not.
The fourth consideration is the number of financial waivers the university will offer, and the fifth is the requirement
“to participate in the new national scholarships programme, with bids match funded from…a university’s own resources.”
That will build on the long-standing tradition in our universities of bursaries, exhibitions and scholarships that have done a great deal to allow people from less advantaged backgrounds to achieve what they wish. None of that seems outside the scope of what the Bill seeks to secure.
The sixth consideration is
“targeting pupils with potential (use of contextual data, targeting low achieving schools) and improving aspiration and attainment through outreach.”
Let me say a word about that. I understand why someone might think that such targeting would be incompatible with the objectives of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, but I disagree. Universities have always used interviews, for example, to determine someone’s potential. Many hon. Members are university graduates, and a number of them will have been interviewed before obtaining their place. Those interviews have for a long time been used as means for a university to get a more rounded impression of an individual’s potential, tastes and personality. Is that unreasonable? It does not seem unreasonable to me. It is certainly time-honoured, and you will understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, for you know my instincts and sentiments as well as anyone, that anything that is time-honoured holds a special place in my heart.
The symbiosis between the teacher and the taught lies at the heart of all good education. My hon. Friend describes the essential relationship—the relationship that Socrates enjoyed with Plato and that our Saviour enjoyed with His disciples.
Now my hon. Friend encourages me to go down a classical road, which might be of interest to the House but certainly would not necessarily be relevant to the Bill, and I will not be encouraged to do that.
A consideration of potential has always been at the heart of the relationship between the teacher and the taught in the business of deciding where a person might go, having been admitted to an institution. I will not say that I was shocked—it is hard to be shocked in the House—but I was surprised by what the shadow Minister said. He might want to correct this—I do not want to damage his career unreasonably, although it will be in opposition of course—but he at least appeared to suggest that the Opposition’s policy was hostile to the very business of universities interviewing students. That would require unprecedented prescription over independent universities. It would be a curious Government and a curious Minister who told universities that they were forbidden to use what they had used successfully, perhaps for generations, as a means of choosing who was best suited to their institutions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that correction. I will not say that it was a U-turn—that would be too strong—but he seemed to clarify his remarks in a way that is helpful to us all in considering these matters in a balanced and measured manner.
The principle that I have described in respect of merit linked to a consideration of potential is time honoured. The other things that OFFA suggests that universities should take into account are no more frightening than those that I have already identified:
“progress towards benchmarks…published by HESA and others more immediate targets and measures agreed” in respect of those less well represented groups. Targets agreed and measures suggested and agreed do not form the frightening perspective that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch described in his opening remarks, although, of course, I celebrate the fact that he has given us the chance to explore these matters because I want to put on the record what I have told him previously: I agree with him about merit.
How can the percentage of students admitted from state schools, from lower socio-economic classes or from low-participation neighbourhoods directly have a bearing on merit? Surely, they are irrelevant to merit.
They would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that we know—do we not?—that many high-performing students from state schools do not get to some of the universities that they might get to if they had the wherewithal that is available to people such as he and I and will be available by proxy to our offspring. I have not finished my list, but that brings me conveniently to advice and guidance.
We know—do we not?—from what Lord Browne and Mr Milburn said in their reports that part of the problem in matching the abilities of the under-represented in higher and further education to the institutions that might best serve their tastes and talents is that they do not have the wherewithal to get to where they might want to go. What I mean by that is this: we know that social networks and familial understanding are the basis on which those who are already advantaged cement their advantage. It is not aspiration or ambition but wherewithal that limits working class people from achieving what they might.
This is a difference between the two sides of the House. There has been a bourgeois left misunderstanding of working class culture. Lord Mandelson is a case in point—he felt that there was lack of ambition. Aspiration, we are often told, is what the working classes lack. That is completely untrue. Working class parents and grandparents seek exactly the same for their children and grandchildren as middle class people. What they lack is the means to achieve those ambitions because of a gap in wherewithal. They do not have the social and familial networks that understand the process by which their talents might be turned into actuality through higher learning.
