I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 268, in
clause 30, page 13, line 41, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 193, in
clause 30, page 13, line 41, after 'functions', insert
'have regard to any legislation for the time being in force which is intended to prohibit discrimination or promote equality and'.
No. 194, in
clause 30, page 13, line 41, after 'functions', insert
'have regard to the need to eliminate covert forms of discrimination and denial of opportunity'.
No. 221, in
clause 30, page 13, line 42, at end insert—
'(1A) Without prejudice to the performance of his duties under this section, the Director may take any further action which he considers likely to promote fairer access to higher education.'.
No. 235, in
clause 31, page 14, line 16, at end insert—
'(2A) A plan under this section relating to any institution may not include any provisions relating to admissions to that institution.'.
No. 195, in
clause 38, page 17, line 12, at end insert—
' ''fair access to higher education'' means the principle that no person shall be precluded or deterred from pursuing any qualifying course for any reason other than academic ability, and in particular that no person shall be so precluded or deterred by reason of his income,'.
I have just met a group of young students from my constituency and was able to tell them that I was in the middle of probably my longest speech in the House of Commons. I spoke for around an hour in our sitting this morning and it is now more than three hours since I started my speech. I shall not take too much more time.
I was responding to an intervention from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who said that A-levels, if not the sole criterion for university entrance, should play a part. I was agreeing and did not want him to think that I thought that A-levels had no part to play in the choice of students who are offered places at university. I was about to say that some people had gone to
university without having any A-levels, perhaps as mature students. A-levels are a useful, but not necessarily essential, part of the criteria to be used in choosing who goes to university.
In terms of the Conservative amendment, it is hard to measure how difficult it is to decide how to choose people on the basis of their academic ability and potential. Examinations are only part of the process. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if A-levels are not the only way of judging the ability and potential of applicants, all applicants will have to be interviewed? I have some sympathy with the use of interviews as another way of sorting out those who have the greatest ability and those who have a lesser ability, but they also pose problems.
The first is the problem of cost and timing if we continue with the present system. Many of us—the Minister indicated earlier that he might agree with this—think that it would be better to change the system so that applications are made only after A-level results are known at the end of a fifth term of an applicant's final year. That might help, but there would be a problem in interviewing everyone who applied to university because of the cost and the time involved in that process.
Another problem that has become apparent is the quality of interviewers. Most interviewers are lecturers at the universities concerned and not all of them have been well trained in interviewing techniques. Some may not be good interviewers, so the whole business may become a lottery. I have always told my family and other youngsters who apply to Oxford and Cambridge that entrance to those universities is a matter of luck. Many students could make good use of an Oxford or Cambridge course and have the necessary academic ability, but it so often seems to be a matter of luck as to who interviews them. Some people have an interviewer with whom they click and who immediately takes to them as a person and sees their abilities. Others have an interviewer who may be shy or does not know much about interviewing techniques and may make the wrong choice. I have always tried to persuade those who go for an interview at Oxford or Cambridge that it is a matter of luck as to whether they are accepted and that there are many good universities elsewhere if they do not get into those two.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should not be a matter of luck and that selection interviewing, if done properly, can be a good way of discriminating between good and mediocre students, not that Cambridge ever gets mediocre students? Does that not point to the need for much better training for interviewers rather than leaving the process to luck?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point, with which I entirely agree. Techniques can be taught. There is no question that the quality of interviews can be improved. Obviously, that can be done in some cases. The difficulty is that a scheme under which everyone is interviewed requires a large number of interviewers. Although training can be given, there will always be some people who are better at an activity and more able to learn the techniques than others. There will be a problem if we say that everyone must be interviewed.
I am following closely the hon. Gentleman's points about selection by either A-level results or interview alone. Has he considered those universities that take students from so-called non-traditional backgrounds without any A-levels? They check the student's potential, academic achievement or merit by setting a standard test—for example, an essay or a piece of work that is applicable to the degree course for which the student is applying.
The hon. Lady also makes a good point. I did not intend to imply that the process should consist of any one of A-levels, interviews or some test. All those methods should be considered, and sometimes several may have to be used to make a fair choice.
The hon. Gentleman makes some perfectly fair points. Does he agree that use of the interviewing technique leaves room for difference of opinion? For example, the interview may be culturally loaded in favour of the confident student and away from someone with a background that is less socially developed, or, conversely, as I suspect happens more often than not, it may tend to favour the person with the kind of ability to which the interviewing technique is sensitive.
The hon. Gentleman makes good points in both directions. That is why I was emphasising that none of the techniques is perfect on its own. We must consider the possibility that universities will use a variety of techniques, depending on the individual candidate or circumstances.
There are also problems with the Government's wording. First, there is great difficulty in defining exactly what ''fair access'' means. The Government have not done that. It is clear that the techniques that are used to decide who goes to university result in many people from less-advantaged backgrounds not going. That is not necessarily a failing of the process itself. I shall explain in a moment the other reasons for under-representation of some groups, which clearly is happening.
The question is whether the access arrangements are causing the problem. For example, would the Government consider that access arrangements were fair if students did not necessarily need any particular qualifications? It is dangerous to say that someone is fully and sufficiently prepared for a university course just because they have the ability to do it. Certain levels of knowledge and understanding of a particular subject may be necessary before one starts a university course. If they went on ability alone, they might struggle when they got there and be put off from finishing the course. There is a question as to whether we need to set at least some qualification standards.
The hon. Gentleman's last point is enormously important. I am sure he would accept that that consideration becomes
doubly important given the overall context of the debate. Not only are we asking a young person to enter an environment for which they may not be best prepared, we are also asking them, as a result of the Bill's provisions, to make a much larger financial contribution than they would have previously. Therefore, it is doubly important that a university course is right for them.
I would not demur at all on that point.
Making access fair does not necessarily guarantee wider participation. That consideration is missing from the way in which the office for fair access is being set up. If anything, I would like OFFA to try to ensure wider participation, but all that we have been given is an assurance that it will ensure that the access arrangements are fair. However, fair access arrangements do not necessarily lead to better and fairer participation.
In particular, we have the difficulty that participation in universities depends on a number of people other than those in the university. The first group of people it depends on are the potential students. They have to decide that they want to apply to go to university, let alone whether they want to go if they are offered a place. As a number of hon. Members said, unless we encourage potential students to get to the stage at which they apply to and accept places at universities, we are going to be in trouble.
I say in passing that one of the saddest things about the Laura Spence case was the way in which—perhaps without meaning to—the Chancellor undoubtedly gave the impression that he felt that Oxford and Cambridge were snobbish universities and not the sort of places that were likely to accept students from poorer and more disadvantaged backgrounds. That was a crying shame, not least because at least two of those who got in in place of Laura Spence were from ethnic minorities, and one of those later went on to get the top place in her final examination, above all other students across the university.
There is a danger in emphasising that Oxford and Cambridge are exclusive. I do not think that they are, although they are likely to be more exclusive if people say that they are because it will put off students who might otherwise be encouraged to go there.
On that very point, does the hon. Gentleman accept that since the Chancellor's statement about the Laura Spence case, the proportion of students from under-represented backgrounds attending Oxford and Cambridge has increased almost year on year? The deterrent effect of the Chancellor's statement that he is criticising has not taken place.
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. My memory of the statistics is that the number of students at Oxford and Cambridge from under-represented groups had been increasing year on year for some time and that the year after that case, the number at Oxford fell, although it increased the following year. I think that there was one year immediately after the Chancellor made those remarks when the percentage went the wrong way at Oxford, which perhaps proves my point.
However, the problem does not lie just with the students. It is impossible for the Minister, through the use of OFFA or by any other means, to force either the parents or the schools to do anything to encourage young people. That point has been made. It is important that, as far as possible, parents and schools encourage those from the under-represented groups to see their future as one in which they go to university. It is impossible to use OFFA to achieve that. The problem is a fundamental one in our society as a whole and it cannot be solved simply by introducing a higher education Bill.
We have a real problem in our society in trying to ensure that everyone of talent and ability sees university as part of their future. That is damaging and it will difficult to overcome while we have a society that is still class-based to some extent—we still speak of the working class, the middle class and the upper class and people still think of themselves in that way. Sadly, until we overcome that problem—a problem I would dearly love to see our society get rid of—it is not going to be possible to overcome the problem as a whole.
We have to work at the problem from a huge number of different angles, and doing that purely from the point of view of access to university is never going to be enough. Access to university has a part to play, and my party accepts the need for universities to plan better access—that is a part of the process and is therefore worth while in itself. It is, however, only a part, and I suspect quite a small one, in the total process of widening participation among youngsters from less privileged backgrounds. I hope that the Minister will accept that it is only a small start in what has to be a long process of improving the situation.
On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Given the nature of the discussions that have taken place in the Committee in recent days, I think it will be helpful to draw its attention to the comments made in the Chamber this morning by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. When I asked him to give an undertaking not to claw back money raised by the universities through fees in the allocation of university grant, he declined to do so. That will be a matter of great concern to the Committee.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab) rose—
Order. That may or may not be of interest to the Committee, but it is certainly not a point of order for the Chair. Unless the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is ingenious enough to turn it into a proper point of order, we will have to proceed with our consideration of the amendments.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. What I have to say has absolutely nothing to do with the intervention by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell at Treasury questions this morning; it relates to the point that I made to the Chancellor. I think that we need a lifelong learning account, similar to the children's trust fund that is being set up by the Chancellor, which will help to ensure that people, such as mature students, have a nest egg that they can use to
go on to further education. No doubt that, too, will be of great interest to the Committee, Mr. Gale.
This has been an interesting debate. I had not intended to contribute, but I heard the contributions from hon. Members on both sides this morning, and I think that I have a contribution to make. I look forward to hearing how my remarks go down.
I agree with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell this morning, when he said that there was already a good deal of good practice in universities. I believe that that is the case. Last summer, Cambridge university admissions tutors invited me to look at some of the schemes that they were putting in place to improve access to the university. I clearly remember that there was a taster course taking place in the week that I visited. I went to meet some of the students who were taking part in that course. It had been paid for by the Sutton Trust, which is an excellent organisation, chaired by Peter Lampl.
