Clause 30 - General duties of relevant authority

Part of Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 4th March 2004.

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Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills 11:15 am, 4th March 2004

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.