With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 268, in
clause 30, page 13, line 41, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 193, in
clause 30, page 13, line 41, after 'functions', insert
'have regard to any legislation for the time being in force which is intended to prohibit discrimination or promote equality and'.
No. 194, in
clause 30, page 13, line 41, after 'functions', insert
'have regard to the need to eliminate covert forms of discrimination and denial of opportunity'.
No. 221, in
clause 30, page 13, line 42, at end insert—
'(1A) Without prejudice to the performance of his duties under this section, the Director may take any further action which he considers likely to promote fairer access to higher education.'.
No. 235, in
clause 31, page 14, line 16, at end insert—
'(2A) A plan under this section relating to any institution may not include any provisions relating to admissions to that institution.'.
No. 195, in
clause 38, page 17, line 12, at end insert—
' ''fair access to higher education'' means the principle that no person shall be precluded or deterred from pursuing any qualifying course for any reason other than academic ability, and in particular that no person shall be so precluded or deterred by reason of his income,'.
We now reach the second crucial element of the Bill. Having spent last week debating the fundamental issue of top-up fees, we come now to a subject that is perhaps less welcome to universities—the access regulator.
Let me start by saying how surprised Opposition Members were when the Government imposed a guillotine after clause 29—the first of this group of clauses, which relates to the establishment of the access regulator. It would have been more understandable had they imposed one before clause 29, and it is altogether regrettable that we have been forced to start debating the issue at clause 30 instead. For no obvious reason, the Committee has been deprived of the opportunity to debate certain issues relating to the establishment of the access regulator.
Absolutely, Mr. Gale. It is important, however, that we give proper and full consideration to the establishment of the access
regulator, and it is regrettable that we are being forced to start with amendment No. 24, which relates to issues beyond the principle of establishing the regulator. However, we must move on and discuss the details of the regulator's remit rather than whether the regulator should exist in the first place.
The principle behind amendment No. 24 is a fundamental one that Conservative Members feel passionate about. We do not want the access regulator at all. We believe that the provision is a mistaken attempt by the Government to interfere in the independence of universities. With the amendment, we are trying to redress the balance, and to do so in a way that, as I will come to shortly, has many supporters, not least among those in senior positions on the Government benches.
The access regulator is being established by the Government to give them the power—for the first time—to wield a direct influence over how universities select their students. The Minister and the Secretary of State have been at pains to say that it is not about the application process, but purely about the admissions strategies of universities. The two are umbilically linked. The concept of a strategy to secure applicants cannot be separated from how those applicants are admitted. They are, inevitably, two sides of the same coin. The Government's approach is designed to give the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government the ability to tell universities what they must do when admitting students.
Conservative Members have profound misgivings about the measure, as do many vice-chancellors. I think that if it were brought forward in isolation and if it were purely a social engineering measure and not attached to a carrot—if it were just a stick—there would be a widespread rebellion by vice-chancellors. Many vice-chancellors already do excellent work in trying to encourage applications from non-traditional backgrounds. Good work takes place in the higher education sector, trying to create opportunities for people who would not traditionally have gone to university or would have found it difficult, in the past, to achieve the level of success in their school environment that would have given them the opportunity to be credible applicants for university. That work is already happening. The Government are seeking to interfere and dictate where, in our view, they should not be doing so.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that the access regulator would not be concerned with admissions, as I would like it to be, but with access plans and ways of attracting non-traditional students into universities. Those students are under-represented at the moment and I have not heard anything about the Conservative's plans for attracting them to universities. Perhaps he could clarify them.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is getting caught up in semantics. The reality is that one cannot create a system in which universities are fined £500,000 if they do not have a proper strategy to admit
non-traditional students and do not provide financial support for them. If that is not interference in the application process, I do not know what is.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that, as the draft guidance to the director of fair access makes clear, the capacity to fine an institution is not related to its failure to admit a particular type of student?
Of course, the ultimate sanction is to deprive an institution of the power to levy fees, but the Government have made it clear that they do not expect that sanction to be used because they expect institutions to conform to the requirements of the access regulator. That sanction does not relate to admissions, but to the Government's plan for widening access and increasing the breadth of applications.
Let us take a look at what the letter says about the powers and content of the access agreement, and the areas in which the access regulator has the power to get stroppy with universities. It mentions:
''Institutions' plans for bursaries and other financial support for students''.
The Government set minimum limits for that. It also mentions:
''Any outreach work that institutions plan to encourage more potential students to consider higher education . . . The provision of financial information to prospective students on available funding . . . Institutions' own objectives . . . set by themselves, by which they will monitor whether their efforts to safeguard and improve access are succeeding.''
The access regulator clearly has the power to decide whether or not those objectives are acceptable. If the access regulator is not satisfied with the objectives to improve access, he will not approve a plan.
With respect, the draft letter does not say that. It makes it absolutely clear that the milestones are to be set by the individual university, not by the access regulator.
Unless I am mistaken, the document that I am holding, which was kindly circulated, is a draft letter of statutory guidance from the Secretary of State to the head of the office for fair access. I could read it out, but the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) would undoubtedly accuse me of filibustering. I just read to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) the section of the letter that specifically sets out the details of what the Government expect to be contained in plans.
The section of the letter reads as follows:
''Institutions' own objectives (milestones), set by themselves''.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the letter says that, and not ''set by the director of fair access''?
I totally accept that. However, the director of fair access has the right to reject the plan as not appropriate. The institutions have the right to set their objectives, of course, but the director of fair access does not have to accept them. If the director is not satisfied that the plan goes far enough, he has the power to say to the institution, ''Sorry, you may not levy fees.'' The hon. Gentleman is clearly deluding himself. The access regulator has the power to dictate to an institution the degree to which it acts to widen its nets.
Is not the logic of the point made by the hon. Member for Bury, North that if the institution continues untrammelled in its ability to set its own objectives, the whole function of the director of access is utterly irrelevant?
Absolutely. The hon. Member for Bury, North is a distinguished Member of the House in the field of education. He has wide experience of his subject. I am sure that he, like my hon. Friends and I, spends time in universities talking to the people who run them about the range of activities that they carry out. I am sure that he has experienced at first hand programmes that are designed to widen participation. He must have seen that there is good best practice out there. Universities try to encourage people who might not traditionally have applied to those universities to go there.
The hon. Gentleman is now arguing not only that that work is not adequate, but that it should be dictated and its parameters should be established by an access regulator. The access regulator has the power to say, ''You will produce a plan for me with these four headings.'' If he is not satisfied with the plan, he does not have to accept it and if he does not accept it, the institution cannot levy fees. That is the bottom line. That is a pretty powerful sanction. Other institutions that tow the line would gain millions of pounds a year extra through the levying of fees, while an institution that could not reach an agreement with the access regulator would not be able to do so.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has given way because this is an important point. The question that he has to address is whether he would be satisfied if a particular university, or a particular set of universities, continued to pay no attention or minimal attention to the question of widening access to their courses. That is the issue that is at the heart of the amendment.
The key point that I want to correct is the hon. Gentleman's earlier assertion that the director of fair access will determine the milestones. It is clearly set down in the draft guidance—it may not be the ultimate guidance but, as it stands, it is clear—that the milestones are to be established by the university. It is important that there is an element of self-regulation and that the universities take responsibility for themselves. However, it is equally important for universities, as in any broadly self-regulatory scheme, where people do not take that responsibility—
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman, and all that I would say to him in return is that if he believes that institutions are wilfully declining to widen participation, perhaps he would care to name them for the information of the Committee. My experience is that there is a lot of committed work taking place in the higher education sector to widen participation.
I visited a university college last week and talked about precisely that issue with the vice-chancellor. He said that the college ran a programme of outreach in conjunction with a number of other institutions, through which it genuinely sought to widen participation. I believed him, because the nature of the college was such that it had a clear strategic reason for wanting to broaden participation in its courses. However, he said that although the college had been doing its best, it had had difficulties finding students. Universities face real obstacles and cannot simply be told, ''You will go out and find non-traditional students.'' The task is not necessarily easy.
I profoundly disagree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North on a number of issues, but I strongly agree with him on one thing. In many parts of the country, there is a culture that militates against going to sixth-form college and doing A-levels, let alone applying to university. That is a real challenge for us. That culture is not new in this country. One of my closest university friends came from what by any measure was an exceptionally deprived neighbourhood. I went to Cambridge. I came from a middle-class background and arrived there as, perhaps, a traditional applicant. My friend most definitely did not, but he probably achieved more than anyone whom I have ever come across in education to get into Cambridge. His was a startling achievement, helped by a university tutor who interviewed him and spotted his potential. He did not jump the hurdle at A-levels, even though he achieved pretty good A-levels for his background, but none the less he got to university.
I fundamentally agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that there should not be parts of this country in which there is a culture against going to university. That is a shame on us all. We should encourage young people to see their aspirations beyond the age of 16. The hon. Gentleman made a compelling case on where the real problem lies, in that it is seen as naff to stay on beyond the age of 16. We are some distance from addressing that issue and there will be a feed-through period even when we start to do so. Until we address the problem, however, we shall not even begin to pull such people into university.