I spoke to one of the students, a young—I think that she was about 16—black girl from an inner-city comprehensive school in Hackney. I asked her how she was enjoying the course, and she said that she was having an absolutely wonderful time and that it had opened doors for her that she had not imagined. I asked her how she had come to know about the course, because most of the students were there through their schools. She said that her school had not brought it to her attention. She had seen an advertisement in her local paper. She took the advertisement into school and asked, ''Do you know anything about this?'' The school did not. She said, ''Do you think I should apply?'' She was told that she might as well, but there was no great enthusiasm from the school. The staff did not think that she would get on to it, and they did not think that she was the sort of student who should apply to Oxford or Cambridge anyway.
That example illustrates that there are young people out there with initiative who are prepared to grasp the opportunities that are offered to them, and that schools could do a much better job of encouraging young people to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. It also illustrates that the universities are beginning to reach out to try to raise those young people's aspirations. I do not know what happened to that young woman. I hope that she applies and becomes a student, because she could make a terrific contribution.
I also want to draw attention to campaigns that have taken place in the past. Both Oxford and Cambridge run the ''Target Schools'' campaign. It is highly organised and well run. Under the scheme, students from the university go into schools and encourage people to apply. They talk about their experiences, their qualifications and the advantages that they are getting from university life. They
encourage younger children—usually around the ages of 14 or 15—from the schools to apply.
In Cambridge, that scheme is run entirely by Cambridge university students union. As far as I know, the university has contributed financially, but not in other ways. The scheme is run by the students. I recall that, about seven years ago, I got to know one of the students who was organising the scheme. I suggested that we collaborated on it, so that he would make available to me the list of schools to which they were writing to ask them to participate in this scheme. I would then write to the Member of Parliament for the school's local area, and encourage them to encourage the school to participate. As a result of that, I discovered that many of the schools involved in the scheme were grant-maintained or public schools. Although students thought that they had a fairly comprehensive list of state schools, most were not.
That campaign has been successful over the years, however. I would also like to mention briefly the Group for Encouraging Ethnic Minority Applications. Among the lots of good work that GEEMA does, it has one day on which it invites students from ethnic minority backgrounds into Cambridge university to take part in taster courses, to participate and to talk to students and members of staff from ethnic minority backgrounds. I have attended this day on a number of occasions. There is always an excellent atmosphere, and it is a very good way of encouraging young people to apply.
I have been critical of the low number of students from lower-income backgrounds at Cambridge and Oxford. However, this is not uniform throughout the universities. We tend to talk about standard or average applications, but we can look at the success of King's college, Cambridge, for example. I do not know the current figures but, in the past few years, the proportion of students at that college from state school backgrounds has hovered around 90 per cent. That fact is not very well known and, of course, it is balanced by other colleges that do less well.
I recall inquiring into this to find out how it was that King's was more successful than other colleges in attracting students from state school backgrounds. I learned that King's had identified some state schools with which it wished to have an ongoing relationship, whereby the admissions tutor got to know the staff at the school and the good students were invited to the college to make sure that they knew what they were applying to. That ongoing relationship meant that the college received a number of high-quality applications from those state schools. That seems to me to be very good and worth replicating.
I went to another admissions tutor, who shall be nameless, and asked why he did not also do this. He replied that the problem is that King's has now bagged all the good state schools, and there are none left for anyone else. We must try to overcome such an attitude. I do not think that that person is an admissions tutor any more, because things have moved on since then. However, the case that I have
described indicates the importance of good access plans, and it may be that those access plans involve establishing relationships with a number of state schools so that those students know the college to which they are applying, and have a good idea of the staff and the university lecturers.
In the past, quite a lot of the collaboration between Cambridge colleges—and Oxford colleges, I am sure—and schools has involved collaboration with independent schools. I suppose that that is perfectly understandable. When somebody has done a degree at Oxford or Cambridge and then goes on to teach in the independent sector, they will try to keep their relationship with the admissions staff at their college, so that when they have good students, there is someone for them to contact and provide with a recommendation. That is how bias creeps into the process. It is very important that we have good admissions policies, as well as good access plans.
I have not tabled any amendments and I am not suggesting that the Government should change their proposals for OFFA. I want to tell another series of anecdotes, though, to illustrate why it is important that we have proper admissions policies. In the 1980s, I was the admissions tutor for the joint honours degree in combined science at Anglia polytechnic university, then called Cambridgeshire college of arts and technology. I admitted about 150 students each year and I decided that, if I was going to do that properly, I should find out what makes a good student and how it was possible to identify their characteristics from a selection interview, a reference or an application form. In about 1981, I attended an extremely good course at the London university teaching methods unit. I learned interview techniques—what not to do as well as what to do—and about what made a good student.
In my intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I said that there was a great deal of academic research that showed that the correlation between A-level results and degree classification is not at all strong. In fact, it is almost negative in many subject areas. Only in maths, physics and chemistry is there a good correlation between A-level grade and final degree classification. A-level grades might be some indication for those subjects, but they give little indication for other subjects.
One of the best ways of identifying which students will make good students is to note those that have good study skills. The school that crams its students, by making sure that they are intensively taught and have little free time, is not likely to produce students who do as well at university as that which gives students projects to do, expects them to go to the library, find out information for themselves and learn how to organise their time successfully. Knowing that changed my interviewing procedure markedly. I used to ask people in detail how they studied and what interests they had. If a student was interested in the subject area, I would find that they had spent a great deal of time pursuing that interest outside their formal academic studies. In my experience, that often led to students who got much better degrees than those who did not do that.
The point that I am making is that it is excellent that OFFA can require universities to produce access plans that encourage applications. However, having encouraged those applications, it is important that the university is sensitive to how to interview those students to ensure that the good ones get selected. As the hon. Member for Newbury was saying, it should not be a matter of luck. The great danger is that when university lecturers—often academics and not staff specially trained in interviewing—interview a student, they tend to go for those who are articulate. Articulacy is better among those students who are middle class and public school educated. That is where much of the bias creeps in. If people can be trained to ignore articulacy and look instead for real potential, they are more likely to pick the students who will do well in their degrees.
I accept that admissions is not part of OFFA's remit, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will encourage universities to train their interviewers and make sure that people understand what makes a good student and how to identify that student's potential when they come for interview. Nothing would be more damaging than encouraging many more applications from students from lower-income backgrounds and then finding that they did not get accepted because of university interviewers' prejudice about their lack on articulacy. Such students might not be good at expressing themselves.
On the subject of students who are under-represented and have tended to do badly in previous years, on Wednesday 25 February 2004 at column 452W, my right hon. Friend the Minister answered a parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) on Monday 8 December 2003. She asked about the age profile of first degree entrants to UK universities in 2003–04, five years ago and 10 years ago, broken down by age groups. The number of people under 20 applying to university has continued to increase. In 1994–95 it was approximately 180,000, and by 2002–03 it had risen to 235,000. The number of people aged between 21 and 30 has remained about static, although it has fallen by a few hundred.
The age groups that we should worry about are 31 to 40-year-olds and 41 to 50-year-olds. There has been a marked drop in those categories. In the former group, the figure fell from 16,000 in 1994–95 to 14,500 in 2002–03. There could be many innocent explanations for that. It may be that that age group had more opportunities to study at the age of 18 and therefore took up their education at an earlier age. It is worth looking behind the statistics as well as at the raw figures. Those students could have been put off by the up-front fee and they might benefit from some of the Government's proposals in the new student support package.
Order. I know that the hon. Lady feels passionately about the subject and has a real knowledge of it, but, with respect, she is going wide of the mark. I have been listening with anticipation for the word OFFA, and I have heard it only once recently.
I shall come back on track. I hope that OFFA will look for a sign that universities will target those groups of students whose numbers have declined in recent years—such as 31 to 40-year-olds—in the access plans.
We have had a long debate on amendment No. 24, which I support. It has been characterised by a good deal of thought and a measure of passion in connection with securing the widest possible range of opportunities for students, be they from disadvantaged backgrounds or not. I am happy to accept the good will displayed in all contributions.
As I had time to reflect on what I might say, I cast my mind back and calculated that it is almost exactly 41 years since I first initiated my studies in moral philosophy at Oxford university. I was, to my knowledge, the first member of my family to attend university, and that was not necessarily on merit. I remember a distinguished lawyer saying of my late father that he had the best non-legally trained legal mind that he had ever encountered. Thank goodness we are in the business of providing more opportunities for people to realise their potential and for the nation to realise its potential. That is not a matter of contention.
I mentioned moral philosophy because I want to clarify some of the concepts that have emerged. I shall raise two specific issues and end with a few general points that are more political, but not intentionally party political.
First, time refines one's memory of one's studies. The one thing I remember from moral philosophy was the first lesson that I learned in the first tutorial: to say that something is good is not by itself an argument for passing a law to promote it; nor is saying that something is ipso facto bad an argument for promoting a law against it. We have an interesting clash between the voluntary principle of securing an agreed objective and the statutory route for so doing.
Secondly, there is the matter of regulation. One or two hon. Members, particularly from the Labour Benches—to be honest, I have in mind the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—may have underplayed the panoply of regulation and, if one wishes to call it so, interference, which is already available to the Higher Education Funding Council for England in its interface with institutions.
At the most simple level, there are separate bands according to the type of course and the monitoring of a variety of objectives. HEFCE has been charged in the past with monitoring the Government's agenda to widen participation and the payment of the so-called postcode premiums. HEFCE and the Higher Education Statistics Agency keep score and collect a variety of statistics, on which the hon. Gentleman drew. I appreciate that we will debate the matter later, but he says that we should inspect higher education institutions as Ofsted does in schools. There is already a mechanism for inspection through the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which acts as a control on the spending of public money.