That is why the Government are introducing an all-age careers service from this autumn that will balance the advice that it gives in an empirical and independent way. The Education Bill that is going through the House will place a duty on schools to secure that independent and empirical advice because we know that learning is a key driver of social mobility, and social mobility is a critical component of social justice. I would go as far as to say that a free society, which is by its very nature an unequal society, can be legitimised only when social mobility prevails. The inequalities that are the natural bedfellow of freedom can be ethically justified only by social mobility. That is why social mobility and social justice are so central to our mission.
I return to the requirements published by OFFA in respect of access and admissions, which universities must take into account, as that is a subject that has been raised repeatedly in the debate. The list of requirements goes on to identify
“the support offered to students once enrolled on courses—for example additional study support, mentoring, pastoral support, help with basic skills; and the range of programmes the university will offer which could be easier for under-represented groups, particularly mature students, to access—part-time courses, distance learning, two-year degrees, intensive, accelerated degrees, supported foundation year.”
Why is all that so important? We know that when the rhythms and patterns of study match the rhythms and patterns of many more kinds of people’s lives, they are likely to engage in learning, and that for a mature student, for someone working to fund their study, for someone with caring responsibilities, the traditional three-year degree course, full time, at a leafy campus is not an option. By being more creative about modes of learning and access points to learning, we can engage many more kinds of people.
I gave a speech on broadening access to higher education—I know that you will be familiar with it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but others in the House may not be—some time ago at Birkbeck college in London. I have a copy for anyone who would like one. I am prepared to sign them for particular fans and admirers. Birkbeck college is the embodiment of the principle that I have just outlined. At Birkbeck, the idea of taster courses, first years which allow people to move on to a degree, and the very business of part-time study are intrinsic. It is central to the college’s mission, as it is to the Open university. I was with the Master of Birkbeck college and the vice-chancellor of the Open university briefly yesterday, as I was anticipating this debate. The Open university, too, shows us that by changing the way people study we can change the level of engagement of those who are typically under-represented in higher education. I have mentioned further education, where part-time study is generally the norm, rather than the exception, which is one of the reasons why we want to expand HE in FE.
To return to the Bill and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, the real issue is that OFFA’s requirement that universities must use a range of programmes, including distance learning, part-time study and taster and foundation courses, far from being malevolent, is extraordinarily virtuous in achieving the mission that he and I share, which is that those who have the ability should be able to access higher education.
I do not want to get between my hon. Friend and Pope John Paul II, but if a university court, for example, is to have the freedom to decide what is best for its university, why can we not trust the universities themselves to do what is best? Why are the Government prescribing this set of requirements through OFFA?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science, when dealing with those issues in the House, has made it clear that universities are indeed independent institutions that will make their own judgments on precisely how they deal with those matters. It seems perfectly reasonable, based on our desire to spread good practice as far as we can, to draw to their attention those salient matters that might affect their ability to give opportunities to those people with merit who typically do not do as well as those with equal merit from advantaged backgrounds. I do not think that that is unreasonable. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would not want to inhibit in any way those who are under-represented in higher education, but who have talent and merit, from prospering. I give him absolute assurance that merit is the basis on which universities should choose students, and we are not in the business of dictating to independent institutions on how they go about meeting the requirements, which seem to me very reasonable, set out by OFFA.
We believe that freedom is central to the concept of a university. Indeed, a free university linked to academic freedom and freedom of thought seems to me to be important elements of a civilized society, as was mentioned earlier. I qualify that, however, by noting that John Paul II said that freedom has its merit when it is exercised to pursue truth. I do not want to leave on the record any misunderstanding that freedom is intrinsically of value, separated from truth, because that could misrepresent my views on the character of freedom.