Last week's debate was relevant, because access to higher education for people who have missed out could, and probably should, come through the part-time rather than the full-time route. Otherwise, we would probably be pulling people out of employment in their early and mid-20s. Instead, we should open up opportunities to them through part-time courses. I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North about the need to do something about the problem, but I do not believe that gerrymandering the university admissions system is the way to solve it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and makes it sincerely. We are quite close on the matter, so I will not make the partisan point that his party voted against both Sure Start and educational maintenance allowances, which might have assisted. However, I would like him to address the fact that it is not enough for universities to be involved with the strata in our secondary schools that may go to university. If the problems that he rightly highlights are to be tackled, universities must be part of the wider educational family and involve themselves much lower down the pecking order, as it were. That way, more youngsters can rise to the level at which all the access stuff, on which I commend the universities, will seriously come into play. Universities must get involved a lot earlier. If they do not do so voluntarily, however, they must be encouraged to do so through effective regulation, which is what the Bill is trying to do.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's aspirations, but I disagree totally with his way of achieving them. Such developments are already taking place. The idea that the university sector sits in an ivory tower and pays no attention to society at large is not correct. All round the country, there are partnerships between universities and local further education colleges, for example, to create bridges between those who have gone into further rather than higher education and to help them make the jump into higher education. Universities run programmes all over the country to open their doors to people whose potential they recognise and who often perform well at university.
My point is simply that passing laws is not the solution to the problem. If the Government do not like something in our society, their natural instinct is to pass a law. The problem should be handled voluntarily through the university sector, encouraged by politicians and through information about the nature of the challenge. I passionately believe that passing a law—we shall discuss the consequences of that in a moment—is the wrong thing to do.
I essentially want to make the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many universities—Cambridge is one—there are insufficient young people from lower income backgrounds? They do not attend those universities for a variety of reasons. Promoting an access programme whereby universities raise aspirations at a much earlier age—12, 13 or 14—so that children have an incentive to do well at school and obtain the qualifications that can get them into universities such as Cambridge is an essential part of the Government's strategy. Does he believe that that could be achieved without the access regulator?
Let me make two points. First, there needs to be some sort of threshold of achievement for getting into university. Surely we should tackle the problem of under-achieving young people in sink schools in inner- city areas who do not secure the necessary exam grades to go to university. Creating a university admissions system under which
the benchmark examination passes apply only to some people, based on social class, and not to others, is a difficult road because admission to higher education would be based not on achievement but on subjectivity. That is a huge mistake.
My second point, which tends to be missed, is that universities are great changers of social standing. I return to the example of my university friend. He is now a successful business man who lives in the countryside, having benefited from his university career. His children, under the Government's categorisation, are from a traditional background. We tend to forget that if the first person in a family to go to university is a target for social attention, the second generation immediately becomes part of the middle-class rich against whom we should discriminate. There is a danger that universities will be forced constantly to pull up from the bottom, but they are not social engineers; they are engines of achievement for the nation and it worries me profoundly when Labour Members see universities as vehicles to right wrongs lower down the education system.
Everyone on the Committee will accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the need to make rapid improvement far earlier in our education system—in primary and secondary schools. His confusion between admissions and applications and his concern about admissions policy is a valid subject for debate, but not at this point in the Bill.
I apologise for any implication to that effect, Mr. Gale.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that everything in the university sector is acceptable—I am attracted by his endearing faith in the status quo—why are university rates of success in attracting students from different social backgrounds so hugely variable?
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase ''social engineering'' and one of his hon. Friends used it in an earlier debate. Setting aside whether three As from Eton are worth the same as, or are as difficult to get as, three As from an inner-city comprehensive, the data show that people from a non-traditional background with a particular set of A-levels are less likely to go to university than people from a traditional background with those same A-levels. Surely it is not social engineering to correct that.
The hon. Gentleman is correct, but the practical reality is that 90 per cent. of young people in this country who achieve two A-levels go to university. As a nation, under Governments of both persuasions—much of what has been done has been achieved under a Government of our persuasion—we have done a huge amount to widen participation. Are
we going to end up with an application process for universities that discriminates against people on the basis of social class?
Let me pray in aid somebody to whom some, but not all, Labour Members look up to and hold in estimation: the Prime Minister. Twelve months ago, during Prime Minister's questions, I asked the following question:
''There are increasing reports of pupils of high ability and achievement being turned down by universities because of their social background. How would the Prime Minister justify that to the people who are losing out?''
The response was:
''The simple point is that I would not. If universities are doing that, they are wrong. What is more, people should go to university based on their merit, whatever their class or background. That is what should happen . . . Well, the hon. Gentleman asked me a question and I have given him an answer.''—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 256-7.]
I completely agree with him.
I simply do not accept the point that the hon. Member for Bury, North makes about the difference between admissions and applications. If all the access regulator is about is saying to universities, ''Look, we want you to go out and make contact with lots of people, and talk to them about university,'' why did the Minister say what he did in the debate that took place about six weeks ago in Westminster Hall? It was a 30-minute debate and I came in to listen at the back. He said that the access regulator would have ''teeth''. It is clear that if the university sector does not deliver and manage to widen participation, the Government expect the regulator to step in and do something about it.
I have been following my hon. Friend's argument closely. Will he spend a moment addressing the importance of getting from the Minister a clear answer about whether he agrees with the majority of Labour Members who have spoken so far, who indicated that they believe that the problem stems at least in part from inadequate behaviour by universities and that universities need to be compelled to alter their behaviour? That is what we have heard from many Labour Members. It is not what Ministers have been saying up until now. If the Minister does agree with those Members, does my hon. Friend agree that he should name the universities that he thinks should be compelled to behave differently?
The Government do not need to introduce laws if they think that everything is right. So the clear implication is that Labour Members, the Minister and his boss, the Secretary of State, believe that universities are failing to admit students from poor social backgrounds and that that needs to change.
It has been interesting watching the Government in the various discussions about the access regulator. I hope that the Minister can clarify some points. All the discussions so far have been about the establishment of the plan, what is expected to be in the plan and the powers to levy a penalty if the plan is not implemented. What happens if that does not work? Let us suppose that it is four or five years down the
track. The university has got a plan, it has spent a bit of money, and it has given some bursaries to students. One of the interesting things about the comments that hon. Members have made about universities that are offering bursaries above the basic level to their undergraduates—an admirable initiative and I applaud universities for doing that—is that the students they are giving the bursaries to are probably already there, because every university has got a proportion of students from non-traditional backgrounds. I am not at all persuaded that the introduction of all those bursaries will suddenly lead to a wave of people from the estate mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North going to university. To some extent, I wish that it would, but I do not think that it will.
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says because Cambridge university has long been generous in providing bursaries to students from low-income backgrounds. The trouble was that until recently it had not told anyone about them so people would apply to Cambridge university, get there and then find that they had a bursary. That did nothing to attract low-income students to Cambridge university in the first place. It was only if they happened to get there that they were lucky enough to find that they had a generous bursary. However, that is changing, partly because of the Government's statements on the introduction of the access regulator. Surely, the hon. Gentleman can see that there has already been some benefit.
The hon. Lady describes a situation in which a university is already doing the right thing, but doing a lousy job of communicating it. There is good practice in the universities sector. She makes a perfectly fair point, but we do not need to pass a law to rectify the problem. That is where the difference lies between Government and Opposition Members. My colleagues and I do not disagree, nor do I suppose for a moment that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) does, with the desire to ensure that we do not waste talent in our society.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but my hon. Friend intervened because he mentioned a specific problem—that bursaries do not attract students and probably go only to students who would have been at the university anyway—and then said that a law was not necessary to resolve it. Clause 31(4)(c) states that the regulator will
''require the governing body to make available to students and prospective students information about financial assistance available''.
It offers a specific resolution to the very real problem that the hon. Gentleman described, which has not been resolved through any other means. Surely that is a step forward.
I am afraid that I do not accept that. Let me give the Minister a practical example of what he could have done. I promise that I shall not digress far, Mr. Gale.
We debated financing and top-up fees. The Government will spend more on the new student
support systems than will be raised from fees. If they had taken a small amount of the extra money that will be used to subsidise the student loan system to enable students to pay their fees, set up 20,000 or 30,000 bursaries at £3,000 or £4,000 a year for people from non-traditional backgrounds, and left everything else as it was, they would have had a much greater impact on participation than they will through anything that is in the Bill.
The Government believe that such problems are resolved by passing laws. My argument is straightforward: they are not. There is also a risk of creating injustices. One point on which I agree entirely with the Prime Minister is that there are losers as well as winners if covert or overt pressure is placed on universities to change the way in which they admit students.
The amendment is specifically designed to address the issue of academic ability defining people who go to university and to ensure that we do not create entry points for social reasons alone. We would insert the words
''ensure full access to higher education based upon academic ability and potential''.