There are no absolutes in the debate on complete regulation or no regulation. The questions relate to
who should regulate, whether regulation needs a separate body, and how regulation should be carried out. In that context, I was fascinated by a letter, which became available to the Committee today, from the Minister to the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) in the light of his comments at our last sitting. The context is transfers of private fees between institutions—where a student transfers from one to another—and the possible problem of fees remission, for example. The Minister said that the current system, in which universities largely exercise self-regulation, works well. That was interesting, and I mention it because it is clearly set in a narrow context. The Minister may not want to confirm that and he will have to argue why he needs a statutory regulator in the wider context of access.
The Minister continues the letter with the sentence that caught my eye and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). He said that one of the themes of the higher education White Paper and the Higher Education Bill is deregulation, so the Government will not impose additional regulations in that area. If the director of fair access is not a regulator, I am bound to ask what on earth his purpose is. Of course he is a regulator, and we have to consider how he will operate.
When we discussed particular cases, it was genuinely illuminating to discover that the regulator is likely to operate better if he does so at a level of generality—I presume that that means working on plans and their implementation—rather than at a specific level, which, in shorthand, I shall call the Laura Spence level. That case, which caused shock and horror, reminds me of a conversation with a former admissions tutor at Oxford university some years ago which stuck in my mind. He told me that there were three places for applicants to read medicine at his college, but that there were 24 applicants, all of whom would have three As at A-level. He asked, ''Where do I start?'' That is why it is difficult for the Laura Spences of this world to get into such universities or, for that matter, other universities—it is not just courses at the ancient universities for which there is strong demand.
I wish, if not to draw a distinction between tests of academic ability and potential, at least to touch on the substance of the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, which deals with them. I am not sure why we have moved away from using the word ''merit''. I suspect, rather impishly, that as the Prime Minister has been using merit as the metric and saying that that is what he lives and dies by, so I have become less attracted to it. In a way, I am attracted to the idea of potential, which, together with the concept of academic ability, is included in the amendment. I concede that potential does not immediately track existing output and may need to be measured in several different ways. That is entirely proper. The hon. Member for Newbury nods. He made a particularly interesting speech on the subject.
It occurs to me that our discussion is not just about the over-prepared, over-privileged, privately educated boy going up with a golden future ahead of him. Sadly,
it could also be about someone who got tremendous grades and then perhaps was involved in an accident or suffered some injury or illness and was no longer able to perform effectively. That is the downside. The counterpart is the person from an unpromising background who could do far better than his grades indicate.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's comments closely. He makes a good argument, but I do not understand what, in the range of potential, merit and academic achievement on which an individual student may be assessed, is precluded by an assumption of fair access.
I am not saying that anything is precluded. My point is that the matter is complicated and that it is better to make an academic judgment. As to access, there is no question whatever about not wishing to encourage fair access. I tried to explain that at the beginning of my comments. The argument is not about the ends but about the means for securing the ends. I do not want to try your patience, Mr. Gale, but this point is germane to the amendment. I was discussing potential and I hope that university admissions tutors take it into consideration. I have no reason to think that they do not. They want their pupils to succeed and to draw themselves up to their best ability.
A set of concepts is embedded in this issue and needs drawing out. I have identified four aspects that make up the progression of someone who achieves their potential by the end of their degree course. The first is aspiration. It is not fashionable on new Labour Benches to quote from socialists, and I shall not inflame the Committee by introducing quotations that I have not used before, but I commend a phrase of the late Aneurin Bevan, who was nothing if not a strong believer in equality of opportunity and access. He used to talk about the ''poverty of aspirations''. I quote that because, throughout my time as a Minister, those words were often on my lips. I did not mind repeating them, because he was right.
What is important is the ability of people to say, ''You could do this.'' As with the girl from Hackney, mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), it is great if they can do it, but they need to be drawn out and given an opportunity. That is not at issue and my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell spoke about it. It is almost the most important thing. I do not think that the issue is even the grades that people get at a bog-standard comprehensive—to use an offensive phrase—but the mindset that says, ''We can go on and do this.
I stand corrected. My view about Ernest Bevin, for whom I also have considerable regard because I think that he was a real bloke, was that his problem was the poverty of aspirants. There we are—I grovel before the Minister's superior
knowledge and I am glad that he has put the Committee right. I genuinely did not know that.
This is a serious issue and we need to make people think about it more seriously. We need to give them the opportunity and, rather than arguing between us, we should put it into their minds that they can take that opportunity.
The second issue is that of access plans: what is put together and what is written down. I do not mind the concept of access planning if it is done by the institution. I may be fond of Oxford university, but I hope not exclusively so. University College Northampton, which is up the road from me and which I know well, has done a tremendous amount in working on its access to the local community. I do not think that it is unique in that, but it does a great deal. I mentioned Staffordshire university earlier in connection with access for people with disabilities and for ethnic minorities, and it does excellent work. Such work is done better by the institutions, rather than regulated from the centre. However, that may be a philosophical difference of view that we have.
I concede that the admissions process is not, formally, in OFFA's remit, but that is a point on which I will wish to pause in a minute. Finally, and I do not think that this should be overlooked either, there is the academic process itself. The Minister gave me an answer some time ago, which I have not referenced for this discussion, but it made me concerned that OFFA would strike into the delivery of the academic process. In a sense, OFFA is almost bound to do that, because it has an obligation to monitor the delivery of access plans.
I think of difficult circumstances in which a university might be in academic difficulties and needs to merge two courses, including two that, for academic reasons, have different fee structures. If a university ran out of resources and faced a difficult choice, should it sack its lecturers or renege on its bursaries after giving some notice? I can see that the Minister is sensible to those points, but they are difficult ones. Whatever it said in the access plan, if a course was taught in a particular way, it could be inimical to the interests of the individuals involved—for example, people with disabilities or ethnic minorities. Those are, in a sense, a list of the ground rules for discussion.
The first specific point relates to the point that was explicit in Government policy and, even more so, in the draft guidance to the director—the question of subsidisation of bursaries. If I am right, above £2,700 of fees, universities will be expected to give to the maximum limit of £3,000 to make the difference, which would mean up to £250 available for bursaries. Leaving aside the question of whether they can afford that—it is a separate issue that I am not contending—there is an important issue of principle, at least in one sense. I am surprised that it has not been touched on. Through this mechanism, the Government are asking student A to make a contribution to the fee remission or bursary of student B. The Minister may be surprised that, at that level, I find that perfectly reasonable. When I have discussed such a concept with independent schools, they have said that typically 5 to 6 per cent. of the fees of an independent school are put
aside for bursaries for access—to use the same phrase—for students who are less advantaged or run into difficulties at that school. There is an element of cross-subsidisation.
I should not be forgotten that, in the structure that the Government would establish, the subsidy would go from the family of current student A to current student B and it would not relate to the means of the student when he graduated and would be repaying his normal loan. It would be a charge on his student loan account however much or little he earned later, so there is an implied inequity in it. The Minister should at least explain to the Committee how the implicit cross-subsidisation is defensible, and that nobody will be able to say that it is a compulsory tax from student A to student B and a denial of human rights.
The question of the application of the access regulator's regime concerns me even more. The objective in the introduction of the Secretary of State's draft letter of guidance states:
''We, as a Government, are determined to ensure that access to higher education is broadened, not narrowed.''
That is an entirely non-contentious aspiration, but we need to know the coverage of it.
The Minister will remember earlier and very constructive debates about part-time students, who account for 40 per cent. of the whole, and about postgraduates. We might have gone on to talk about second-time-around first degree students paying their way and foreign students. It is an interesting paradox that many institutions now rely on foreign students outwith the European Union to bolster their finances—they are a profit centre, not a loss leader.
I am not clear, although the Minister may be, whether OFFA has any remit for such students. Is its remit for students resident in the UK or the European Union who are reading a first full-time undergraduate degree? The regulatory mechanism relates to that category—the conventional three-year first degree student. I am not clear whether OFFA is meant to take into account in access plans what is happening to all students—foreign, postgraduate and part-time students and those in the other categories that I mentioned.
It is clear that the regulatory mechanism impacts only on the regulated sector. The issue becomes particularly pointed in relation to the European Union, to which my learned hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—the good lawyer that he is—referred to briefly. As I understand it, the issue relates to a European concept rather than a ministerial one. The European Union has created a common space for students to move around and, since the Gravier judgment, with which the Minister will be familiar, there is a common regime of support for those students. I must be careful, because my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell has reminded me in private conversation that Gravier bites not on student support, but on tuition fees and the fees regime.
I am sure that you, Mr. Gale, would become extremely impatient if we were to widen the debate to include tuition fees to foreign students, so I note and
accept your warning. What I am saying to the Committee is that, like it or not, the Minister must produce a regime for students in other EU member states, and we may want to return to some of these matters in relation to the repayment of student loans and bankruptcies at a later stage.
Indeed, I am not. There may be, but it does not arise on this amendment or, amazingly, in my train of thought.
If I may pin the Minister down on what I think is an important issue, I see no reference—either in the Bill or in the draft letter of guidance to OFFA—to whether EU students are included. I presume that the Minister has it in mind that access plans for universities—which have no territorial reference, other than a territorial location in England, hence their regulator being the director of fair access at HEFCE—will not include a report on EU students who are not United Kingdom students, or even, as a sub-set issue, on EU students who were resident in other parts of the United Kingdom transferring across the boundaries between the parts.
It is an important point, and the Minister should give thought to whether OFFA's remit runs to those considerations, and to the wider issue of students from outwith the EU, probably paying full fees, who are on exactly identical first-degree courses to those who are within the regulated sector. If OFFA is going to have to look at the whole shooting match, it will make a considerable difference.
To return to the practical world, I remind the Minister of the concern I expressed on an intervention. There is also the issue of who would be a disadvantaged student if overseas students could be taken into account. We could have a situation in which the Estonian was preferred to the Etonian in our universities.
In conclusion, I shall make some general points about this discussion. First, it is widely agreed that we wish to encourage access and participation. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) produced a powerful intervention on that point. We will not argue that point and, in fairness, we have not had the class war engaged on it—we agree. I remind the Committee that Benjamin Disraeli referred to the two nations in this country and, like the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, I am concerned that, despite the fact that we have empowered so many young people to go to university, we are still missing out on some people. I can find some non-fashionable bits of my constituency that have these problems. We can all do that; it is not an issue between us.
