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House of Commons

Thursday 6 February 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Access Regulator

1. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): What representations he has received on the role of the access regulator; and if he will make a statement. [95744]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I have received a range of responses and comments since the publication of our White Paper "The Future of Higher Education." We will shortly be publishing detailed proposals for consultation, and I will look with interest to see what the comments are.

Mr. Cameron : Could the Secretary of State tell us why there was so little detail on the access regulator in the White Paper, and why we have had to rely on press leaks about it? Is it not the case that there are two views? The first is led by the Chancellor, who thinks that the access regulator should involve himself in every university and look at details of family income, postcode and parents' education. The second is that of the Prime Minister, who thinks the whole thing an expensive waste of money. I agree with the Prime Minister—what does the Secretary of State think?

Mr. Clarke: You will be glad to know, Mr. Speaker, that there are many more than two views on this interesting question. If the hon. Gentleman talks to vice-chancellors, as I do, he will find a very wide range of points of view. Many of them accept completely the purpose of and need for the access regulator, because they acknowledge that the record of British universities in terms of access for children from working-class homes is absolutely unacceptable. However, we will publish our detailed proposals precisely in order that we can establish the responses and comments, and take account of them in detail.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a particularly absurd point of view is to say that it is an assault on academic freedom if the Government, on behalf of the taxpayer, decline to endorse admissions policies and practices that are

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socially exclusive, or, equally, to argue that it is an assault on academic freedom if the Government refuse to subvent research that is not of international quality?

Mr. Clarke: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, and given his experience of the higher education world, he is aware that many people within it know that it is a disgrace that those from working-class homes do not have better access to universities. They recognise that, as the Government fund the universities, we are entitled to express our determination to make this historic change, and that is what we are going to do.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The Secretary of State really must make up his mind as to whether he wants to base admission on merit, or to persist in his remarkable assertion today that the situation in some universities is absolutely unacceptable. When will he come to terms with the fact that neither he nor—more modestly—I, nor any politician, is half as well placed to promote the access of talented people of all social backgrounds to university as the universities themselves? Does he not understand that this proposed regulator, who represents the biggest ever sop to the Treasury's obsession with social engineering, will at best prove ineffectual—as he undoubtedly hopes—and at worst will interfere with cherished academic freedoms?

Mr. Clarke: What I do agree with is the proposition that universities have to address this question, and I also agree that many are doing so very effectively; indeed, in a statement to this House I mentioned Sheffield, Liverpool and others. However, the hon. Gentleman should accept that too many universities do not address this question effectively, and we need this form of regulator to ensure that they do so.

I should remind the House that very many of those from less conventional academic backgrounds who have gone to university have in fact performed much better than some of those from more conventional academic backgrounds. So the purpose of the admissions process is to recognise merit and attainment, as the hon. Gentleman says, but also to recognise and foster potential, because that is what it is all about.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although his proposals will apply to England and Wales, they will also have implications for Scotland? In addition to the fact that many would-be students from Scotland go to English universities, Scottish universities will have to take on board the effects of the proposals. Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that, during his consultation, he will take account of the views expressed by individuals, academic bodies and Scottish Ministers before taking his final decision on the matter?

Mr. Clarke: I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that specific assurance; indeed, I regularly meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and the relevant members of the Scottish Executive to discuss precisely the points that my hon. Friend raises. One of the joys of devolution is that our different countries can establish different systems, but I acknowledge that within that it is important to have good dialogue and

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understanding of the way we work together, and of the implications of decisions taken in one part of the UK for those taken in other parts.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): Can the Secretary of State explain to the House the point of establishing an access regulator whose purpose is to get more children from working-class backgrounds into elite universities, when at the same time they are being deterred through the imposition of differential fees of £9,000?

Mr. Clarke: On the purely financial question, we are encouraging people by removing the upfront fee of £1,100 a year, and by providing, for the first time in years, proper levels of maintenance and grant support while people are studying. Those are positive incentives. However, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that in seeking to promote access we concentrate only on finance, and ignore the quality of schools in working-class areas or the record of universities in terms of networking and admissions procedures, I do not accept his point. We certainly have to look at finance, but we must also improve education in working-class areas through measures such as those proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband). We must also address the performance of universities through our access regulator, which is what we are doing.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the role of the access regulator will involve the setting of individual targets for universities in widening access?