We included the word ''potential'' as many universities look beyond immediate exam results for potential in the student.
We do not want a situation in which the regulator, in effect, imposes a plan by saying to a university, ''Produce a plan. Show me your targets.'' We do not know what would happen four, five or seven later if the university's proportion of students from non-traditional backgrounds had not changed a jot. What would happen to the university if plans were drawn up for an outreach programme but nothing much changed? The Minister said that the access regulator will have teeth. Would it be encouraged by the Government to step in again and ask for a tougher plan and more funds to be set aside for bursaries? It is not clear what would happen, which is a worry for Opposition Members and, I have no doubt, for universities because if the regulator truly will have teeth, the powers that are implicit in what the Government ask it to do must go beyond the formulation of an initial plan.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman confuses admissions and applications. He really must confront this point: does he not accept that there is a fundamental difference between an agency—be it the director of fair access or whoever—that requires universities to increase the pool of candidates that apply, and an agency that intervenes directly in the process of selecting candidates from that wider pool?
I understand that the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a difference between the two, but I do not agree. At the moment, 90 per cent. of young people who get two A-levels go to university. I asked the Minister in a written question what happened to the other 10 per cent. and he said that many of them went into the job market by choice, and some went off and did other things. In an
interesting and enlightening comment, he also said that some were put off by the cost of going to university. How top-up fees will affect that proportion I have no idea—well, I do have some idea.
The reality is that, to all intents and purposes, virtually all people who get two A-levels already go to university. So if the net is going to widen, inevitably, what the Government are asking the universities to do, through the regulator, is to start taking people who do not have A-level passes—there is no one else to take. To my mind, I am afraid, that is saying to universities, ''You have to change the criteria for admission to your universities.'' That is inescapable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, under clause 32(5), Ministers can instruct the director, by regulation, on whether to approve any university's plan? We know for a fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is interested—some might say that he is obsessed—with not just access, but individual admissions. They are something of direct concern to the most powerful domestic Minister in this Government.
My hon. Friend's point speaks for itself. The Government have a track record of interference. The hon. Member for Bury, North, spends time with head teachers, college principals and vice-chancellors. He will know—unless they are telling him a very different story to the one that they are telling me—that across the education sector and particularly in higher education there is a real feeling of frustration about the dead hand of Government: the bureaucracy and the interference in their affairs. Why would we believe that a Government who have a lifestyle of interference would have a light touch, when the Secretary of State will have powers of interference through the access regulator into what universities do? That is incredible and unbelievable, and I do not believe that there is a single vice-chancellor who thinks that that is the case.
Just in case the hon. Gentleman runs away with the idea that there is not a single vice-chancellor who feels that way, I refer him to what Nottingham university, which is part of the Russell group, said:
''The University of Nottingham welcomes the light touch approach proposed by the access regulator''.
There is one.
It has been quite interesting to have conversations with vice-chancellors during the past two or three months. Their perspective on the access regulator has changed by the week. About three months ago, they were saying that the change was not particularly dramatic. During the past couple of weeks, they have been getting quite worried about it, as the comments that Ministers have been making about the access regulator's powers and aspirations have become more and more tough.
The Minister has said that the regulator will have teeth. I do not believe that one can have a light touch and teeth in the same regulatory body. In reality, it will be a vehicle to compel universities to change the mix of
students that they admit in the future. I accept the points that the hon. Member for Bury, North made about admissions and applications, but I do not accept that they are separable concepts. The two are integrally linked—the consequences of one are integrated with the other.
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that admissions and applications are inextricably linked and that the director of fair access will therefore intervene in the selection process, he cannot simultaneously raise the question of what will happen in five years' time when a university's social mix has changed. Presumably, things will have changed as a result of the intervention by the director of fair access.
That is a perfectly fair point. We have two scenarios. If what I say is right and the body is, as the Minister says, one with teeth that will indirectly compel universities to change the application processes for students, the social mix will change. I accept that. At the same time, universities will admit people on subjective rather than objective grounds. There will be those who pass exams who do not get places, and those who do not pass exams who do get places. If I am right, that will happen, so the hon. Member for Bury, North is absolutely right: five years down the track that will not be an issue because the interference is happening now.
I have a question for the Minister. Let us assume that the hon. Member for Bury, North is right and the body is a light-touch regulator. The Government are clearly determined to ensure that there is change in universities. So what happens in five years if things have not worked? The regulator clearly has powers to put pressure on universities at the very least. What are the Government planning to do in those circumstances? It is hard to believe that this is all simply about having a plan, and that all that matters is that every university has a strategy and does not have to deliver anything. The access regulator becomes a much less problematic creature if that is all that we are talking about, but I do not believe that we are. Nothing in the Government's record convinces me that they simply intend that the plans will sit on the shelf.
It is, of course, the Conservatives' hope and expectation that we will be in government in five years. The Labour party must recognise that if, by some ill fortune, it were still in office then, it is quite possible that the Chancellor will be Prime Minister, and he would undoubtedly use his powers to interfere with admission.
In that case, I will let my hon. Friend's comments speak for themselves.
Amendment No. 24 would provide a clear counter-balance. We did not have the opportunity to set out our principal objection to the establishment of the access regulator during the debate on clause 28. In this
debate, however, we can suggest that, if the Government use the majority that they established for themselves in the Committee and insist on pushing through their proposal for an access regulator, the regulator's powers and remit must be tempered at the very least by the simple provision that he is constantly mindful of his objectives and the work that he does in the higher education sector. He must have a duty to ensure that full access to higher education is based on academic ability and potential, and that we do not start to admit people purely because of their social background. To do so would do those people no favours.
I am becoming more and more angry, the longer that the hon. Gentleman speaks. He would delete fair access from the Bill on the premise that we seek to interfere with the admissions policy for the purpose of social engineering. I wish it were so, but where is that in the Bill?
I do not want to repeat all my comments, but was the hon. Gentleman not listening when I said that almost all young people who obtain two A-levels go to university? By definition, if we are going to widen the net, the Government and the access regulator must be talking about admitting to universities young people who do not pass their A-levels.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the fundamental nature of outreach work in the field that we are discussing. It is not about leaping people over the need to pass the examinations and achieve the grades or to have the ability, but about trying to reach out to people and to generate the aspiration at a young enough age, backed by their parents and schools, to pass the examinations and achieve the grades at school. That is what outreach work is about, and he should support it.
The Conservatives understand that perfectly well. I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North when he talks about his constituency and his constituents. Our point is that the university admissions process will not solve the problem. Of course, people's aspirations should be addressed. The difference between us is that the Conservatives believe that the Government are seeking to gerrymander the university admissions process by pressing the universities to sort out a problem that should be solved elsewhere. The problem lies in the absence not only of choice in inner-city schools, but of Government determination to stamp out failure in many parts of our education system. The Government tolerate the fact that many school-leavers are unable to read or write, and they tolerate the culture that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North talked about.
Those problems cannot be dealt with by the higher education admissions system. That is where we differ: we believe that this measure is the wrong solution to the problem and an unwarranted interference with the university admissions process. It fails totally to reflect the good work that has been done already in many universities, and it is an inappropriate gerrymandering exercise that interferes with universities' independence
in a way in which politicians have never done in the past. We passionately believe that this measure should not be in the Bill.
It may be appropriate for me to make a few observations at this point. First, I trust that hon. Members understand the ground rules by now. I have deliberately allowed a fairly wide-ranging debate on these amendments because it is abundantly plain that others flow from them, so it is appropriate to clarify the position from the beginning. However, it is highly unlikely that I shall permit a clause stand-part debate.
I look studiously at the Wall as I make my second point, so as not to appear to point a finger in any direction—if I may mix metaphors. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have been criticised for making lengthy speeches. The House has a proper tradition of intervention, which stimulates the flow of debate and is part of our democracy. If hon. Members are generous in allowing interventions, it is axiomatic that speeches will be longer. Therefore, it would help the proceedings if interventions were interventions, rather than speeches. If time permits, I trust that this Chairman, at least, will call all those Members who stand or seek to catch my eye.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on his speech, which was long, but he took lots of interventions. He outlined the Conservative party's philosophy very eloquently, although, obviously, I wish to pick up on several issues. The speech was not of the sort that we have heard on other days, which have cost us at least 10 debates. It was a thoughtful speech.
Given your strictures, Mr. Gale, that we may go a little further than the scope of the amendments, I should like briefly to refer to the debates that we had under—
Thank you for that guidance, Mr. Gale. I was starting to stray—even in my second sentence.
We are considering how the market works. I will not revisit our earlier debates. We accept that there is a market, but how perfect is it and how can we make it work? I think that it is deeply imperfect. Opposition Members sometimes use the term ''social engineering'' as a pejorative expression, as though, if there is any intervention or regulation, some social engineering is going on. An imperfect market, by definition, socially engineers a different outcome to that of a perfect market. For example, when kids of five or six are given IQ tests, regardless of background, some of them will be shown to have a high IQ, and others achieve will lower scores. When those youngsters are tracked, those of high IQ from working-class backgrounds cross over with those of lower IQ from middle-class backgrounds because, as they go through school and receive good parenting, their environment changes and they are tested, challenged and supported, as perhaps
other working class kids are not. That crossover has been demonstrated, and I hope that that is generally accepted in the Committee.