Secondly, improving access cannot be a unilateral process on the part of the universities. This is absolutely critical, and this point kept coming back in the debate. The universities can play their part, but unless there is compulsion, they cannot force disadvantaged students through their doors, even if they wish to. I am thinking of John Maynard Keynes
and the famous remark that re-stimulating an economy was rather like pushing on a string. One cannot do it. It may be possible to encourage and it is certainly possible to provide information, role models, and to be less stuffy than was the pattern in the past. All universities are now engaged in doing this.
The third point is that it remains better if the universities conduct this task through their own plans, just as it is better for them to form academic judgments as to who should be admitted to them. Furthermore, if there is to be a regulator—in fairness to the Minister, despite the strictures I have given about the coverage of the regulator, this is not drafted as a heavy-touch, teeth-ridden document; it will depend on what happens in the event—it is better that regulation is done as generally and as objectively as possible.
Coming back to merit, potential and admissions, there is the problem of how anyone can exercise judgment in these areas, alongside the growing practice of judicial review and a readiness among our constituents to take up litigation wherever they can. It is usually the articulate, learned and determined middle classes who will avail themselves of those opportunities. At least we are better off if we stick to the generality.
My problem with the mechanism that is being set up, quite apart from or perhaps because of the way in which it has come into existence, is that different agendas are hidden behind it. There is an agenda that wishes to promote the class war, although, thank goodness, it has not surfaced in this debate. There is an agenda that is anxious to intervene on admissions and to change the pattern of admissions for reasons that have little to do with academic merit or potential and are driven by malice or otherwise.
Would my hon. Friend consider it important that the Minister, when he clarifies what he means by fair access, could tell us how the Government define groups that are under-represented in higher education, which is clearly integrally linked to the issues we are discussing today?
I agree with that. I accept the Minister's encyclopaedic knowledge of the labour movement. I also accept his good will in the matter. There are many people who would like to intervene on the specific and there are lots of people whose agendas are not quite as objectively motivated as they may appear. I saw a few signs of that from those on the Labour Benches whose views are dripping with interventionism in this matter. If that happens it will damage the universities. It will be demeaning to the students who are admitted and it will not achieve the growth in potential that we all wish to see.
My biggest worry, my fundamental reason for opposing these proposals, is not so much the proposals themselves although, as my hon. Friend said, they need clarification, it is what they may lead to. First, there may be specific controversies, which will then generate heat for further and damaging intervention of a specific kind. Secondly—this has been touched on a little—if they do not work and if there is not a huge
bouleversement in the socio-economic characteristics of university entry, those who are interested in social engineering will come back to the charge. They will argue that they have to do the job properly: the regulator's remit will have to be re-jigged or the Secretary of State will have to give him instructions. At that point, all the Minister's fair intentions and all his assurances will be switched off. That would be a bad day for our universities, for our students and for academic freedom.
Much as I sometimes, albeit infrequently, fall out with my party, it does not half take a good session in Committee with the Opposition to make one realise how wonderful one's own party is. Hearing privilege being defended in such a nice, polite way, makes me wonder why we do not go back to the old feudal system. We would know our place. I have been in the House long enough to remember when the disability legislation passed through Parliament and I hear resonances of some of the speeches that were made then about access for disabled people. The hon. Member for Daventry described our views as dripping with interventionism. I am all in favour of intervening, because my money is funding most of these universities and I do not see any reason why I should not intervene, ask questions or have a transparent system. All that I am after—but it is not acceptable to the Opposition—and all that the Minister is after is fair access. The Opposition are opposed to that; they seek to delete it from the Bill.
This has been a good debate; I would like to see more debates on the issue. It is one of those corners that is not often reached in Parliament; a corner of British life that has been left undisturbed. ''Keep giving us the money, don't ask any questions, you can trust us.'' That sounds like the Fees Office to me. The Fees Office is tightening up, so I do not see why we should not tighten up.
The Opposition want to remove fair access and insert something about merit and potential. Potential is a wonderful word. I am a great football man. No one in this room would agree on the potential of one player. If we all sat down and decided what that potential was, everyone would have a different opinion. It is a lovely word if one wants to keep the flexibility one has enjoyed for 100 years. Let us not base the criteria just on merit; let us throw in flexibility, because it gives us a good back door out. With the guillotine coming some time this afternoon, I fear that we will be prevented, even under your skilled chairmanship, Mr. Gale, from reaching other parts of the Bill.
I should not have thought that anyone would fall out with the governors over an access plan promoting higher education under fair access, or promoting equality of opportunity in connection with access to higher education. Would any Committee member suggest that it would be wrong for the governing body to take measures to attract not admissions—good God, that would be going too far, but we will let prospective students send a letter so that we can turn them down because of their potential—but
''to attract applications from prospective students who are members of groups which . . . are under-represented in higher education''?
I should have thought that that was reasonably accepted all around as a key part of fair access, except that when the Chairman pushes us on and we reach clause 31, the Opposition have tabled amendments to both those provisions, deleting the reference to under-representation and changing ''must'' to ''may'' on just the question of promoting higher education on the grounds of equality.
As we part the veils and the discussion continues, we see not class hatred but disdain of my class. I speak as one of those described as non-traditional, non-fashionable or non-academic. I am probably the only member of the Committee able to speak on the matter, because I am the sort of person to whom the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell referred. I do not have any class hatred, but the Conservative party has class hatred for my type, because your party—not your party, Mr. Chairman; well, it is—
Absolutely. When you are a rebel like me, you are in a similar position, Mr. Gale. The Conservative party has run universities in that fashion and kept my class and my people out, but I do not have any hatred; I just want a place at the table. I am perfectly happy with—
The hon. Gentleman seems to be missing two fundamental points. The first is that there are Opposition Members from non-traditional backgrounds who have benefited from the opportunities that university provides. The second is that universities around the country have, for decades, offered people from ''his class'' the opportunity to better themselves, and they continue to do so. They should take credit for the success that they have had in doing so.
Sometimes in Committee there is a tendency to over-emphasise when responding to speeches made in such a fashion. I simply made the point that university admissions have never been a subject of contention or openly discussed. If I were to ask Committee members what the admissions policies are, they would reply that that would depend on the university. I may know Leeds, but I do not know Manchester—not that I would want to know Manchester, even less Sheffield—but setting those policies has been left up to each institution. They generally spend vast sums of public money as they wish. We are now asserting our right to know what on earth is happening, especially against the background of certain groups in society not being properly represented.
I am feeling a bit sore about the hon. Gentleman's accusation that any attempt to leave out parts of clauses may be an indication that we do not want to see better access for under-represented groups. As has already been mentioned, there is a problem over the definition of under-represented groups. Therefore, it is fair enough that we should test the Bill in terms of what it means. It could, for instance, mean that the group of people called Mudie were under-represented, but I do not think that that is quite what the Government intend.
I except the hon. Gentleman from criticism on those grounds. The issue of fair access, as listed in the Bill, deserves and needs padding out. We have had early signs of the battle that will take place when that is attempted.
I speak on behalf of the people in my community. Some people in the Department have discovered the poor recently. It has put steel in their backbone. Steel is needed—though that does not apply to the Minister. When fair access is defined, I want to make sure that it is fair access. Some of the practices that we have seen over the decades should be put to rest, and deservedly so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that very few people defend inequality of opportunity, but people's commitment to equality of opportunity is tested by the actions that they take. He asked about Manchester. My constituency has average GCSE results, but is significantly under-represented at university level. Putting that right is not social engineering—it is social justice.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. I would like to spend a few moments—I assure the Whip is will only be a few moments—looking at that issue.
I was disappointed to read the references to access in the statutory guidance. I have attacked the Government on that matter. The Opposition threw away an opportunity there. In the second paragraph of the introduction, the Minister spells out that,
''The judgments that you will exercise, in ensuring that universities that decide to introduce tuition fees above the standard level do so without jeopardising the aim of widening participation''.
I was saddened when I read that.
When we took office in 1997, we attempted to widen participation with a carrot. We put additional money on the table for any university that took youngsters with certain postcodes. As we have heard in the debate, that measure has signally failed—despite increased numbers since 1997. Only 1 per cent. of the increase was from my socio-economic class; my area. The privilege that has been defended will be defended fiercely, and I look for fierceness from the Government. If we believe in widening participation, the measures are not cover or window dressing for an exposed flank because we have included tuition fees, to which the second paragraph of that document refers. We have to do that because one of the attacks that we will face is that the increase in fees will damage widening participation, so we should do something about that. However, when it comes to the detail on approving an access agreement and the things that will be in it, I am slightly saddened by the weakness in that area. I want to touch on outreach when I have finished this point.
To be fair to the Minister, when I look at the White Paper—much as I have criticised it as being just a few pages added to the central theme of variability—I have to eat some of my words. On admissions, there are two
pages—pages 72 and 73—which make interesting reading. Paragraph 6.20 states:
''We intend to ask HEFCE, working with''
''to examine this issue in detail''.
It goes on to say that the discussions and the various suggestions about admissions may
''form a pillar of the Access Agreements discussed below.''
Sadly, that all seems to have disappeared from the legislation and the guidance document.
The issue is not only applications, but admissions. Admissions are the true test. They are financed with public money, which should not be invested unless admissions are clearly being operated transparently and fairly across the various groups in society. The White Paper was strong, but the guidance document is weaker, and the Bill is as weak.
I think every Committee member cares about the issue. If we are to have a united country and a happy country, it is necessary that everybody has equality of opportunity, and can participate in things, prosper, and get the best for their families. A certain group of people have not been able to do that. I want the Minister to reassure me that the measure is not just a cover for variable fees, that we will take it very seriously, and that the access agreement will cover applications and admissions and will involve some searching questions that will help us to achieve our objectives.
