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House of Commons

Thursday 13 March 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—

University Admissions

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Whether the access regulator will set targets for university admission for (a) pupils from state schools and (b) pupils from working class backgrounds. [102699]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): No.

Dr. Cable : Does the Secretary of State not acknowledge that loose and careless talk by Ministers about targets, quotas and benchmarks has caused a large number of pupils, and their parents and schools, considerable anxiety about the integrity of the university admissions system? Will he confirm that the access regulator will not approve schemes based on postcodes, parental occupation, accents or schools, but will concentrate on the academic merit of individual applicants?

Mr. Clarke: We will publish our proposals for the access regulator, which will go through the various points raised in detail, in the next two or three weeks. I can confirm that access will be based on merit—and I reconfirm that it is not careless talk from the Government that has caused this issue to be raised; it is a series of misstatements and wrong views, attributed particularly to Bristol university but also to other universities, that wrongly describe the current admissions practice of that university. Much of the discussion about this issue is wrongly informed and fundamentally incorrect.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Will my right hon. Friend continue to stand up to this wicked little campaign by the Daily Mail and others in the popular press—and, indeed, by the Liberal Democrats? The facts surely are that the Bristol innovation is aimed at finding the true potential of students to benefit from

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higher education. Schools that gloss pupils up to get three A-levels cannot expect that to be the only criterion on which potential is judged.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is correct in every respect. Bristol university is an excellent university, as are many others. There is substantial over-application for places, so it has to decide the best way to choose whether to accept the people who come through. It has rightly decided to consider the merit of the applicants and their potential to benefit. A great deal of academic research indicates that in certain circumstances, the capacity to benefit from university education is greater in people who come by non-traditional routes. I was at a conference of universities and others in Newcastle on Tuesday, and other universities expressed their own commitment to precisely the approach that my hon. Friend has described.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): One of my oldest friends from university—I went to Cambridge—came from one of the roughest working class areas of Salford. How does the Secretary of State think his children should be categorised if the access regulator considers the background of an applicant?

Mr. Clarke: Fundamentally, those children should be categorised on the basis of their merit, achievement and talent. That is how it should be done, and that is how it will be done. As I said to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), the detail of the assessments to be taken into account is the subject of a paper that we will publish in the next two or three weeks.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Nevertheless, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the access regulator is trying to increase the number of students from lower-income backgrounds who go to university. Many universities, especially those that I represent, are anxious to know what performance measures will be used. Can my right hon. Friend give us an indication?

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry that I cannot do so today, for the reason I gave earlier: I will publish a paper on this subject in the next two or three weeks. In paying tribute to my hon. Friend's work to increase access to the university that she represents, I can tell her that many colleges of Cambridge university, and other universities, are working hard to achieve what she describes. The ambition of our proposals is to ensure that the good work done by some colleges and universities is done by all.

2. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): If he will make a statement on his guidance to universities on their admissions criteria. [102700]

5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): If he will make a statement on the number of 18 year olds going on to higher education in each of the last three years. [102703]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge): Admissions are the responsibility of individual universities. They should

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select applicants by merit, based on their potential to succeed. We encourage universities to use a wide range of measures to assess that potential.

Mr. Jack : I welcome the Minister's comments and the observations made by the Secretary of State a moment ago. Nevertheless, it is clear that however accurate or inaccurate reports about Bristol university have been, young people are deeply troubled and confused about exactly how their applications for admission to university will be determined under the Government's new approach to higher education. Even though it may be the universities' responsibility, would the Minister please think about issuing some clear guidance to young people about precisely how their applications will be determined? Otherwise, they will be in a state of complete confusion.

Margaret Hodge: As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is not up to the Government to determine the admission arrangements for individual universities. It would be inappropriate for us to issue guidance. I hope that he will join me in ensuring that the misunderstandings that have been spread, not least by some members of his party, can be put to rest. Applicants should know that their applications will be judged on their merit and their potential to succeed at university.

Miss McIntosh: What proportion of university applicants and those applying to university for the first time this year are aged 18? What are the Government doing to increase the proportion of those over 30 who enter university, and also to increase the proportion of people entering both full and part-time education, to enable her Department to meet its targets?