That is social engineering; the social circumstances of those children are such that even bright working-class kids are starting to be denied the chances that perhaps a perfect market—whether in parenting or schooling—might create for them. The first point that I want to make in reply to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is that social engineering starts at an early age. Attempting, rather feebly, some regulation at a later point might well be insufficient. It certainly does not deal with the root of the question. The hon. Gentleman and I may agree on that.
Social engineering takes place at all points. What we are trying consciously to do is bring in regulation through OFFA to bring about a little rebalancing, not by denying anyone the right to go to university—I have to be a little sharp with the hon. Gentleman, whose party's policies would reduce the number of youngsters going to university—but by making sure that those who are able can get to university. That is important.
Of course there are vice-chancellors—even my good friend Sir Colin Campbell of Nottingham university—who would like light-touch regulation. Many of us would like spending on health, education and policing without taxation. What a wonderful world that would be. However, that is to close our eyes to reality. Light-touch regulation will not enable us to make progress.
I draw succour from the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks: he wondered about the consequences if what is proposed does not work, and where we will be in 10 years. My reply is that we are now 40 years on from the first statistic that demonstrated that about 20 per cent. of working class kids go to university. As I mentioned in my first contribution in Committee, that figure has stayed static for those 40 years. There has been little progress on that percentage.
A light touch has been tried. Four decades of effort has been expended on that approach. Any Government—of whatever political party—who find that statistic unsatisfactory must deal with the question.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. However, in talking about the percentage of working-class kids going to university, is not it important to remember that in the 1970s 90 per cent. of the population was defined as coming from those groups? That figure has now declined to 40 per cent. As a consequence the problem is smaller than it was. One needs to recognise the changes in society and the fact that university has allowed social mobility.
That is why we want university to be open to all those who are able and capable and who get the right qualifications. The raw numbers nevertheless fit into the percentages that I have explained. With the polytechnics becoming universities all of a sudden, there are more people going to university. We need to bear in mind the vast
expansion in universities, but I ask my hon. Friend to look, as I know he will, beyond the simple statistics and attend to the underlying problem.
I grew up in an area in many ways similar to large parts of the constituency that the hon. Gentleman eloquently described in previous sittings of the Committee. At 16, at the school that I went to, a great deal of raw talent that could have remained, and might well have benefited from a university education, walked out of the gate. However, the fundamental problem was in the school. The school did not do enough to encourage those people and build their aspirations. It is arguable that universities might have been able to do more in interacting with the school, but in my experience the fundamental problem was at the schools rather than the universities, and that is where the burden should lie.
I am happily surprised by the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which is pertinent to the debate. No one should run away with the idea that OFFA will become a body that revolutionises education for most people in this country, but it can contribute even in its current weak form. It could make an even better contribution to help those youngsters to whom the hon. Gentleman referred.
In addition, the role of the Committee is to improve legislation. Whether we win or lose Divisions, by our very debates I hope that we will influence the minds of not only the Minister and his officials, but the vice-chancellors who read our debates. I have not yet heard anyone in Committee say that they are totally satisfied with the way universities bridge into the community.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important distinction between—to use a footballing analogy—the scouting of talent, which universities are doing in their different ways quite well, and the building of a football academy for six to 11-year-olds for training and skills a little earlier on. Perhaps we need to look to vice-chancellors to become far more a part of the education family, rather than just scouting for and picking out the youngsters who have got through an unnecessarily testing educational experience to make it to the top.
The hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting and broadly sensitive speech. Would he not accept that, paradoxically, one danger of going down the regulatory route is that if minimum requirements for access plans are specified, certain institutions may be tempted to do simply that and not develop their own approach beyond the minimum requirements of the access regulator's remit?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very sound point. There is always a problem, but I rest that part of my case on the failure to get stuck into the appalling statistic that eight out of 10 working class kids cannot enter university because they have a congenital learning problem. That is not the case, and at this point in our history, after 40 years of that relatively static statistic, we must take responsibility for it and help universities and vice-chancellors to progress.
We can help in Committee. The idea started as the brainchild of someone in No. 10 Downing street,
perhaps assisted by Nick Barr—whose friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), reads his works at great length—and Mr. Iain Crawford, who was of a more practical mind and attempted to link fees with political reality. I understand that Mr. Crawford is not enjoying the best of health at the moment and I wish him well in his recovery.
When No.10 seized upon the idea, as happens when policy-making, the concepts of a £3,000 grant and proper regulation were not floated. Imperfect as the consultation may have been, and I do not cast aspersions on my right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Secretary of State, who have done an incredible job subsequently to get the show back on the road, Parliament, through the Opposition and Government parties, has helped to improve the Bill.
We ended up with a £1,000 grant at the beginning of last autumn; we now have a £2,700 grant plus a £300 bursary, perhaps overlain—when my right hon. Friend writes to the Committee once his officials have done their research properly—by dozens and dozens of universities helping to push the grant even higher.
In addition, OFFA has appeared through the White Paper, and we can improve that concept too. What started as an idea about how we could raise one thirteenth of the money that universities need by allowing graduates to repay when they are able to pay can become something far wider. It has, by dint of the effort of Members in this House, been made into something that could be extremely valuable for the people we represent.
We need to integrate our universities into our education system. It is a stereotype to talk about ivory towers and academics, and about people being distant from reality. Nevertheless, the reality is that universities are somewhat distant from the rest of our education system. On a later amendment I will talk about how the smallest nursery in someone's constituency is inspected by Ofsted. The most capable and able further education college is inspected by Ofsted. Every primary and secondary school is inspected by Ofsted, even to the extent of driving certain heads in the past—we have changed it a little now—to the verge of nervous breakdown and beyond. Can we get our most senior uncle in the education system, the universities, into that family and give them the joys of being inspected by Ofsted, so that they are making the contribution that we expect of everybody else, even of people dealing with under-fives? I will float that in a later group of amendments.
So as to have a rigorous process of inspection, so that we obtain proper effect and value for money from universities, what did we have in the White Paper? On the consultative paper on widening participation, it was suggested that OFFA would not have any inspection capability, but would merely enter into access agreements with any institution that wished to charge more than the standard fee for any course. That has become the way we do that. OFFA was intended to be a reactive body. The universities themselves would devise their own access agreements, according to what they deemed
''necessary to achieve their widening participation ambitions,''
and to choose the milestones and indicators that would be used to monitor their progress. It would be OFFA that would then decide whether the institution was making a genuine effort to apply those.
This is a curious role and almost unique in regulatory history in this country. Most regulators operate from a statutory framework of rules and ensure that those affected comply with them. OFFA, it seems, will let the institutions write their own rules and then decide whether they are acceptable. That will draw some cynical chortles from school heads and further education principals who have recently had the Ofsted experience. Some, indeed, presented me with this badge, which says, ''I've been well and truly Ofsteded.'' I certainly would not suggest that this process should go up from the universities to the ministerial team or Back-Bench MPs or the Select Committee on Education and Skills. Who knows where full inspection could stop if we are determined to extract every possible assistance from those who service our education system?
It was initially proposed that the Education Secretary should write to the head of OFFA with intermittent revisions, setting out OFFA's statutory duties and how they were to be met. This presupposed a statute giving OFFA a clear set of principles to which to work. Unfortunately, this Bill does not do that. It is not clear from the Bill what that set of principles is. The Bill merely gives OFFA the duty
''to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education,''
which, sadly, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell would seek to remove from the Bill. That would not help us get the sort of education system we are all after. However, the Bill does not contain any definition of the highly debatable term ''fair access'' and leaves OFFA's criteria either to future regulations, which Parliament may not be able to amend, or to future guidance, which Parliament may not even see in advance. I raise that in a later amendment, so I will not continue down that path.
I believe that OFFA's mission is so important that it should be defined on the face of the Bill, debated fully by Parliament, and revisited annually by Parliament, through the Select Committee on Education and Skills. That is why I have tabled my amendments. They define the key concept of fair access, they ensure that OFFA is guided by equality legislation and tackles overt and covert barriers to access, and they give Parliament, the universities and the public the chance to discuss how OFFA should work.
I would also like to see OFFA given the power and money to act on its own initiative, rather than simply react to what the universities set before it. OFFA could do a great deal to make young people think about further and higher education and could address the complex factors that keep them from pursuing it. More than that, universities should be part of the local education system, helping to raise standards in their own area.
I hope that the Government will take my concerns seriously. In doing so they would remove uncertainty, and ensure that OFFA helps to achieve the higher education levels for those who can aspire in our system.