I accept, of course, the passion that the hon. Gentleman rightly brings to the subject. However, does he not appreciate that if the test is to be transparency and objectivity, as he wants, the danger is that it will be more difficult for academic admissions bodies to exercise their discretion, including in favour of the disadvantaged student? We may well end up in a situation in which they fall back on A-level performance because that is the only thing that is measurable and could get them past a judicial review or the intervention of the regulator.
I have been thrown somewhat by the fact that I am surrounded by Ministers. I do not know whether that is bad news for the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. Perhaps something happened at lunchtime. Am I supposed to move along the Bench?
I have been asked a serious question, but there is a shortage of time. If we had time to discuss more clauses and an opportunity to push the matter, we could have an important debate, in which hon. Members would love to participate, especially Labour Members, who cannot join in for reasons known only to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg).
I want to follow up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. The outreach element has been criticised at times, but it is very important. I care passionately about my inner-city constituency and youngsters who do not have a chance, but I do not speak about them in order to get them a back door into university. The 50 per cent. target and even the widening participation scheme—
the provision of funding that is related to postcodes—can be an offensive, patronising and unthinking way of widening participation. The worst thing that someone can do to a youngster is to send them to a university when they cannot cope. There are high drop-out rates and individuals are destroyed if they are put in a place with which they cannot cope. We see it happen here. Some people get sent to Parliament, cannot cope and it destroys their personality. University comes at a more vulnerable stage in a person's life.
To have social engineering in that crude fashion does not do anyone any good, but outreach is important. If I compare Leeds university with Leeds Met university, I find that Leeds Met is wonderful in its widening participation and outreach activities. It is aware of all the different groups: Bangladeshi, Pakistani, white working class, those from the estates that no one ever goes to unless accompanied. Leeds university is remote in every way and is probably more representative of the older, more established universities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said something that needs to be embedded in the thinking of the Department for Education and Skills. It was accepted in an earlier debate that the ability of youngsters to get into university starts with where they are born and to whom they are born, how many books are in the house, how they are talked to, how they are played with and so on. The process starts at nursery, but we are beginning at the end. We are rightly berating universities for not doing more in the way of outreach. I would berate the primary schools for not reaching out into the nurseries, because links can be made if the primary school knows the youngster before he comes to that school.
The great gap for working-class youngsters happens when they move from the comfortable primary school to the big, impersonal high school. When that happens, performance goes down. We all know about that in the education world, but what on earth do we do about it? The brighter kids fight their way back and the drop is not as fierce. A lot of the younger kids—those aged 12 to 14—leave; they just disappear out of the system. They are on the streets and we lose them for a long time.
If the hon. Gentleman forgives me, I want to agree with everything he has just said. Does he agree that it would be better to spend taxpayers' money on those early years of a child's education—[Hon. Members: ''We are.'']—rather than on an artificial target of 50 per cent. going to university? As he said, it is wrong to force people into university just because of some artificial target when they might be better suited to a further education course. The right way to affect a child's life chances is right at the beginning of their life, not when they are 18.
Thank you, Mr. Gale, for rightly bringing me back on track. I appeal to the hon. Lady not to limit herself to agreeing with what I said in
the past 10 minutes. What about the 10 minutes before that?
I take the outreach work very seriously, and I hope that OFFA will pursue that. It does matter; it is not a sop. Youngsters see university as a strange world up on a hill, and it is not part of their world; it belongs to another group of people not related to them, and is strange, worrying and expensive. If the outreach process gets those youngsters into university so that they can see that it is filled with ordinary people and is a nice, exciting place, we will have gone a long way to widening participation.
I apologise to members of the Committee, particularly the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), because I may miss the later part of the debate owing to a long-standing engagement this afternoon. However, I want to support just about everything that he said, apart from one thing. I also oppose amendment No. 24. I listened with interest to the philosophical ideas of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and although he said some important things, they do not read across well to the Bill's implementation.
My concern is that OFFA will not be strong enough. It will be a paper tiger and will not achieve increased participation from the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society, which is what the Government say they want to achieve. A couple of days ago, we had an exchange involving the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), the Minister and myself, in which it was acknowledged that the proportion of people from the most deprived groups at university had increased by a measly 1 per cent. We all accept that that is not good enough. The question is how OFFA and related provisions in the Bill can increase that participation.
The real work is now being done by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, through widening participation. In that respect I disagree with the hon. Member for Leeds, East. He said that we could not take people from postcode areas and socially engineer them into university, but that is what we need to do, even though there are some challenges. HEFCW has set a target for higher education institutions in Wales to increase the numbers coming from the 100 poorest communities in Wales—the 100 community first areas—from the current 8.5 per cent. to about 11 per cent. In other words, the proportion of young people at higher education institutions from those areas is to reflect the general proportion in the population as a whole, according to academic ability. That point needs to be made, but it has not so far been addressed.
I do not think that anyone in the Committee believes in eugenics, so surely no one would seriously say that a person's intellectual potential is decided by postcode. Wherever a person lives, they must have the same potential for intellectual merit for university purposes as someone from any other part of the United Kingdom. The differences come from opportunity, culture, education, what is available in the home and the opportunities that a child receives from his or her first day in nursery and onwards. I
agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. It is right to set clear targets for higher education institutions to attract both applicants and admissions from those poorest communities because, no matter how we look at the issue, they use taxpayers' money. I should like that to be promoted by the Bill and OFFA.
The draft regulations to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not apply to Wales yet—the situation there will be different. However, my reading of the regulations is that OFFA will not do what I described. That will still be the responsibility of HEFCE and HEFCW, which is basically the widening participation and funding route. Admissions are not addressed in the plans, which is why amendment No. 24 is not only wrong in principle, but wrong in practice. OFFA will not be doing much admission work. The plans are at a higher level, although I am concerned that they are at too a high level and not firmly integrated with the day-to-day admissions work of universities.
The problem is not as simple as telling a higher education institution, ''You must have x admissions from the 100 poorest communities,'' or whatever, because those people will not be ready. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that they will not be ready to enter university on day one and suddenly cope with the range of expectations of them. I am sure that he was right about Leeds, but there has been excellent outreach work in Aberystwyth, going into communities, locally and throughout west Wales. Summer school work and other schemes have been undertaken to attract pupils to becoming familiar with the university environment and studying, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said, before they take the plunge into university life.
The ability is there; it is innate in our population. The problem is to unlock that ability and to ensure that the poorest people and those in the communities that least expect their young people to go to university have the opportunity to be fast-tracked. If we must do that to ensure better equity in society, I agree with the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) that that is not social engineering, but social justice. I support that fully.
There are problems with OFFA. I am worried that it will be a bureaucratic sledgehammer to crack a nut. It might be better to concentrate on building and enhancing the widening participation plans in HEFCE and HEFCW.
My final point is that there is a downside in Wales, and that is a message for all of us in England Wales. None the less, I support the identifying of the 100 most deprived communities—the community first areas—and working in those communities to encourage young people to consider university as part of their future. Many communities in Wales, particularly in rural areas, are outwith those 100 wards but have sub-wards or sub-areas with particular difficulties—for example, transport. One of the problems with postcode work is
that we forget about the wider community setting in which people live.
Many communities throughout south Wales and in the declining ex-mining valleys of south Wales are not included in the 100 community first areas, but suffer from the same poverty of aspiration. We must work with the higher education institutions to ensure that they do not just meet their social engineering targets, but that they look at the wider aspects of widening participation. That target for higher education institutions is a challenge. We are trying to address that in the Bill by encouraging a much closer correlation between public expenditure and the public good that we expect from that expenditure. I see nothing wrong with that. Although I have serious questions about how OFFA will benefit many parts of England—it is for English Members to criticise or accept that—the tools are right within the framework of the Bill. That is why I hope that the Committee will resist amendment No. 24.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con) rose—
Alan Johnson rose—
Order. It is the paramount duty of the Chair to protect the rights of Back Benchers, but we have been debating this clause for a very long time and I notice that the Minister rose, as he is entitled to do. It seems to me that it would be appropriate at this point to hear from the Minister. It will then be for hon. Members to determine whether they wish to speak again. However, if the Member in charge of the lead amendment rises to his feet to wind up the debate before 5 o'clock when the guillotine falls, I shall feel obliged to call him.
Thank you, Mr. Gale. As our sitting will finish at 5 o'clock, it is important to respond to some of the points that have been made and to some of the specific questions that have been asked. I realise that the debate is not over and that the quality will deteriorate in the next few minutes, but it will pick up again afterwards. I hope that other hon. Members will have a chance to speak after me.
What strikes me is that we have had a high-quality debate, which is extraordinary because the argument made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and other Opposition Members was that we should have no regulation whatsoever and many of the arguments from Labour Members were that we should go further. Nevertheless, the points of agreement were more numerous than the points of disagreement, and I want to explain why we set so much store by that and will try to calm some of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members that the provision will be obnoxious—to use the words of the hon. Member for Hertsmere—and to reassure Labour Members that it will not be ineffective and that we have achieved the right balance.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell obviously feels passionately about this issue. He said that we were trying to tell universities what they could and could not do, that these were social engineering measures and that we were gerrymandering admissions. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said that the Opposition were
building a straw man. The problem with the hon. Gentleman's comments is that the Opposition are not arguing against what we are proposing, but against what they believe we might mean by what we are proposing. In some cases, they are arguing against interference with the admissions policies of universities. We have not proposed that, and would not propose that. We have gone to great lengths to say why we agree with them that it would be totally wrong to do so. I accept many of the points made by Opposition Members, but they advanced very eloquent and passionate arguments against something that we are not proposing.
The Minister said—I believe that I am paraphrasing him accurately—that the Government have repeatedly said that interference with admissions policies would be wrong. Will he say why he believes that?
We explained that in the White Paper. We do not believe that that the reason for the poor social class mix in higher education lies with the university admissions policy. We believe that there is an admissions issue, which I will discuss in a moment, but we are quite clear that the responsibility for university admission lies with the universities and their admissions policies without any outside interference whatsoever. We said that in the White Paper.
