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.

Alert me about debates like this

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

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.