That takes us to Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University”, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will have read before the debate. Newman’s idea of a university was that by definition it should be distinct from instruction, vocation or a profession. That is one of the tenets he sets out in his discourses concerning what a university should comprise. That is no longer the case in Britain. Pursuing a university career in Britain might, indeed, still be about studying something peculiarly—solely—academic, but it might also include studying something that is highly vocational or practical in character, and so it should. I admire Cardinal Newman immensely, but on that matter I disagree with him, which might be because we live in different times. For that reason, however, the business of access to university, tied to what is studied and how, needs to infuse all we do regarding admissions and access. That is why I take a rather more lateral view about the character of higher study: how, where and what people study all seem to be linked when we consider the matter of access.
My hon. Friend fears that we are engaged in social engineering, but I can absolutely assure him that, far from that, the independence vested in universities by their very nature remains unaffected by the Government’s determination to pursue an agenda that will widen access as I have outlined.
My hon. Friend will know, and it has been discussed today, that the Government have been looking at how universities are funded. The changes in fees and funding will put universities on a more sustainable footing, and, as he argues, part of that will involve universities deciding what they charge their students. There are those who think that that will inhibit our plan to widen access, but I absolutely believe that it is not admissions or fees that are central to spreading opportunity in that way, but, as I have said, prior attainment, advice and guidance, what people study, access points to learning and modes of learning.
For example, the Government’s response to Browne, which accepts his recommendations on part-time funding, will, I believe, in a short time have a more dramatic effect on widening access to higher education than any change to the admissions system could ever have. We already know that part-time learners tend to be drawn from a wider cohort than full-timers, and the change has been widely welcomed by the universities sector, in particular in the House yesterday by the Open university and Birkbeck college and, indeed, by others. I know that it is welcomed also by the Association of Colleges, Universities UK and the Million+ group, and it is going to be an essential component in allowing us to achieve our objectives to broaden access.
My hon. Friend seeks to prescribe in law the circumstances by which people might be admitted to university, but my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset suggested—and I was able to help him through an intervention in making the point, I hope, even more clearly—that in doing so my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would prescribe not merely what universities chose to do, but what they chose not to do, because universities that use interviews as a way of assessing students would, I guess, be prevented from doing so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but why does he say that? In my Bill, there is no restriction on universities being able to assess academic ability, potential and aptitude by interview if they so wish.
That is a helpful intervention, because a student with less prior attainment, for all kinds of variables that we do not need to expand on now, might well be admitted to a university as a result of an assessment of their potential at interview, whereas a student who had achieved strong results and so had strong prior attainment might not be. I am glad that my hon. Friend is not saying that there is rigidity in these principles. He displays an understanding of merit that is rather more liberal than I had imagined. I assure him that the Government’s understanding of merit is equally liberal. I do not usually like to use the word liberal in a positive way, but we are now in a different world so I will do so. The Government are absolutely clear that it is for universities to make decisions about who will best benefit from their provision, and not for us. We do not want to dictate that any more than I have now learned my hon. Friend does. Universities are, as the Minister for Universities and Science has made perfectly clear in this House, independent institutions, and long may they remain so.
The principle of institutional autonomy is enshrined in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which I happen to have with me. My hon. Friend will know that that Act—from memory I think that it is in section 62 or 63—makes it absolutely clear that universities are autonomous institutions. That limits the power of the Secretary of State. The Act, which I hasten to add is unchanged by this Government, limits the Government’s power, subject to certain terms and conditions. For the benefit of the House, I will read the provisions because I do not imagine that everybody has the Act to hand. Section 68(3) states:
“Such terms and conditions may not be framed by reference…to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students.”
That could not be clearer. It could not be more plain that the Government, in leaving the Act unaffected by any changes that we are making to fees and funding, are absolutely confirming the independence of our universities in those terms. That principle has been observed for a very long time and we do not wish it to be challenged or amended.
Institutional autonomy, whether in further or higher education, remains a central tenet of our system, and it is a key theme in our current considerations. Perhaps I should add that in respect of further education colleges the Government are going even further. We are determined to lift much of the bureaucratic burden that they have endured for too long. To unleash the human capital in our further education colleges and to build on their excellent work, we will free them from some of the target-driven, centrally micro-managed and directed edicts that emerged from the previous regime. In those dark days, further education was undervalued by Government; it is not now. As we have moved from the shadows into the light, so has further education in the United Kingdom. The Education Bill that is currently making its way through this House rescinds some of the requirements that were placed on further education colleges late in the previous Government’s life. It will increase their powers to borrow and invest, and make various other changes. The principles of institutional freedom that I have described will be retained.