We passionately agree, however, that the obscene social class gap in higher education—''obscene'' is the right word to use—will not be resolved by our proposals. They are not a great leap forward, and will not resolve this problem. They are not a panacea, but a contribution. However, Opposition Members are wrong to say that we are doing nothing about the other issues. We say that there are four issues, which we call the four As: aspiration, attainment, application and admission.
It is right to recall that we have made enormous strides in attainment. For example, the proportion of 16-year-olds who achieve five or more A to C grades at GCSE is up from 44.5 per cent. in 1996 to 51.5 per cent. in 2002. The number of GCSEs attained was double the national figure in excellence in cities areas in which universities and schools help us a great deal as part of their outreach activity. Five good GCSEs is a very healthy increase in attainment. However, one in four working-class youngsters who achieve eight good GCSEs do not end up in higher education. So we can solve the attainment problem, but have another problem further up the chain. This is about push and pull.
In 2003, 21.6 per cent. of A-level papers were given an A grade—the highest-ever percentage and twice the level of 1993—yet 68 per cent. of higher education entrants with three A grades at A-level are state educated, but only 54 per cent. of Oxbridge entrants are. These are the qualifications—30 UCAS points—needed to get into those universities, but there is this disparity.
According to the Russell group's own information, only 18 per cent. of the admissions to the 19 Russell group universities were from the lowest three social
classes. However, admissions are not the issue on which to focus. As the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said, nine out of 10 youngsters who get two decent A-levels, or their equivalent level 3 qualification, will go on to university. That is very healthy, though it is interesting to know what happens to the other 10 per cent. Nevertheless, that has to be measured as a success. Then, looking at where they apply—to which universities they aspire—one finds that, of students with A-level passes equal to 30 UCAS points, 66 per cent. of the top three social classes apply to Oxbridge and only 58 per cent. from the bottom three social classes. There is an 8 percentage point gap.
We have to address all these issues. It starts with the under-fives. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North made the very pertinent point that social class divisions start at a very early age. Research shows that, at around 22 months, the attainment of bright youngsters from lower social classes starts going down and the attainment of the less bright from a more prosperous background starts going up. These are very important issues. It is important to concentrate on the under-fives—with Sure Start and so on—and it is important to concentrate on literacy and numeracy at the age of 11. There again the attainment is really good. We are now third in the world in terms of literacy levels for 10-year-olds. Although it is still the case that 25 per cent. of primary school youngsters are not achieving the right level of literacy and numeracy, achievement has gone up from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. since we came to government. That is all about us looking at attainment and pulling right the way through to get to this stage—investment in schools and in all the things we are doing at every level.
Then we come to higher education, which cannot take this burden on itself. It cannot be told that it is totally responsible for solving a problem that has bedevilled British society for 40 years—for time immemorial, but we say 40 years, because that is when these issues have been tracked and when they have been seen to be more important than previously.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that if the strategy were being put forward on its own, the universities would be in revolt. He is probably right but it is not being put forward on its own. The whole point is that it is a balanced package. It is one of the arguments of the Secretary of State that the package falls apart if one element is removed. Remove the regulator and, quite frankly, the Bill does not stand up. Similarly move variable fees and the ability of universities to bring this funding stream in and the regulator does not stand up. There are other ways to approach the issue and I will come to them soon.
If we take as read all the comments the Minister and other hon. Members have made about the injustice in the system, surely his most immediate past comment—that without fees, the regulator does not stand up—is absolute nonsense? If he believes that the measures are necessary for the university system, to say that they are dependent upon fees being £3,000 or £1,000 is neither here nor there.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We could suggest a regulator, but if we did that in
isolation, there would be revolution. The universities would not take kindly to us putting forward such a proposal, and we would not put forward such a proposal. The reason we are putting our proposals forward is because the universities have said that they want more money. They say that could do more to widen participation and improve access if they had more funds and that they could give better bursaries if they had more funds. It is therefore fair for us to say, ''Something for something.''
We are not saying that universities are doing nothing. The Russell group is often criticised, but people should read the document that it produced last November. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North is a great fan of the education maintenance allowance. We offer 16-year-olds from poor backgrounds £1,500 a year to stay in education until they are 18. That is another part of the chain that we are putting in place. Where did the idea for the EMA come from? It came from the Robert Ogden scholarship scheme at Leeds university—one of the Russell group. So we are not saying that universities are doing nothing. However, if we are to go through a fair bit of mild political controversy to provide the extra funding that they need, we need to go a stage further, and the regulator is the right way to do that.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was wrong about another issue. He suggested that this was a matter for universities and that the Government should not get involved. However, the Government are already involved, and we have been for some time. We are involved in the widening participation agenda, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East mentioned.
In that respect, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge gave the very graphic example of the young girl who wanted to go to university and who therefore went to a summer school, but whose teacher immediately put a dampener on things when she went back to her own school. Schools are involved in every aspect of the £158 million Aimhigher project that we have introduced over the past three years. There are different strands, and strand one gives money to schools and further education partnerships in deprived areas so that they can undertake activities such as mentoring visits and master classes. Schools are therefore locked into the whole programme, which is already in place.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere asked for a definition of broadly based intake, but it already exists. The Dearing report had a lot to say about it and suggested that there should be performance indicators to show how universities were succeeding. If we do not have such information, how can we tackle the problems and know that we are doing so successfully? In response to Dearing, therefore, we introduced performance indicators to cover several strands, one of which was access. Every university therefore has an access benchmark. It is formulaic, and HEFCE reels it off. There is no argument with universities about their access benchmark, which
takes account of which area a university is in, what the socio-economic mix is and what courses are laid on. It then shows the university what its broadly based intake should be. That is happening already.
Like several hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, the Minister has said that the problem lies at least as much with schools as with universities. Indeed, several hon. Members have said that it lies more with schools. The Minister has spoken about the carrots that he is giving schools. Under the Bill, however, he is giving universities carrots and sticks. What are the sticks for schools? [Interruption.]
Someone said Ofsted, and that would be a fair stick. However, my point is not about carrots and sticks. There is a difference between access and admissions. Opposition Members talk as if we cannot do something about access without involving admissions. The dictionary definition of access is that it is the
''condition of being readily approached''.
The regulator's job will be to deal with a bit of the access part of applications and a bit of the aspirations part of the four A's that I mentioned earlier. However, everything that we are doing, including HEFCE's Aimhigher and widening participation programmes, under which it allocates £250 million, is about access. We have already accepted that there is a difference between the two terms. In those circumstances, it is perfectly fair to tell universities that this is how we shall proceed, as long as it is not done in a heavy-handed way.
To respond to the great point from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell about me saying in Westminster Hall that the measure will have teeth, let me make it clear that the provisions will be light touch, but not soft touch. What is the point of having a regulator if it has no power to ensure that the access plan that it reaches with universities is carried out? I would argue, as the hon. Member for Daventry suggested, that this is light touch, but also a powerful mechanism. I think that, if we were to stray into the areas that some hon. Members have tempted us to get into, we would run into the situation in which we would not have the consensus working with the universities that the proposal requires.
That is not to say that we are doing nothing about admissions. We set up the Schwartz committee, which is referred to in the literature that I just held up and which the Russell group said that it very much supports. Schwartz is about considering the thorny question of admissions: not interfering in universities' control over their admission policies, but considering best practice. What can we do to assist in a situation in which admission must be by merit? How do we define merit when there is an extraordinary increase—which we are pleased about—in the number of students achieving good A-level passes? There must be some definition.
Schwartz has come up with some interesting ideas. An interim report has been published, and the final report will come out soon. The report mentioned post-qualification applications. Applying to university before A-level results are known means that
youngsters from working-class backgrounds, who generally do not have the confidence and the aspiration, might not apply to the university that best matches their talents. Post-qualification application would resolve that problem. That poses a horrendous practical problem, but in principle we accept the suggestion. That is the type of thing that Schwartz is considering, and admissions policy is rightly being dealt with in that arena.
We are considering all these issues: the under-fives, literacy and numeracy rates at the age of 11, staying on at 16, A-level and GCSE results and whatever emerges from Tomlinson. It would be a big gap in that if we did not consider, at the top end, applications and admissions.
I thank the Minister for giving way as I appreciate that he has a lot to get through. I pick him up on the point about working-class children not necessarily being encouraged to go to certain universities. Does he accept that, in many cases, that is because the schools that those children attend are not geared up to encourage them in the right way and do not always give them the right guidance, which they might get at other schools? The responsibility lies heavily with the schools as well.
The hon. Gentleman may have been out of the Room, but I accept that. I know from the experiences that he mentioned on an intervention that he comes from that sort of background and has first-hand knowledge of it. School support is essential, but the point that I am making is that because the Bill does not refer to everything that we are doing, it should not be argued that this provision is the only way that we will improve the social class mix.
This is a factual request. The Bill refers to groups under-represented in higher education, and that has clearly been an issue at the heart of today's debate. Will he clarify what the Government mean by under-represented groups?
Yes, I can. I was going to do that, but this is a perfect opportunity. I know that the term ''under-represented group'' has been mentioned not only in Committee but has caused concern in the sector. Let me offer Members a reassurance that, as the explanatory notes to the Bill make clear, the term is not intended to have a strict statistical interpretation. It is expressing, in legislative terms, what widening participation is about. We would not, for example, expect a plan to cover every under-represented group, nor would we expect one that had provisions about attracting applications from disabled students to contain an exhaustive list of those disabilities—reference to so many visually impaired students and so on.
The institutions will be free to make their plans in broader terms, though if some wish to include more specific measures, they are free to do so. In the phrase
''to attract applications from . . . members of groups which . . . are under-represented in higher education'',
we mean under-represented relative to the situation that would be the case were access completely fair and based on ability to benefit. Let me make it clear that in this context we are talking about groups under-
represented in higher education as a whole, rather than at a particular university. I wanted to place that on the record, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.
The Minister has given a most helpful definition of ''group''. Could I just press him on what ''under-representation'' means? Does it refer to numbers of applications or numbers admitted?
We mean under-represented in terms of applications. On the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, may I point out that he was out of the Room when I was paying him compliments? He has returned now that I am about to explain why I cannot accept his amendments. That is probably the wrong way round.
