Universities: Access Regulation

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 13 June 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills 2:30, 13 June 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the universities' access regulator has fulfilled his remit of promoting access for part-time as well as full-time students.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we are satisfied with the way that the Director of Fair Access to higher education is fulfilling his remit. The access plans that he has approved will provide over £300 million to encourage higher education applications from lower income groups. Unlike full-timers, fees for part-timers have been and will continue to be unregulated. However, we are pleased to note that part-time student numbers have risen by 45 per cent since 1997, which is nearly four times the growth in full-time numbers.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he noted, the number of part-time students has indeed risen; it is now 42 per cent of the total student population. Why do the Government continue to discriminate against part-time students, considering that they are doing precisely what the Government want; which is in their own time and largely at their own expense upgrading their qualifications? Why do the Government continue to discriminate against them? Why do they not have access, as do their full-time counterparts, to post-graduation repayment of loans, of those loans that can be repaid post-graduation, and why do they not have access to maintenance grants?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, we do not accept that we discriminate against part-time students. In fact, the regime for part-time students has significantly improved since 1997, as the noble Baroness will know. In 1997, when we came into office, there was no national scheme of support whatever for part-time students and poorer part-time students. We have systematically changed that; five years ago we introduced means-tested loans of up to £500. Last year, we converted those loans into straight grants and increased their maximum value to £575, together with course grants of up to £250. As of this April, we have further increased the maximum grants for part-time fees from £575 to £885 a year and maintained the availability of course grants. The deal for part-time students who come from poorer backgrounds is much better.

However, I must point out to the noble Baroness that there is great diversity in the part-time student market. Many part-time students work, and many are supported by employers. That needs to be taken into account in the regime that applies for them.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, the question that the noble Baroness asked was not to compare the condition of today's part-time students with the condition of those in 1997 but their condition with that of today's full-time students. Can he answer that question?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, it is fair to compare the position with the one that applied then because we are subject to great public spending pressures and we must weigh those in all the decisions that we take. As Universities UK, the body that represents all universities, says in its briefing for this Question, it is essential that the Government acknowledge the large and diverse nature of the part-time student body, which means that the Government must carefully target the available resources at those who need them most. It would clearly not be appropriate to target resources at part-time students who are in employment or who are sponsored by their employers when that is not the regime that applies to full-time students.

Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a former trustee of the Open University and an honorary fellow of Birkbeck. Is my noble friend aware that in March my noble friend Lady Lockwood and I wrote to the Secretary of State on the issue of part-time students and particularly the problems for Birkbeck? We were promised an early reply, so perhaps my noble friend could reply now. Recognising that many institutions are providing access for part-time students, does he accept that Birkbeck and the Open University are unique and are desperately short of funds to help them to proceed? Can he assure us, as was originally promised, that there will be some help?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I am sorry that the reply to my noble friend has not been as early as it should have been. I will see that that is rectified. The creation of the Open University is one of the proudest achievements of past Labour governments, and we would do nothing to damage its future. Indeed, the Open University has flourished since 1997, with about a third more students in those eight years. Only in the past few weeks it has launched a fantastic "Powering People" campaign to enable it to advance. As my noble friend said, we do recognise the special position of both the Open University and Birkbeck. The Higher Education Funding Council is, as my noble friend will know, conducting a fundamental review of funding and it is in dialogue with both institutions.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister accept my congratulations on the increase in the number of part-time students? In the detailed consideration that lies ahead, of a proper, fair balance of funding between full time and part time, will he recognise that with the increase in fees for full-time students effectively guaranteed by the Government, it could well be in the interests of universities to substitute full-time for part-time places? That could be very much to the national disadvantage. Will he take that into account?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, that issue should be kept under review. My noble friend makes a fair point. However, in my experience, universities are acutely conscious of the demands for both full-time and part-time courses in their own localities and they view both sectors as vital parts of their mission. The Government would not expect that sense of mission, which is vital to driving what they do, to change simply because of the changes to the fee regime that start next year.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, I speak as the first and still the only Member of Parliament to be given a degree by the Open University. Everything that the Minister has said is not challenged, but he fails to address the central point of the Question, which is a comparison, not with 1997, which is valid, but with the changes in funding for full-time students and part-time students. Will he take it from me that there is a growing resentment, at least in the Open University and others, that by comparison with those for full-time students the institutions for part-time students have got the dirty end of the stick?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I do of course appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue. We will keep the issue under review. As my noble friend will know, the regime applying to part-time students is one of the factors to which the Director of Fair Access must pay regard. However, I am delighted to say that the number of undergraduate students in the Open University has, under this Labour Government, increased from 114,000 to 151,000. So my noble friend may not be in good company in this House, but he is in very good company outside it.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Children), Education & Skills

My Lords, Sir Martin Harris, the access regulator, has made much of the plethora of bursaries available to students. First, could the Minister say how many of those bursaries are available to part-time students? Secondly, the Minister mentioned sponsorship by employers. Is he aware that most institutions that take part-time students reckon that no more than 30 per cent of them are supported by their employers? What do the other 70 per cent do?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, there is of course a half-empty, half-full issue here. The fact that 30 per cent are sponsored by employers means that a significant number have a source of support. The Open University estimates that 70 per cent of its undergraduate students are in full-time employment. So that is another group who have resources which enable them to meet their needs while they are studying. I am informed that a large number of universities in their access plans, and the funding that they are raising for bursaries—which is more than £300 million—are making that provision available to part-time as well as full-time students. The Government strongly support that course, and we believe that it will lead to a better deal for many part-time students.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Spokespersons In the Lords, Education, Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, the Minister's predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, stated in a letter addressed to me, dated 28 April 2004, that,

"we agree that universities should be totally self-regulated insofar as admissions are concerned".

Does the Minister stand by that statement, and will he assure the House that further education establishments will not be penalised if they do not meet quotas for admissions that OFFA may decide to set in future?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, admissions are entirely a matter for universities as independent entities, and the Government are not changing that position.