Mr. Clarke: I envisage that the access regulator would require each university to have in place a process that includes the setting of its own targets against which it can be monitored. That is the right way to approach it. I do not myself think—although I emphasise that it will be a matter for consultation through the process that I described—that a central individual organisation saying that X, Y or Z is a specific target for a specific university is the right way to go. It is absolutely right, however, for universities to have their own target-setting regimes that aim for improvement and for the access regulator to ensure that that is followed through.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) rose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Johnson: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

May I ask the Secretary of State whether he envisaged any social objective when he said the other day that he would not mind in the least if classics were to decline as a subject that is studied at school and in universities? Was not that a sad and surprising thing for a man who is supposed to be encouraging scholarship and learning to say?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is more of an expert on social matters than I. In fact, in the interview to which he refers, which was with The Sunday Times, I praised the study of philosophy in schools and in universities. The journalist then asked me what I felt

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about classics. I shrugged my shoulders and said that I was not so sure about that. I am happy to have the opportunity to make my position clear, because it has been widely misrepresented. I am in favour of the study of classics, I am in favour of studying languages and I am in favour of studying the ancient civilisations. [Interruption.] Yes, including the Tories. However, I do not accept the argument advanced by some advocates of classics that the best way to learn French is to learn Latin. We should study classics on its own merits—it is an important academic study which I support.

Further Education

2. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): If he will make a statement on unit funding in further education colleges. [95745]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): In November we announced the largest ever investment in further education to support a radical and ambitious reform strategy that links funding to college performance. That will increase planned funding per full-time equivalent student from £4,040 in 2002–03 to £4,650 by 2005–06—a real-terms increase of 7 per cent.

Ross Cranston : That is very good news and I welcome it unreservedly. Dudley college—an excellent college—has told me about a pressure point this year related to the lower settlement for college lecturers. The historic gap in pay between school teachers and college lecturers makes it difficult for Dudley to recruit good lecturers. Can my hon. Friend give me some assurances on that?

Mr. Lewis: I can give my hon. and learned Friend those assurances. This settlement is widely accepted by the Association of Colleges and the relevant trade unions as a significant level of investment that will allow the gap between the pay of teachers in schools and the pay of lecturers in colleges to narrow significantly during the next three years. That is very important in terms of the status of further education. It is central to achieving our 14-to-19 objectives and our basic skill objectives, to work force development, to attaining higher-level skills and, increasingly, to access to higher education. We urge the employers and the unions, now that the money has been made available, to come to a sensible negotiated settlement and to get on with the job of delivering reform in the sector.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): There is genuine excitement in my constituency as a consequence of the reorganisation of colleges in Oxfordshire. For the first time, Bicester will have a further education campus, which is very good news for the town. The Minister said that the gap in pay will narrow significantly in the next three years. When does he expect college lecturers to get back to parity with teachers in schools—back to where they started a few years ago? When will that gap close?

Mr. Lewis: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is so excited, and I am convinced that he will inform his constituents that this happened under a Labour Government. I remind him that it was his party that devolved power to individual colleges to negotiate with

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trade unions at a local level on terms and conditions of incorporation. We have no intention of interfering in those arrangements, but everybody, including the employers and the unions, accepts that this is a real opportunity significantly to narrow the pay gap.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): There are more young people aged between 16 and 19 in further education colleges than in schools, and more adults in FE colleges than in universities. Are not FE colleges therefore right at the heart of the lifelong learning strategy, and are they not crucial to widening participation? Will my hon. Friend make certain that further education is given the crucial place in the Government's strategy that it deserves?

Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, and that is one reason why it has been accepted that the reform and investment programme has finally removed the "cinderella" tag from the FE sector. The programme has stopped the sector feeling undervalued and under-resourced, and that it has not been prioritised over many years under successive Governments. We need to move away from the victim culture to a can-do culture. The sector is essential to ensuring that young people, often from disadvantaged communities, have access to progression and success in the education system, and the capacity to go on to university.

It is worth saying that the package of resources practically eliminates the unit funding gap between the funding that is available for 16 to 19-year-olds being educated in schools and for those being educated in colleges. It brings an equity to the previous disparity.

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