Although I understand the reasons for doubts about what OFFA has said about admissions, I do not believe they are well founded. I have given a firm commitment on behalf of the Government to the principle of merit, but I wish to say a little about how we might move ahead in agreement.
To help identify individuals with the greatest potential, institutions may want to use data about the context in which a young person has achieved their qualifications. The Government believe that that is a valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access while maintaining excellence, as long as individuals are considered on their merits and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence-based.
That is not a change from previous good practice, it is what universities and colleges have always done. Many universities already take into account a range of such contextual information in considering whom to admit. The sector has taken steps further to develop its use of such information, and the sector-led supporting professionalism in admissions programme already has as one of its key themes the use of contextual data to support fair admissions. Good practice principles on the use of such data have been developed.
Comments have been made about the proportion of private school pupils who go to university. We have no policy view on the number of privately educated students entering HE. The Government’s policy view is that access should be on the basis of merit, irrespective of background. It would be wrong for the Government to suggest that the number of people from private schools going to our universities should be limited, and we have no intention of doing so.
There is no chance of the Government interfering or setting quotas. Our recent guidance letter to the director of OFFA makes that point, stating that universities will select their own performance measures and set out, in their new access arrangements agreed with OFFA, the progress that they expect to make in widening participation and access. The Government are quite clear not only that quotas are undesirable, but that as I have explained, legislation simply does not permit us to interfere in university admissions in such a way.
I am inclined to move to my summary now, although I know the House would like me to speak at greater length. The Government fully support the principle that universities and colleges should admit students based on their academic ability, potential and aptitude, as assessed by the institution in question. That is precisely the aim of the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch articulated with his usual flair. We believe that his concerns about accessing educational opportunities on merit do not need legislation. I hope that given my firm assurances from the Dispatch Box, he agrees with that, particularly as I have illustrated the legislation that already exists to protect the very interests that he has mentioned.
Chesterton—we have heard too little about him in this debate, have we not?—said:
“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”
In passing on the soul of society, we need always to be conscious of the fact that the relationship between learning and opportunity is profound. It would be inappropriate, but worse than that unethical, for a Government not to focus on how we can spread opportunity as widely as possible. That is one reason why I championed vocational education so vociferously in my time as a shadow Minister and now as a Minister. Many people’s tastes and talents will take them down a vocational pathway, which must be as navigable, progressive and seductive as the academic route. Notwithstanding my support for apprenticeships, to which the Government are devoting unprecedented levels of funding, the tastes and talents of many other people from the kind of backgrounds that I come from will take them towards an academic career in a university. Our duty is to ensure that they too get their chance of glittering prizes.
We believe that my hon. Friend’s objectives do not need legislation, as I said. We know that good sense and good government demand that universities remain free to make those judgments about their future. Accordingly, while recognising the worth of his intentions and admiring his ambitions, and frankly, being envious of his perspicacity, the Government are bound to oppose the Bill.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to thank everybody who participated in this debate, which has now extended beyond three hours. This fraught subject commands enormous interest both outside and inside the House, and I hope that as a result of the debate, we have collectively flushed out a bit more of the Government’s thinking.
My hon. Friend the Minister, whom I thank and congratulate on his contribution to the debate, identified section 68(3) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 as the reason my Bill is not needed. Under that provision, the Secretary of State is not allowed to interfere in the role of universities in deciding their admission policies for students.
On the face of it, that is the end of the matter, but of course, clever Governments try to find alternative means of achieving their objectives. Using the Office for Fair Access, this Government have come up with a clever scheme. They are saying, “We will allow universities to increase their fees to up to £7,500 or £9,000 a year, but we will give OFFA a veto over them if they wish to increase fees beyond £6,000. The veto can be exercised on the basis of advice that the Government give to OFFA.”
