Clause 30 - General duties of relevant authority

Part of Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 4th March 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 10:00 am, 4th March 2004

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.