Clause 30 - General duties of relevant authority

Part of Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:10 am on 4th March 2004.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education) 9:10 am, 4th March 2004

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.