Margaret Hodge: I do not have the figures for the proportion of university entrants who are 18, but I will write to the hon. Lady.

Are we encouraging older people, and those who want to study part time, to go to university? Yes, we are, and the application and acceptance figures for those groups are very encouraging. We believe that as we encourage more people to undertake foundation courses, part-time study will become a way for older applicants to raise their qualification levels and hence their work potential.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): Does the Minister not think it incongruous that Bristol university is being accused of bias against the independent sector, when 39 per cent. of its students come from independent schools?

Margaret Hodge: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who represents the interests of all her constituents, and of Bristol university, admirably. I understand that 40 per cent. of entrants to Bristol university come from private schools, and in those circumstances it strikes me as difficult to accuse Bristol of positive discrimination against students from such schools.

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Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the fact that not only at Bristol but at some other universities the proportion of young people from public schools is far in excess of the proportion of the population that they represent? Will she arrange for the access regulator to examine the admissions system, to ensure that while there is no bias against students with such a background, there is no bias in favour of them either?

Margaret Hodge: The aim of the Government's policy is to ensure that all young people with talent and potential have an opportunity to realise their potential at university, whatever their background. The Government have a role to play in raising standards in schools and raising aspirations. We want universities to play their part and reach into communities to help us raise those standards and aspirations, selecting students on the basis of merit and potential.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am delighted to hear the Minister say that aptitude and potential should be the basis on which university students are selected. That is what my party has been saying. But given that A-levels are clearly not a particularly good guide to the degree class that students will obtain, can the Minister give some idea of the criteria that should be used to measure aptitude and potential? She rightly says that they should not be set by the Government, but it would be useful to have at least an idea of what they are.

Margaret Hodge: I have been saying for a long time that talent, potential and merit should enable people to gain university places and to succeed. As we have said, attainment at A-level must be one criterion in the assessment of who can succeed and who has the potential to excel, but it must not be the only criterion. It is not for us to prescribe the criteria that universities should employ; but Bristol is doing what Oxford and Cambridge, Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester and a number of other universities are doing in the case of a range of school leavers, and that is welcome. We will certainly keep those criteria under review.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): If we want to widen participation in higher education, we have a real chance of doing so if we improve standards in some of our schools. More young people from all backgrounds will then be able to go to university. Should we not encourage those schools, and also encourage universities to support them, as Nottingham Trent already does?

Margaret Hodge: I entirely agree with those sensible comments. Nine out of 10 young people with two or more A-levels currently enter university. If we want to change the composition of those who enjoy the benefits of a university education, we must work extremely hard to raise standards, achievements and aspirations in all our schools.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): It is extraordinary that the Minister and the Secretary of State do not recognise how widespread the anger about the Government's policy on university admissions is. Even Trevor Phillips,

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the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality—someone as new Labour as it is humanly possible to be—has said:

black and Asian families

Does she agree with Trevor Phillips that under her Government, there is exactly that unfairness in some universities?

Margaret Hodge: Both the Secretary of State and I have received enormous support for our attempts to ensure that everyone who has the potential to succeed at university gets the opportunity to do so, whatever their background. It is a fact that far too many people from minority ethnic communities do not have that opportunity to develop their full potential. That is why our policies in schools, our policies to raise aspirations and our desire to have fair and open admission policies in universities will ensure equal opportunity for all.

Mr. Green: The hon. Lady talks about the welcome the policy has received, but last week she had to be slapped down by the Secretary of State when she let the cat out of the bag and said, with characteristic honesty, that the Government did intend to introduce targets for university admission from different social groups. Will she make up for that by announcing today that she is dropping the financial pressure that she puts on universities to meet the Government targets, and instead use that money better to encourage aspiration and excellence in secondary schools, which is the fair way to ensure that the right applicants get to university, whatever their social background?

Margaret Hodge: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I completely agree on both the aims and the mechanisms that we are adopting to ensure that there is fair access for every individual in our community to develop their full potential, so that it is potential and merit, not class and background, that determine who gets a place at university. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned to ensure equality of opportunity, he should be questioning the tax cuts that his party wishes to institute, which will lead to a lowering of standards and opportunity for all in our schools.

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