Amendment No. 193 seeks to prohibit discrimination of any prescription, and says that the director of fair access
''should have regard to any legislation for the time being in force which is intended to prohibit discrimination or promote equality''.
Amendment. No. 194 requests that OFFA has regard to the need to eliminate covert forms of discrimination and the denial of opportunity. That is very pertinent to the points made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. We need our regulator not merely to be a referee once the game has taken place, we need it to dig back into those very causes outlined by the hon. Gentleman and by his colleague on the Front-Bench, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). We need OFFA to examine why this underachievement takes place, and why we waste those people of talent from a working-class background. If the regulator is to do anything, it must be encouraged and allowed to get on with that particular job.
The hon. Gentleman is now turning to the text of the amendments that he has tabled. Could I tease out from him a point of clarification? Although he has tabled amendment No. 193, surely the regulator would be governed, as is everyone else in our society, by whatever legislation relating to discrimination is put on the statute book by Parliament. I do not see how amendment No. 193 alters the legal position.
With regard to amendment No. 194, to the extent that there is a distinction between covert discrimination, referred to in this amendment, and the other forms of discrimination—which would, in any case, be covered by existing or perhaps future legislation—would he explain what he means, and whether he thinks he is broadening sensibly the range of interpretations of discrimination that have already been legislated upon at some length by Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman is right to pick me up on my drafting. As he will know, when one is attempting to secure a debate in Committee, getting the amendment in is probably more important than getting the wording absolutely right. Even the Clerks cannot make a silk purse out of my sow's ear on OFFA.
Nevertheless, raising the issue of the broader discrimination that does take place, we are obviously now signatories to the European convention on human rights, and all the other things that flow from that. The aim is to draw in that wider sense of equity that we would all like to see in our society.
Amendment No. 221 states:
''Without prejudice to the performance of his duties under this section, the Director may take any action which he considers likely to promote fairer access to higher education.''
In a way, that gives the ability of initiation—by appointing someone, hopefully of extremely high calibre, who can address the problems, and not merely say ''if ever I get an access agreement I will
make a few points.'' We need someone of great ability, who can address the questions that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell put on our agenda earlier.
There is a problem with the numbers available. If we pass the Bill, it will make virtually no short-term difference to my constituents' prospects. There may be a number who have been put off by not having a grant, and I hope that their teachers will encourage them to go to university rather than go to work. But I do not anticipate that that will make a massive difference in the short term.
I have not always agreed with the directors of Ofsted. However, if we employ people of that calibre—who are capable of getting their teeth into those issues and coming up with answers and proposals in order to push Governments of any complexion—in the long term, we will have done a great service to those people who wish to go to university, but often feel that it is not for them.
Amendment No. 221 is the most important of those amendments. For the first time, it imposes a duty on the institution that would allow it to see where the problems are and tackle them.
As I said in my intervention on the hon. Gentleman, we should look not merely for ways into sixth forms and 14 to 16-year-old education, but further back down the food chain and make serious proposals about how that would work. We should make serious plans and proposals for outreach, using best practice. Committee members have been inundated with good practice from universities. We need that pull together to ensure that people use those best practices at the earliest opportunity.
We also need to look at specific disadvantaged groups. I am not referring solely to their socio-economic class. Sometimes their racial or gender specification are important. In my constituency, it is my experience that ethnic minorities and asylum seekers often act as role models for established non-traditional and traditional groups. Universities need to become partners with the local education authorities and become intimately involved with them, rather than viewing them as bodies that merely come in, look at the best talent and help those people get to university.
The Minister knows that the universities of Nottingham and Trent—both of which are close to my constituency—have attempted to build on six school sites that have to kick children out on to the streets at 16, and help them provide vocational training for 14 to 16-year-olds. I referred to those sites earlier. The provision needs to be extended to 14 to 18 or 19-year-olds, in order to keep those kids on site at 16. Those young people could then continue to study information technology, health and beauty, service industry skills, catering, motor engineering and so on. There should be a small offering on each of those constituencies.
To their credit, FE colleges in Nottinghamshire have agreed to brand a 14 to 18 centre on those school sites. The universities have also seen the problem that lies within 1 mile of the ivy-covered walls of Nottingham university's nice campus and Trent university's dynamic city centre campus. Many
Committee members have visited the former site. The universities have agreed to brand a centre on those school sites, even though it may appear to be of no relevance to them. That is not a talent-driven initiative, but is intended to help the community build vocational training that may not immediately appear to be of benefit to the universities.
The hon. Gentleman has put away the partisan knockabout this morning and, if I may say so, is making a thoughtful speech. Is the thrust of his argument, which I have been following closely, that the bulk of the responsibility for changing the existing culture will lie with schools even though universities have a role to play? Does he agree with that?
No, I do not. We are all in this together—it is a classic case of joined-up thinking. We must get universities working with secondary schools, and primary schools working with the under-fives. Sure Start needs to work through. There has to be a continuum, so that people who do not go to university can continue lifelong learning in some other way.
Universities sometimes see themselves as slightly apart from the rest of the educational system, but I am talking not only about education. I am offering my right hon. Friend the Minister the chance to draw the universities in so that they are willing to play a serious part in overcoming some of the deep problems encountered by my constituents and those of many of my colleagues. To take the argument slightly wider, we must link the issue with the way in which secondary schools deal with their local police, antisocial behaviour orders and discipline. We should not force schools to include people who will lower standards for those who are desperately trying to claw their way up the attainment ladder. So, the issue is far broader and involves health, policing and many other things.
To return to the Bill, however, OFFA gives us the chance, if we are prepared to take it, of drawing universities into the educational family. They would not merely be talent scouts but could bring their tremendous expertise to bear on deeper problems. Solving those problems will require us to tackle attainment at secondary, primary and pre-school level.
Let me give one final example. I have done a lot of work on social behaviour as opposed to antisocial behaviour. As soon as I discussed my proposals with Sir Colin Campbell and Neil Gorman—the two vice-chancellors of Nottingham's universities—they put the resources of their relevant departments at my disposal. That is a tiny example, but people working in child psychiatry or researching sexual health issues will now be at my disposal and at that of secondary schools in my constituency. That is one benefit of universities reuniting with the populations that they are meant to serve.
It is not necessary to pass a law, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase. However, it is necessary to strip away the universities' need to be defensive about their role in our broader educational system. They are part of the family, and we should welcome them as such. We should challenge and make demands on them. We should ensure that they can make a contribution. I have given a couple of examples of what they might do from my experience, and I am sure that all hon. Members could bring similar anecdotes to bear.
I know how deeply the Minister cares—not least because of his constituency experience—about ensuring that every youngster who can do so takes up the chance to go to university. At the moment, however, OFFA is a reactive body that is unable to inspect—I shall come to that on later amendments—and which in many ways is a pussy cat. What we need is a tiger to ensure that universities play their full part in education. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment as its stands, I hope very much that he will at least take away the thoughts that we have put on record. We should make OFFA an institution of which all parties can proud and which will survive not only this Government, but which an incoming Conservative Government will welcome in 30 year's time as well.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the next Member, I should explain the Chairman's general approach to the calling of speakers in these debates. Traditionally, the Chairman will call the mover of the lead amendment, then those who wish to speak to amendments standing in their names, then other Front-Bench spokesmen and then Back-Bench Members; hence, Mr. Clappison.
I shall speak to amendment No. 235, which stands in my name and deals with the important matter of admissions. I also speak in support of the excellent amendment No. 24. In addition, although it may come as a surprise, I listened carefully to the thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and I have a certain sympathy for his amendments Nos. 193 and 194. However, I shall need to hear more about them during the debate, and I shall be extremely interested to hear what the Minister says.
We are considering one of the parts of the Bill that worry me the most. As the Committee will have gathered, the other effect that worries me the most is that on families with lower and middle incomes—a vast range of families. My concern is that there will be a disincentive for young people from such families to apply to universities, because they will face an additional burden of debt that is far worse than the debt that they face now. However, if I go much further down that road, you will call me to order, Mr. Gale, and rightly so.
I feel strongly about this matter, which is why I am anxious to go into the facts and figures with some particularity to compare the situation for students now—in pounds, shillings and pence—with the future situation, which in my view will be much worse under the Bill. My feelings are so strong because my assessment is that people's opportunities will be reduced.
The measure could reduce opportunities in another important way. We established earlier that higher education institutions face serious consequences if they fail to comply with the requirements of the director of fair access. Although I made the argument in earlier debates, it is relevant to remind ourselves that the issue concerns not only the director's will, but that of the Government, given the relationship between the Secretary of State and the director that the legislation creates and the detailed statutory guidance to the director that the Government have issued. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly said in an intervention, the Bill means that behind the director will stand the Secretary of State.
I have also argued, equally relevantly, that higher education institutions will inevitably direct their minds to complying with the requirements being set for them, given the serious financial consequences if they fail to do so. Higher education institutions will be exercised by exactly how to jump through the hoops being set before them. We have already heard that, in essence, the issue is about encouraging applications and not interfering directly with admissions, and we shall no doubt hear that said again. The Minister used that form of words, and I think he is giving his assent to that. I completely accept his good faith on that point.