I am surprised by the Minister's response to that intervention. I would have thought that one might well find that some of the more disadvantaged groups are not—in general, taking into account all universities—under-represented in applications, but they may still be very definitely under-represented in applications to the more prestigious universities. It is important for us to try to make sure that the more prestigious universities work towards getting a fair share of applications from those under-represented minority groups if they are currently under-represented, not only in terms of applications, but in terms of admissions.
Well, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that the term ''under-represented groups'' should apply to admissions as well as to applications, I think he has a point. The specific question that I think I was being asked was about the remit of the director of access, which refers to applications and not admissions.
The result of improving the socio-economic mix among applicants, we think, will be reflected in admissions. I know that it is an issue that Conservative Members have raised—what will happen in 10 years' time if that does not occur?—but the whole thrust of the Bill and everything we are doing is about improving that level of applications. There are other issues that will consider admissions, but that is what we are dealing with here.
There is a very important point here, and something might be going wrong. Is the Minister saying that if, for example, groups from Leeds are perfectly well represented in applications to the university sector as a whole, there is no need for any university to try to ensure that there are applications to that university from people from Leeds if they are under-represented in applications to that particular university?
I understand, but I am trying not to get into the statistical argument that we have tried to ensure will not be implied by these words. Perhaps it would be helpful if I write to Committee members and set out how we believe that this will work.
To turn to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, the reason for my asking him not to press them is not that they are not perfectly sensible and reasonable
arguments. One argument that he makes in amendment No. 195 is that we ought to define ''fair access''. We believe that ''fair access'', like equal opportunities, is a term that people will understand. The hon. Member for Newbury also raised this issue. If we try to define the term, we will create more problems than we solve. Nowhere in the equal opportunities legislation is the term ''equal opportunities'' defined. We would have a problem if we went down that route.
No, I will not. I might if there is time, but I want to ensure that other people get a chance to come in. ''Fair access'' is a well understood term.
On amendment No. 193, which is also about equal opportunities, the director must have regard to equal opportunities anyway. When this Bill receives its Royal Assent, we expect that the Home Office will add to the schedule in the Race Relations Act 1976, for instance, that the director for fair access will come under that schedule. We cannot predict this until the Bill has gone through, however. It will have an obligation to uphold equal opportunities, and we do not need an amendment to do that.
Amendment No. 194 is about rooting out covert discrimination. Most of the problems that we face are overt. If the regulator, once appointed, believes that there are issues of covert discrimination, the director will have the ability to address those problems.
That brings me to my hon. Friend's amendment No. 268, which would remove the ability to issue statutory guidance. He implied that the regulator had to carry out the statutory guidance. We thought long and hard about whether it should be statutory or non-statutory guidance. We are sure that there has to be guidance, because the things we see in the letter from the Secretary of State are not the kind of things we can write into legislation, and traditionally we would not try to do so.
We decided that there had to be statutory guidance, but the director of fair access is free to ignore it; it is only guidance. It would be a strange director who ignored it completely, but OFFA would also be strange if we did not give guidance from the centre, given that there are so many issues, not least around bursaries, towards which we want to direct the regulator.
Amendment No. 221, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, speaks about the director having unlimited powers; I think even my hon. Friend tabled it as a probing amendment. The director is allowed to do many things, but not, I hope, turning up at 3 o'clock in the morning at the vice-chancellor's door, saying that he wants to look at the books. I think my hon. Friend was getting at the social class mix, the finances and so on, all of which are covered elsewhere. The chief executive of HEFCE is the chief accounting officer and there are many provisions in place. There were provisions pre-
Dearing; post-Dearing there are many more to ensure that the issues are transparent.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the draft guidelines are pieces of paper but what we will have is a person whose personality will greatly shape the atmosphere of the office and its relationship with vice-chancellors and universities? Let us consider the opposite, for example.
I shall try not to. Let me remind my hon. Friend that the Bill gives the director the duty to have regard to any guidance from the Secretary of State. There is no question of the Secretary of State dictating to the director how he goes about his business—he simply cannot do that—but it is leaping to the other extreme to say that we should not issue statutory guidance, which is the proper thing to do. That is why I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere spoke to amendment No. 235.
Before the Minister leaves my amendments—I thank him for his explanation—let me say that one of the fundamental points I was trying to get across to Ministers, officials and even university vice-chancellors was the need to be clear that we are leaving the impression that there can be the power of initiative from OFFA. The legislation reads and feels as though OFFA is almost entirely reactive. That was the thrust of the probing amendments, if I may mix my metaphors. Can the Minister reassure me?
I understand that point but my hon. Friend should be reassured. There are other proactive measures from the NUS, HEFCE and others. The regulator does not have to replicate what they are doing, but he will have the ability to form his own judgments and to decide areas such as covert discrimination, which we have mentioned, that he might need to explore.
I deal now with amendment No. 235, which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Hertsmere. I hope that I have made this point clear, but I will say it again: the director will have nothing whatever to do with admissions. I am sure hon. Members will have seen that there is no reference to involvement with admissions anywhere, either in the Bill or in the regulations to be made under it. Our guidance makes it plain that admissions do not fall within the director's remit. The hon. Gentleman quoted a letter but did not read out the part that says:
''Institutions' admissions policies and procedures will be outside your remit.''
That makes the amendment unnecessary. We could set out other areas for which the director is not responsible: he is not responsible for course content or the setting of fees. Legislation should not list areas for which the regulator is not responsible, but to offer the hon. Gentleman more comfort I can say that institutions have and will retain complete autonomy over admissions standards and requirements.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned EU students. He quoted Sir Howard Newby, the chief executive of
HEFCE, at a conference this morning. However, he did not quote what he went on to say. Yes, there may be some extra students coming from the accession countries, but Sir Howard said that the numbers would be tiny—about 5,000 students this year in a total student population of 1 million. The hon. Gentleman made some fair points and did not link them to any scare stories, but we must be absolutely clear that Sir Howard was not saying there was a huge problem. He was merely pointing out one aspect of increased student numbers.
In response to the hon. Member for Daventry, I must say that universities are obliged to abide by EU law and not discriminate against students from other EU states. They have the right to study here, as UK students have the right to study elsewhere in the EU. It is a matter for universities and is not affected by OFFA, although OFFA must abide by EU law. It could not, for instance, reject an access plan because the plan gave bursaries to Spanish or Portuguese students. The balance is right and there is no need to imply that OFFA upsets it.
The Minister may want to clarify this point later, but will he confirm that OFFA will not exercise any interest over wider issues such as postgraduate students or others paying full fees, who are different from the first-time, full-time undergraduate students who are part of the regulated sector?
The regulator will deal only with those who are liable to pay fees. The link is with the payment of fees.
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I just happen to have the verbatim transcript.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East made an impassioned speech. He is absolutely right: we had 40 years of free higher education with generous maintenance grants post-Robbins report, but the social class gap has not narrowed, but widened. It is still the case that one is five times more likely to go to university if one's parents are professionals than if they are unskilled. The whole Bill can move us on from that. To insist that the regulator had power over admissions would not be the right way forward. The Schwartz committee, which is examining admissions, is the right way forward.
The issue is about applications. If we can solve the issue of low aspirations and the aspiration to apply to the university that best meets an individual's needs, we will have cracked the problem that has bedevilled the country for many years.
There has been much discussion, in what has been a good debate, about what we can do to widen access to higher education for people from non-
traditional backgrounds—or shall I be blunt and say working-class backgrounds? Several of us have argued that although the universities may have a role in that, schools have an important role too. There has been some debate about where the balance of responsibility lies. In the brief time available to me that is the main issue that I should like to touch on—I want to juxtapose the responsibility of schools and universities and, if the Committee will indulge me, to speak at least partly from personal experience. I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North will be able to hang on for a moment, as I am about to refer to him in my remarks: he is leaving, so I clearly have him worried.
As far as I know, I was the first of my family to go to university. I very much agree with something that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said about the importance of the love of family, and families' encouragement to children in developing their educational potential. That was true for me and I am sure it was true for many members of the Committee. I submit that that applies across all social classes and that no social class has a monopoly on parents' love for their children and their wish to encourage them to go on to higher education.
I went to the sort of school, in the sort of area, that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North often likes to talk about. When I entered secondary school in what we now call year 7 but was known in those days—in old money, as it were—as first year seniors, there were approximately 220 children in the year. Of them, two subsequently went to university—fractionally under 1 per cent. One was the son of the director of studies at the school, and I was the other.
I do not want to denigrate my old school at all. I am not here to criticise my alma mater. It was broadly a good school and it provided a good general education. A number of the people who left at 16 went on to get good jobs locally. Quite a few ended up working in the City, and as a result they probably earn much more than any of us. Some, no doubt, are even earning more money than the Minister. [Interruption.] At least one or two of them, perhaps.
I have no general criticism but I have one particular criticism, which brings me back to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Leeds, East. One weakness of my old school and of many schools in working-class communities is that there was a certain lack of aspiration on behalf of the school, let alone the pupils. The school itself did not do enough to encourage children from the relevant backgrounds to go on to university. Not enough was done to explain what was available to those children, and to make it clear to them how they could progress and take advantage of the opportunities if they were so minded.
We had a sixth form, but it was not particularly academically oriented, whereas we all know that there are many other types of school with sixth forms that are extremely academically oriented, with very good success rates at getting people into higher education, including Russell group universities. The school's one weakness was that it did not necessarily allow children from the relatively modest backgrounds in question to understand what was available. Because of that, a tremendous amount of talent, including intellectual
talent, walked out of the front gates of the school at 16. In some cases, as the hon. Member for Leeds, East intimated, they walked out younger than 16. Some just cut to the chase and bunked over the fence at the age of 14.
If the school had been better prepared to make plain to some of those children what was available through a university education, quite a few more might have had a crack at it and benefited from it. Perhaps they would not have done, but at least they would have had the option of trying. That weakness existed some years ago, and I humbly submit to the Committee that it is still a serious weakness in the education system in the United Kingdom even today. I do not necessarily blame the universities for that; the responsibility lies mainly with the schools. They are not doing enough to make what is available plain to children from such backgrounds. There are issues around ethos, the way a school is run and what the head teacher, some of the senior staff and the other staff believe their roles to be.