That is an attempt to control access arrangements. Obviously, the Government can say ultimately, “It’s nothing to do with us that university X or Y has decided to increase its fees to £9,000, but in return for the privilege”—as it is seen—“of doing that, there will be restrictions on its ability to admit students purely on the basis of merit.” There is a subtle agenda behind that—the policy is designed to put pressure on universities that want to charge the highest fees, and to introduce constraints on their admissions policies, which they cannot freely decide. Whether as a result of intended or unintended consequences, undoubtedly universities that wish to be able to increase their fees to £9,000 a year in exercise of their sovereign power will not be able to do so unless they get the permission of OFFA. However, OFFA will not give permission unless the conditions set out in the regulations are met and complied with. That is why a lot of universities are worried about this meddlesome interference and increased regulation in the system.
During the debate, I was attacked by my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg for being far too left wing and interventionist. I am prepared to take the criticism on the chin. However, I pray in aid my plea in mitigation, which was in a sense anticipated by my hon. Friend Philip Davies: if there was not already interference by the Government in the freedom of universities to decide their own admissions arrangements, and if they were free to chose the level of fees that they charge without interference from OFFA, there would be no need for this measure. The Bill is a response to the Government’s meddlesome regulatory interference in higher education and in the ability of HE institutions to set fees at the level that they want. I accept that criticism, therefore, but my mitigation is that the Bill has been made necessary by the Government’s attitude.
When one listens to and analyses what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, and if one reads paragraph 6.1 of the Secretary of State’s new guidance to OFFA, it is clear that
“In the new Access Arrangements, institutions should agree with” the director of fair access
“a programme of defined progress each year… The access performance indicators relate to the percentage of students admitted…from state schools or colleges,…from lower socio-economic classes, and…from low-participation neighbourhoods.”
What is the purpose of introducing such criteria, if ultimately the Government do not want to interfere in universities’ freedom to choose their own students? Ultimately, if we trust our universities—my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Shipley made this point—they will come up with the right results, particularly if we set them free, and leave them accountable to themselves, their student bodies and the wider public. We have seen in today’s news about the director of the London School of Economics an example of the exercise in practice of such accountability, independence and freedom. There was no interference from the Government. That institution took responsibility for the consequences of its own decisions, and I am sure that that will be widely welcomed.
I am grateful to Ian Lucas for his contribution. We agree about a lot of these issues, although perhaps not interviews. My daughter’s experience when undergoing interviews for veterinary medicine showed that there is more to going on some of these courses, whether veterinary medicine, medicine or other courses, than academic qualifications alone. Students also have to demonstrate an aptitude, and the people who conduct the interviews are good at identifying that aptitude. For example, an aspiring veterinary or medical student who does not like the idea of going to an abattoir or seeing a dead body is probably not heading in the right direction for their career, however good their exam results. That sort of thing can be found out in an interview, but it cannot necessarily be ascertained on the back of an exam paper.
There is an important role for interviews in the admissions process, but I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Wrexham about the delay in putting the higher education White Paper before the people. I share universities’ concern about the fact that time is running out if they are to be able to draw up access arrangements so that students can know where they stand in relation to fees and other things from the 2012 academic year.
I hope that, in the spirit of belt and braces, the Bill is given a Second Reading so that it can go into Committee. If, in the end, we find that I am wrong and my hon. Friend the Minister is right, and there is no covert interference in university admissions policies through OFFA, the Bill will be nugatory, but I fear that the Government’s agenda, egged on by the minority party in the coalition, is one of interference and trying to achieve social engineering. If one wants evidence to back up that suspicion, I can do no more than cite the fact that the Government are intent on penalising people who pay back their loans early. What could be more ludicrous than that? I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury appears to have made an announcement this morning on seeking a 5p reduction from Europe in the cost of rural fuel. Will you give advice on that, and say whether the Speaker’s Office has received representations from the Treasury on the subject?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of that point of order. I have not received notification that any statements are to be made today, but I am sure that if Members on the Treasury Bench wished to give such notification, they would do so through the normal channels.