It seems, however, already to be in the interests of institutions to seek talented youngsters from as wide a range of sources as possible. I am mindful of the great deal of evidence that institutions are doing just that, including, and perhaps especially, the most prestigious Russell group universities. In the light of that, I pose this question: is there is any evidence or suggestion from the Government that those institutions, including the prestigious ones, are failing in that regard or not doing as much as they could? I want to hear from the Minister specifically on that.
It seems to me that those institutions would not be serving their own interest through any such failure or complacency, given the competitive nature and much greater extent of today's university sector. Universities face severe competition. They are under a lot of scrutiny—I take the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—and it is in their interest to keep their standards as high as they can manage.
The key question for universities is how they are going to be judged. How can they show that they are complying with the requirements of the director of fair access and the Government? Accepting for the sake of argument that there is a distinction between applications and admissions—to put it another way, there is a difference between activity in promoting applications and outcomes in terms of admissions—I draw the attention of Government Members to the fact that, although universities can encourage
applications and do a lot to do just that, they cannot control them. In particular, although they might encourage applications from one source, they cannot discourage applications from another.
We have spent a lot of time discussing Cambridge, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), as its representative, has rightly drawn to our attention. However, I shall have a lot to say about other universities that we might have overlooked but which, like Oxford and Cambridge, are very important. It is a fact that certain universities—obviously including Oxford and Cambridge, but a number of others as well—attract a disproportionately high number of applications from certain types of school. Let us be frank about that and put our cards on the table. They receive a higher number of applications from independent schools, selective grammar schools and a certain number of high-performing state schools, some of which are in my constituency. A large number of parents in my constituency send children to such schools and a number of them go on to prestigious institutions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a university is to keep up its high standards, it is essential for it to attract the best applicants? Does he also agree that when only 9 per cent. of the applicants come from the lower social classes, it is obvious that that university is not attracting all the best applicants? Some applicants from the lower income groups are not applying to that university but should be, if it is to achieve the highest standards.
There are a number of assumptions in what the hon. Lady says. Although universities can encourage applications, they cannot control them or determine that applications should come from a certain source. There is another important assumption that I think she has accepted, given her earlier intervention: if the universities control admissions, she assumes that that will somehow have an effect on applications from particular schools. She can correct me if I am wrong, but I think she is on record as saying that although OFFA will be concerned with applications, in her view it should also be concerned with admissions. I shall give way if she wants to correct that or enlarge on it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my intention in this area. It is important that OFFA should encourage applications from students with non-traditional backgrounds. My concern is that, having got those students to apply, the universities may exclude some of those students if they continue to use the admissions procedures that they use at the moment. At a later stage, I am prepared to make a short speech—it would not be appropriate to do so during an intervention—to amplify what I want to say.
On the point of admissions, the hon. Lady and I may not be as far apart as she might think. I would be prepared to leave admissions to individual universities, strictly subject to the principle of merit. She and I might be close, perhaps on how merit is interpreted, but if merit is to be overridden by other factors, that might be a different matter. I fear that the Bill will do far more of what she hopes it will do than she apparently believes at the moment. I fear that it
will meet what I take to be the objectives of some Labour Members. If she will listen, I shall explain how that will come about.
When there is a high number of applications from certain types of school and those applications are judged on merit, it is likely that the student body of the institution will contain many more students from such schools than will that of other institutions. This may provide the hon. Lady with some comfort, but in those circumstances I would support a realistic approach to merit in appropriate cases, subject to the individual judgment of academics.
I commend to the Committee an excellent editorial on the subject in the Evening Standard last week. Among other matters, to which I shall refer later, it mentioned the subject of merit:
''Admission tutors already recognise that decent grades from a sink school, alongside other evidence of talent, may represent a greater achievement than better scores from a good school.''
I would certainly accept that in appropriate cases, but it would have to be subject to the judgment of individual academics, free from any outside pressure and strictly based on a realistic assessment and interpretation of merit. That is how the principle of merit should be interpreted, but that, I fear, is not what the provision is about. It is about something completely different from and antagonistic, if not antithetical, to the principle of merit, which will certainly override it.
My next point will certainly give comfort to Labour Members. The Secretary of State gave us some clues as to what this is really all about in his statement of 8 January when he referred to the focus of OFFA's work. He spelt that out clearly in the draft statutory guidance that was given to OFFA and which contains the answer to the key question of how universities are to be judged by OFFA. In fact, this is spelled out clearly twice in the document, in which he says:
''I would expect that OFFA would expect the most, in terms of outreach and financial support, from institutions whose records suggest that they have furthest to go in securing a broadly-based intake''.
That is in paragraph 2, and the same is said of the access agreement under paragraph 6—''Approving an access agreement''—which clearly spells it out for the institutions, in a similar form of words, that the most is to be expected
''from institutions whose records suggest they have furthest to go in securing a broadly-based intake of students.''
This is the key point—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) will contain herself for a moment. The key point is that what is expected of universities is to be determined by the intake. If the intake is not broadly based, they will be put in the dock, hauled up for judgment before OFFA and told to do more. They know what lies in store if they fail—a substantial penalty.
I have a question for Labour Members, including the Minister: given that that is what universities are being told is expected of them, how can it do other than put huge financial pressures on them over admissions? They will be judged on outcomes in terms of admissions, not on activity in terms of
applications. There is no provision on how many applications they must encourage; they will be judged purely on outcomes in terms of admissions.
I am not the only one to have noted that. It has been widely noted, and I quote again from what I regard as the fair-minded article in the Evening Standard:
''Mr. Clark may insist that Offa will have no power over individual admissions. But if he creates a procedure which penalises universities for the overall outcome of their decisions in individual cases, he is manifestly interfering in admissions.''
The Bill and the statutory guidance do precisely that.
I want to reiterate a point that my hon. Friend has touched on. Whatever universities do, they can choose to admit only from the pool of people who apply to them; they cannot compel people to apply. It is not fair that they should be punished if people from certain socio-economic groups do not apply to them in the first place.
On what should be done to encourage people from individual schools to apply later on, one of my contentions is that interfering in admissions, and putting financial pressure on universities, will not help or encourage the people that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North mentioned.
The hon. Gentleman made a lengthy speech, so I will give way to him later, perhaps when he has heard the full extent of my remarks. I know his thinking on the issue and I agree with much of what he says.
The guidance refers to ''a broadly based intake''. That is the bottom line for the Government as far as the universities and the director of fair access—the whole caboodle—are concerned. The Government owe it to the Committee and the universities to tell us precisely what that phrase means. What are the size and nature of the hoops that universities will be required to jump through? I think that it will create distortions and possible unfairness in the system. There will certainly be a widespread perception of unfairness.
Sir Howard Newby, who, as the chief executive of HEFCE, should know what he is talking about, predicted today that there will be a large influx of students from EU accession countries. That is his prediction, not mine. He thinks that the 5,000 undergraduates from those countries could rise to at least 20,000. Will they come under the remit of the director of fair access? Will they be regarded as part of a broadly based intake or will they be exempt from the attentions of—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) disagrees, but I am only quoting the words of the Government and Sir Howard Newby.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Bury, North and then the hon.
Member for Nottingham, North, if he feels that he cannot constrain himself any longer. To be fair, I will then let my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) intervene.
Accepting the ingenuity of the hon. Member for Hertsmere, which I think worthy of the front page of the Daily Mail, in linking the accession countries and the office for fair access, does he not think that his honest and welcome remark earlier about his support for a realistic approach to merit implies that there will be a move to a broader-based intake? Is that not the consequence of what he argues?
No. The hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience in the sector, but I think that universities largely take merit into account. It is in their interest that they do so because they want to reach the highest possible standards. They will do that by admitting people on merit, as far as they possibly can, which means admitting the best possible students. If a student from a difficult background, who has perhaps not had the same educational advantages as others, has merit, they will adjust things accordingly.
The question is how to interpret the principle of merit. The financial pressure that the measure creates wholly overrides the principle of merit and is all about a broadly based intake. The hon. Gentleman has made a number of interventions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry has been patient. I will return to the hon. Gentleman as I have a question that I want to ask him later on, to which the Committee needs to know the answer.
Going back to the specific point that my hon. Friend rightly raised relating to the extension of the European Union, is it not the case that all 10 of the new entrant countries have national income levels that are less than 75 per cent. of the Community average? If it is a matter of taking an interest in access for the most disadvantaged students, a priori, one would expect that the universities would be under an obligation to admit more from such groups, bearing in mind that the basis of European legislation is that there should be no distinction between citizens of this country and applicants from other member states. In other words, if we are in the business of expanding access, does OFFA have to take an interest in European Union students and secure their best interests?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He mentioned European legislation, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. I would be very interested in eminent legal opinion—I have not received any such advice—as to whether the Government are breaching the European convention on human rights with the discrimination that they are introducing.