There can be a poverty of aspiration not only among the pupils, but sometimes in the schools. The difference in principle is that while the Government say that the universities are in many ways at fault and that they need to reach down to the schools to improve the situation—in other words to look at the problem from the top down—in many cases there is also a number of problems in schools. They need to do better on behalf of their young people. In other words, the problem needs to be addressed fundamentally from the bottom up. [Interruption.] I am not saying that the two are entirely mutually exclusive. That is not my argument. I am saying that I strongly believe that, in many cases when it comes to this particular matter, the real problem lies with the schools rather than the universities.
We are not here to apportion blame. However, if we are here to say where responsibility rests, I believe that it rests with many of the schools rather than with the universities.
James Purnell rose—
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that he can clearly understand the balance of my argument. I do not want to do it to death but I will summarise. We sometimes sit in Parliament and talk about how working class kids do not always manage to get on as well as we would all like them to. I strongly believe that in some cases the reason that they do not get on is not because of some inherent bias, be it class-based or otherwise, within our university
system. In some cases, the reason that they do not get on is because the schools that they attend fail those children and do not give them the start in life that they properly deserve.
Order. For the benefit of those whom the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) represents, let it be a matter of record that he has sought to catch my eye but, unfortunately, time will not permit me to accommodate everybody on this occasion.
I apologise for having to leave the debate for a short time half way through, but it is interesting that in its early stages we diverged enormously on the issue. There was a time when the Opposition tried to attack the Government on the grounds that the measure would lead to charabancs full of the sons and daughters of coal miners coming down the M1 and along the M40 to take places at Oxford university previously occupied by pupils from independent schools in Surrey. They then went on to say that, in addition to that, caravans full of Slovakian gypsies would be coming up the M11 and taking up places at Cambridge university previously occupied by pupils from selective schools in Hertfordshire. However, as the afternoon has gone on, there has been considerably more common ground between both sides. The hon. Member for Rayleigh brought the debate towards a conclusion with a speech with which many Labour Members could have agreed.
Had I chosen to table an amendment to the Bill, I would have attempted to extend the responsibilities of OFFA to secondary schools as well as universities. That may still be an option on Report.
Anyone who is tempted to use the term ''sink school'' and attribute blame to sink schools needs to step back. I suggest that they follow the excellent precedent established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and spend a week working in an inner-city school, allowing themselves to be televised while doing so. It seems to me that those who are prepared to attribute blame to the performance of inner-city schools have a responsibility to find out what the challenges are.
I think that we agree across the Committee that the issue is a complex one and that its root is apparent in the early years. The root of the issue lies in the accident of birth, in the allocation of opportunities in the early years and in the allocation of places at primary and secondary school. Nevertheless, that does not mean that it is not an issue for the universities.
I want to put on record that although it is in our minds that 90 per cent. of those with two A-levels go to university, and that is important, we need to increase the number of students who have the basic entry requirement if we are to widen access, and we must consider the variable performance of individual universities. Neither of the Opposition spokesmen were able to my answer my question on that matter. Widening participation is no longer an issue for most British universities, because their student base is largely representative. However, it is an issue for some universities. The Minister was asked to name those universities where there was a problem, and
although it is inappropriate for him to do so, it is not inappropriate for me.
I draw attention to the performance indicators of the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial and King's College, London, the London School of Economics, the universities of Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Oxford Brooke's, the Royal Agricultural College and University college London, which are published by HEFCE. They are no secret; this is a public document and I want it to be on the record. Those universities, not all of which are in the Russell group, have a significant gap to make up in terms of their HEFCE performance indicators on widening participation. There are three indicators: students from low participation neighbourhoods; students from social classes 3, 4 and 5 and the balance between students from state and private schools.
It is not a particularly controversial issue within the universities, as they are aware of their performance against the benchmarks, but the universities' performance is variable. Over several years, the overwhelming majority of universities have implemented excellent policies on widening participation; a smaller number—not all from the Russell group—have found difficulty in doing so. OFFA is important because it will apply a little more pressure and concentrate the minds of some universities to work harder in that respect. I do not say that there is an overwhelming problem, but the universities I have named have the furthest to go in meeting their HEFCE benchmarks.
There are significant differences between universities which, to all intents and purposes, are comparatively similar. For example, why does Manchester do significantly better than Leeds? It is not something that we can sweep under the carpet, and it is not an issue to which we should attribute blame. But something is happening in Manchester that is not happening in Leeds, and the question is how we extend the best practice of the most successful universities.
My argument against the Opposition amendment is that either accidentally or through duplicity they have confused the issues of access and of admissions. It was encouraging that the hon. Member for Hertsmere and, by implication, one or two other Opposition Members, accept that the question of differential admissions was a legitimate subject for debate. It is not relevant to the clause; it is an issue for another occasion, when Professor Schwartz publishes his final report. I hope that then we can have a serious, open, mature and well-informed debate about admissions policy, but this debate is about access.
The Bill takes an enormous step forward and we should support it.
Before I conclude the debate, I have a message for the hon. Member for Bury, North. He mentioned state and private schools and spoke about non-traditional backgrounds. He should look at the private schools in central London, where there are many young people who come from Asian families, for example. Those families beg, borrow and do not steal but think nothing of selling all their assets to get their
kids through private school. They have a non-traditional background.
Mr. Chaytor rose—
I will not give way, because I need to continue my remarks, but the hon. Gentleman and I can debate the matter separately. He should not miss out the point I have just made.
This has been a mature, sensible and important debate. It is a shame that it has to be curtailed. This is an example of a situation where the knife does the Committee a great disservice. The debate has been characterised by thoughtful contributions on both sides. It is on a subject on which there is much commonality of aspiration between hon. Members of all parties, and on which a sensible set of amendments have been tabled. As it falls to me, as mover of the lead amendment, to set out what we vote on, and what not, I ask to press to a Division not only amendment No. 24, but amendment Nos. 268 and 195. We agree with the wording and aspirations of the two amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and for Nottingham, North—that is a true example of cross-party consensus on these important issues.
However, there is a key philosophical difference between members of different parties. That is not a difference in goals or aspiration, because we Conservative Members are not defenders of privilege; it is worth remembering that it was a Conservative Government that presided over the largest expansion of higher education in history. We differ from the Government and the Labour party in that we do not believe that we should pass laws to achieve the aims. We want universities to widen participation and take many of the steps that we have heard about today—and we have heard much about the best practice that already exists in our universities.
We believe that it is fundamentally wrong to impose a law that, in terms of work load, will penalise the good performers as well as the bad, and will require universities to put together plans and review what they are doing with OFFA. We do not believe that that is the way to go about things. Passing laws does not sort out the issues that we have discussed. Better practice, voluntary effort, trusting our universities and setting a direction for them would be a much better way of doing that. The proposals are an unwarranted interference into what universities are doing, and one that we cannot and will not support.
Nor, I am afraid do I accept the difference between access and admissions that the Minister set out, although I listened carefully to what he said. I do not dispute what he said; I am not accusing him of giving the Committee false information. However, he needs to remember one thing: the Government have no track record of keeping their promises in relation to the higher education sector. If the scheme does not work, and three, five or seven years into the process the plans that OFFA required universities to put in place have not widened participation, why should we believe that the Government do not intend to go further? I see nothing in the Bill that precludes that.
The Bill contains powers to introduce regulations and, in my view, those powers quite clearly offer the Government an opportunity to interfere further. That remains a profound worry, not just for us, but for vice-chancellors. The Minister quoted vice-chancellors. He needs to remember that the public pronouncements of vice-chancellors to Ministers in a Government with a majority of 165 do not necessarily represent those vice-chancellors' true views on the subject. I think that there is much more uncertainty and unhappiness out there in the university world about what the Government are doing. I do not believe for a moment that vice-chancellors want the provisions; nor do I necessarily believe that they think that they provide the light touch that the Minister claims they do.
I believe passionately that OFFA should not happen. If it must, the proposals for it should be tempered. I share all the aspirations of Government Members about giving a fair deal to people of ability, but passing new laws is not the way to do it. That is why we tabled the amendment: to temper what the Government are trying to do. That is why the Bill should be improved in Committee, and why we need to make a number of improvements by voting the amendments through.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 16.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell indicated a desire for a Division on two other amendments. Any hon. Member may seek a Division on any amendment that has been debated. These amendments have not been moved. Amendment No. 268 is in the name of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, who clearly has not had time to respond to the debate because of the nature of our proceedings this afternoon, or to indicate—other than to me privately, because I asked him to do so—whether he wished to press it. That amendment is solely in his name, so on this occasion I am not minded to put it to the Committee. However, having said that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has indicated his desire to see the matter voted on. I cannot bind Mr. Speaker in his selection when the Bill goes to Report but, by this record, I will send a clear indication that the hon. Gentleman has expressed that desire. It will be up to the hon. Gentleman to
decide whether he wishes to table some similar amendment, and it will be up to Mr. Speaker to decide whether to call it.
The hon. Gentleman also sought a Division on amendment No. 195. He made his remark while the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was out of the Room. Similarly, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has not had a chance to discuss it. I do not propose to rule on that at this stage, because it appears later in the Bill and there will be ample opportunity for the hon. Members for Epsom and Ewell and for Nottingham, North to discuss whether it should be pressed. Mr. Hood or I will rule at the appropriate time on whether there will be a Division on that amendment.
Strictly speaking, under the terms of the programme motion I should now put the Question on both of the clauses together. However, there are only two and I said at the start of this debate that I was prepared to admit what was effectively a stand part debate at the beginning. Therefore, exceptionally, I will put clauses 30 and 31 separately to dispatch them immediately without further debate.
It being after Five o'clock, The Chairman put the Questions necessary under the terms of the programme resolution to complete the business.
Motion made, and Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Committee divided: Ayes 15, Noes 7.