Clause 30 - General duties of relevant authority

Part of Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 4th March 2004.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 10:30 am, 4th March 2004

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.