The hon. Gentleman obviously has to make his points about the straw man—that OFFA will try to impose unqualified or less suitably qualified people on universities. I accept that that argument is an aspect of the party political battle, but no one has said anything to sustain it.
I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a personal question. Imagine a young person, not from a
privileged background, who had fought very hard and worked his way through difficult educational circumstances to get a couple of A-levels. He applies to a university and is given preference over people who are better qualified. Can the hon. Gentleman put himself in the position of that young person and imagine how he would feel? He would not want to be in that situation and would rather go to a university that is appropriate for his level of qualification. He would not want to be a fish out of water or seen as in some way inferior to his peers. Were this straw man actual policy—it is not—it would not benefit even the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, but would make them feel worse and would lessen their educational attainment.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but he has not grasped the fact that I am talking about merit. I am asking what it is. I have not employed the argument that is sometimes used by people to attack what the Government are doing because it is not necessary to do so. The problem is that they are not taking merit into account at all. They are overriding it by requiring universities to have a broadly based intake. If he searches through the statutory guidance and the Bill, he will find no mention of admissions on merit.
''ensure full access to higher education based upon academic ability and potential''.
The Minister would also address the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises were he to accept amendment No. 235, which states:
''A plan under this section relating to any institution may not include any provisions relating to admissions to that institution.''
Admissions should not be affected. If the Minister is prepared to be as good as his word, he will accept that amendment.
Does the hon. Member for Bury, North agree with the interpretation of the hon. Member for Cambridge, that the measure applies to admissions as well as applications? I give way to him. [Interruption.] I must have reached a lacuna in the Committee's proceedings.
Order. First, the hon. Member for Bury, North was not seeking to intervene. Secondly, with great respect, the hon. Member for Hertsmere cannot invite another hon. Member to make a speech.
We reached a rare moment in our proceedings when the hon. Member for Bury, North did not wish to intervene. If I have managed to silence him, I have achieved something.
Does it occur to my hon. Friend that the non-speech of the hon. Member for Bury, North may be analogous to the non-application from the disadvantaged student who ought to go on to higher education but has neither sought nor been offered a place?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for calling me ''another one'', and for giving way.
The hon. Gentleman needs to pay greater attention to one part of his argument and perhaps give a definition to the Committee. Given that, depending on one's point of view, there are different ways of using the words ''merit'' and ''potential'', which have a range of definitions, can he define what he means by the terms and explain how the amendment helps the Committee?
I apologise if there was any ungraciousness on my part. I was referring to the intervention, not to the hon. Lady.
I am happy with the wording of amendment No. 24, which I commend to the hon. Lady. I think that it is widely understood. I would leave the assessment of merit and academic ability in the hands of institutions and academics, free from pressure.
Free from pressure, but surely not free from examination. The hon. Gentleman will accept that a great deal of public money goes into those institutions, and the spending of public money should be transparent. That raises the matter of admissions.
I accept that universities have to be transparent when making it clear that they are assessing people strictly on merit and that applications are all determined on merit. However, I fear that that is not what widening participation is about. There is a different agenda altogether, which is reflected in the statutory guidance, in some of the funding mechanisms that the Government have put in place, and, in particular, in policies relating to education. I am happy to go into those, but I think that I would be trespassing on your patience, Mr. Gale. You have already been extremely patient. I will try to make some progress, but I can give Labour Members chapter and verse of where academic merit has been overridden in the name of—I hesitate to use the phrase ''social engineering'', so I will use the Government's own choice of words—''a broadly based intake''.
''ensure full access . . . based upon academic ability and potential.''
How could anybody ensure full access based on those criteria unless he knew what was meant by academic ability and potential? If that is left up to the universities, I do not understand how the director can fulfil that function.
I said that I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, who can say more about it. I am supporting his attempts to make the best of a bad job. I do not want a director or an office for fair access. Instead, I want matters to be left in the hands of individual institutions and a more realistic approach to be taken towards creating opportunities for young people.
I will make a little progress, if I may, because I think that I might get into trouble for taking up too much of the Committee's time. I know that other Members are waiting to speak. Perhaps I will give the hon. Gentleman one more try later. [Interruption.] Well, go on then. I am being tempted.
I accept that it would have been entirely out of order for me to have responded to the hon. Gentleman's question earlier, but if he cares to repeat it the next time I intervene, I will happily reply to it. My current point is that if he is so satisfied that existing arrangements work well, can he answer the question that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell could not? That question is: why does the record of individual universities vary so greatly?
Dare I say it, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not been paying attention to what I have been saying because I covered that point earlier. When I gave way to him before it was because he had indicated earlier that he wanted to intervene. I was just being patient and trying to get around to him after I had taken interventions from other hon. Members. Perhaps in the fullness of time we will hear whether he wants the director of fair access to deal with admissions rather than applications.
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of cause and effect, which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell dealt with quite properly in his opening remarks. If we want children from the backgrounds to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North referred to go to university, which is a laudable intention, we must examine standards and aspirations in schools and how they can be raised to encourage children to apply to universities.
We have spent a lot of time discussing Oxford and Cambridge—understandably, as the hon. Member for Cambridge is keen to discuss Cambridge—and other illustrious universities, such as Nottingham, which is near the top of the prestigious list of Russell group universities. Those universities have a relatively small student intake compared with the whole university population, and they are elite institutions that demand very high standards.
If such high numbers of students from the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North or anywhere else are to go to university, we must talk more about other universities, some of which have not received a look-in at all—certainly the new universities. It was very good of the hon. Lady to mention Anglia polytechnic university, but we have not heard any mention of other former polytechnics or the huge number of places on offer at excellent universities, such as Leeds, Manchester, and Hull, which is represented by the Minister. I am sure that he knows Hull university well.
I am not sure whether Hull university is a member of the Russell group, but the standard of teaching and quality of university life there is second to none. To add a word of praise, I know that it does a tremendous amount of work helping local people get into education. I am told that the cost of living is very
cheap as well, but the right hon. Gentleman can probably tell us more about that. We must talk about those universities as well as the elite institutions.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the spread of universities. If we agree with Labour Members that talent is being wasted and that there are people who would excel at university if they had the opportunity to go, does he accept that the results at universities that voluntarily widen participation will improve and that they will set a precedent that others will want to follow, given the need for all universities to demonstrate that they are delivering academically?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. What does the Minister think the effect of all that financial pressure will be on universities? I look forward to hearing his answer. I suggest to him and other Labour Members that the Government are overriding the merit principle of admissions and, importantly, the independent academic judgment on admissions that should be part of academic freedom. The Government may say that they are not interfering with that freedom, but the only freedom that academics will be left with is to choose how to do what the director of fair access and the Government tell them to do.
The proposal will put academics and university departments in an invidious position. They might find themselves saying, ''On strict merit, X is the best candidate, but if we admit him we may be penalised for taking too many students from his type of school.'' The pressure to override merit will probably be greatest in elite universities and in over-subscribed subjects such as law, English and psychology. That will be unfair on academics, whose judgment will be overridden; they are being asked to do the Government's and OFFA's dirty work. It will also be deeply unfair on applicants, who will suffer because of factors in their background that are unrelated to academic merit.
I shall quote once again—I can do no better than to do so—from the fair-minded article in the Evening Standard. [Laughter.] Labour Members may like some parts of the article, but they should read all of it. Perhaps the Minister can answer the question that it poses:
''What does Mr. Clarke propose to say to the 18-year-olds turned down despite meeting the necessary standards? They chose the wrong parents? Or the wrong postcode'',
or whatever would be wrong under the definition of a broadly based intake that the Minister is to supply later?
No, the Committee will have to accept that I have been generous in giving way. I put it to Labour Members that the proposal is unfair on universities and applicants and will cause a deep sense of resentment of the type that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North described. It will be unfair on the wider public, too, because it will inevitably result in a dilution of standards in our universities. They will not be allowed—particularly the most prestigious institutions—to select and admit students purely on
merit, but will have to apply other criteria as well. Standards will suffer and the country will suffer from that. Our universities will be less competitive than those of other countries that admit strictly on merit.
What will happen to the individuals who have been turned down because of something that is wrong about the type of school that they have attended, or in their background? They will be left with a long and lingering sense of resentment. They will certainly, in many cases, feel that they have not attended the university of their choice. It will be interesting to see whether many choose to go to universities in other countries where such discrimination is not practised. Labour Members should not be under any illusion. Some may welcome the measure, but it will put huge financial pressure on universities and put people at risk of discrimination.
The amendment refers to access ''based on academic ability'', and I accept that the hon. Gentleman is sincerely pushing that, but how can a university offer places to people before the A-level results on that basis? It must choose people to offer places. The hon. Gentleman will understand the response of the student who applies for a place at Leeds and is told not that he has a place if he gets two As, but that a place is not on offer. How can choices be based on academic ability when offers go out before the results are known?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am no expert, but I think that he will find that universities look carefully at the grades that children accomplish at GCSE and at their school reports. They then set a certain level for the students to attain at A-level—an A and two Bs, or two As and a B, or for Oxbridge, probably three As—depending on the level of demand for the university in question. It is guided by academic ability. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to practice; at the moment, many of the popular, over-subscribed and most prestigious universities make higher offers to children from some types of school than they do to children from other types of school. That is what I believe has happened.
Increasingly, children from certain types of school will not receive an offer at all, no matter how well they have achieved in their GCSEs or how many As or A*s they get, because they will run up against the problem that the Government are creating for universities. The university will be afraid that it will not have the broadly based intake referred to in the statutory guidance, on which a judgment will be made as to whether it will get its hands on the variable fee that the Government will allow it to charge.
Universities are under huge financial pressure and that is how I fear—with good reason, I believe—that the provisions will work. There may be Labour Members who would like to see it work in that way; they might find that it is even better than they think it is already. I find myself hard put to say which aspect of the Bill is more obnoxious—the huge amount of debt with which students are being saddled, or the discrimination that is being introduced. If Labour Members will answer my question about whether the measure should deal with applications or acceptances,
I will in the fullness of time be able to tell them what I think about that. However, at present, I consider both elements are discriminatory and against the interests of individual students and the universities.
Amendment No. 268, which I tabled, concerns the extent of the Secretary of State's leverage or power in respect of OFFA. I want to make some comments on what else has been said. There will be no convincing Conservative Members that OFFA is anything other than a sinister form of manipulation. They are portraying the proposal as one for a Minister for admissions. We are not going to have that; that is the difference between Labour and Conservative Members.
The OFFA proposal presents a clear ideological difference. I understand why Conservative Members do not support it; it is a level of intervention that they think unnecessary. That is an entirely reasonable standpoint. However, we on the Labour Benches s believe that, as we are putting additional public money into our higher education institutions, it is reasonable for us to have a light-touch expectation that they will do their level best to widen participation—for all the reasons that we have agreed. Working-class kids from poor backgrounds should have the opportunity to go to university.
One can argue that the issue is attainment and about getting those two A-levels, but it is how you get the attainment—not you, Mr. Gale, I am sure that you have lots of attainment. How the young person arrives at that attainment relates not just to the school but to the wider community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said so eloquently, this is about universities being part of that wider family and spreading their influence. That will have an impact on schools, which will have an impact on individuals.
We have heard about lots of cases of best practice. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that perhaps we had heard too much about the elite universities and not enough about the former polytechnics. I referred to Greenwich university, which has a joint campus with Kent in the Medway towns in my constituency. Some excellent work has been done there: summer schools and a children's university, which has been inspiring. The vice-chancellor has taken part in graduation ceremonies for youngsters leaving the children's university, and all the parents have come to see that wonderful occasion.
I join the hon. Gentleman in applauding the work of the two universities that have come together in his constituency. Does he not recognise that he and his colleagues are making the case for those of us on the Conservative Benches? Each time that a Labour Member stands up, they applaud the work of their local university. What more evidence does the Committee need that the work is being done and that we do not need to pass new laws and set up new bureaucracies to deliver the goals that the hon. Gentleman is talking about?
The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely reasonable point. He describes an ideological difference between us: laissez-faire; it is working; do not intervene. As I was about to say, my hon. Friend
the Member for Nottingham, North and others have referred to examples of good practice. We want that to be widespread. If we are making additional investment, it is reasonable to want assurances and a light-touch plan for that. Some hon. Members say that the provision is not necessary and that the universities will widen participation anyway, but we are not satisfied with the level of participation at the moment. We are not convinced that we should leave the job to universities or the market, or that we should take a laissez-faire attitude.
There were the same ideological differences about the minimum wage. Conservatives argued that the issue should be left to employers and employees, who will ensure that they get a good rate for their work. That did not happen; people were exploited—not by all employers; the majority are fine. It follows that some universities will make every effort to push the boundaries of intervention in their communities but that others will not be so proactive. We have heard that figures for the participation of people from different social groups vary considerably among similar universities. Yes, we can point to examples, but perhaps they are of some universities not doing as well as others. Therefore, we say that if we are increasing investment, we should have a light-touch OFFA—an organisation that will ensure that best practice is spread.
The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically modest speech. Does he agree, however, that the provisions do not differentiate between levels of performance, and will not solve the problem of differential performance? As long as the institution complied with the requirements of the director of fair access, there would be no need for its performance to approximate that of its neighbour or counterpart.
I believe that the proposals in the draft guidance have helped universities to understand what they can expect from OFFA and what it will expect them to do to widen participation. I do not think that they have much to fear. However, I am concerned that we are giving assurances that OFFA will have a light touch and that it will not be draconian, but subsection (1)(b) gives it carte blanche. It says:
Conservative Members may agree with me. I have no intention of pressing the matter to a Division, but will the Minister say why he believes it necessary to have such a potentially draconian piece of legislation that will give the director of fair access carte blanche? To set up OFFA and to issue guidance is one thing, but to say ''any guidance'' is causing universities concern. As someone said to me, it is like having a dog but wanting to bark oneself. Will the Minister say why such a provision is so necessary? Setting up OFFA is the right way forward, but it needs to have a light touch, and the legislation should reflect that. I am slightly concerned that the provision goes too far.
I am delighted to have the chance to participate briefly in the debate. I shall not speak for long, partly because of the many erudite and well argued speeches made by Members on both sides of the Committee on a matter that I am delighted has been raised as a result of Conservative amendment No. 24. However, I am not sure that either side has got it right. I say that with some trepidation, as I risk creating a great many enemies in Committee.
I am entirely in favour of promoting fair access, but I fear that the Government's original wording says nothing about widening participation, which is a very important part of what we all seek to achieve. I believe that everyone accepts that it is necessary not only to make access fair, but to try to widen participation among groups of people who may not have fully participated in higher education until now. Simply to make access fair does not tackle the problem properly.
On the other hand, the Conservatives want to ensure full access, and their amendment tries to define how that access should be achieved. It does not, however, say anything about how access should be made entirely fair. I have considerable concerns about the definition of access based on academic ability and potential. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell quite rightly defined that as more than A-levels. I have been delighted to hear that the Conservative spokesmen are unanimous in their approval of the idea that A-levels are not enough. I am totally in favour of the suggestion that we need more than A-levels to promote access to universities and to decide fairly on access. I have been making that argument over the past year.
Although independent schools still appear to be determined to suggest to universities that access should be decided purely on the strength of A-levels—presumably because they believe that their students can get better A-level results than those in the state sector—I am delighted that, despite that, the Conservative party now appears to reject the move.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with some of the academic research that has been carried out into the relationship between A-level grades and final degree classification. There was a considerable amount of work done in the 1970s. One publication was called Degrees of Excellence—I am sorry, but I do not have the names of the academic authors who produced it. Their conclusion was that the only strong correlation between A-level grades and degree classification was in physical sciences and in maths. In every other subject, A-level grades were irrelevant. I do not know whether that adds to the hon. Gentleman's argument.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for producing that evidence. I have seen research in all directions on the issue; it is not a subject on which the research is entirely clear. However, it is clear—the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell gave an example from one of his friends—that in instances A-levels are not the best indicator of grades at university.
Is the hon. Gentleman as delighted as we are that the apparent Letwinisation of the Conservative party has led to hon. Members saying
that it should be down to the institution to decide whether A-levels are sufficient? Does he remember the criticism that came from the Conservative Front-Bench team when the university of Bristol decided to do just that?
I do. However, I was in the process of making enough enemies without directly attacking the Conservative party in quite that way. I accept the Minister's comments.
At one point, the hon. Gentleman tossed out a remark about the attitude of independent schools to the maintenance of A-levels. Could he give the Committee some evidence of that? He should bear in mind that, as I recall, the master of Marlborough college, Mr. Edward Gould, was a member of the Tomlinson committee that recently reported and advocated a severe shake-up in the system.
The hon. Gentleman may have slightly misunderstood what I was saying. I was not saying that all independent schools support the idea that A-levels should be maintained, but that as I understand it they all support the idea that A-levels should be the criterion on which access to universities is decided. That is a slightly different point.
I am a little puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's comments. I said clearly that I thought
that it was important to leave universities to decide what happens to the admissions process and that it is not for politicians to interfere with that. Politicians may voice their views, but they certainly should not interfere. However, I do not recall suggesting that A-levels should not be part of the process. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the worst possible development would be the regulation of universities so that students who did not have A-levels and had not made the grade were admitted?
I shall say two things about that. First, I apologise if the hon. Gentleman thought that I was accusing him of saying that A-levels had no part to play. I was not; I said that he had talked about a friend of his who in spite of getting comparatively bad A-levels—grades that might normally not have resulted in a place at Cambridge—nevertheless showed potential and was able to go with those lower grades. I accept entirely that university success, qualifications and proof that one has reached a certain standard can play a part in university applications and in being granted a university place.
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.