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The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): The hon. Gentleman states the blindingly obvious.

Mr. Green: I am glad the Minister agrees with us. In his new role, he has a chance to change his Government's policy so that it recognises the blindingly obvious.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I have given way enough.

The second issue that concerns me is access. One matter that unites hon. Members on both sides of the House is that anyone with the potential to benefit from a university degree should not be denied that because of their social or economic background. The question is whether the Government's policy of simply expanding the sector is the best way to achieve that.

If the Government were right in their contention that higher numbers mean wider access, they would have a case, but the evidence is absolutely plain that higher numbers do not change the social mix of universities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, there has been a huge expansion of numbers under successive Governments, but the social mix in universities, as the Secretary of State recognises, has not changed much over that period, despite the expansion in student numbers from something under 10 per cent. to something over 40 per cent.

Indeed, over the past six years, expansion has continued at a headlong rate under this Government, who are specifically committed to solving the problem, yet the participation rate among the poorer social groups has not changed. However, the key to that—and the key mistake that the Government are making—is that it is a problem not of our universities, but of our schools. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education himself made the crucial point on Monday when he said:

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That is exactly the right point to make. There is no point in fiddling with university admissions to allow fairer access; what we have to do is improve our secondary schools so that wherever people come from, they have a chance of getting A-levels and aspiring as high as they like.

The facts are plain, but the Government are choosing to ignore them and go off down the road of a new access regulator, who will tie universities up in red tape, make them sign agreements before they can charge the top-up fees, and generally threaten them until they replace admissions on academic merit with admissions on the grounds of political ideology. That is a gross interference in the freedom of universities and a straightforward attack on the principle of fairness. Indeed, that is already happening. I am sure that Ministers and many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have seen article in The Sunday Times headlined "Top universities offer poor students lower entry grades". It says:

certain students

The report reveals that a number of universities

Ministers should consider what effect reading that story in the Sunday papers has on parents, students and sixth-formers in particular, from all social backgrounds. They know that ministerial intervention means that their entry to university is not on the basis of hard work and academic potential, but on the basis of what suits a Government who are trying to hit their targets. That political interference in university entrance is disgraceful. We all agree that university is one of the most important ladders for many people. I agree with Professor Alan Smithers, who said:

The third thing that is worth noting is the effect on the university sector itself. The Government have a novel approach to university education: pile it high and sell it expensive. The effects of that are already becoming apparent. Drop-out rates are getting higher. Some universities are seeing more than 40 per cent. of their students drop out. Can those few Labour Members who support their Government's policy say how that is fair or compassionate? To encourage young people to get into debt and to start on a course that they rapidly realise is not going to do them any good is yet another example of the harmful effect of arbitrary targets in the education sector. Successive Education Secretaries have become addicted to those targets. The 50 per cent. university admission target is one of the most harmful, which is why we will get rid of it.

We need a university sector that is properly focused, offering degrees that mean something to those who can benefit from them. Bigger does not necessarily mean better. Does every current course provide proper value for the student? The previous Minister with responsibility for higher education made a notorious insult about "Mickey Mouse" degrees—a phrase that I

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have never used except when attributing it to her. The Secretary of State has cast aspersions on mediaeval history and classics, although on both occasions he retreated sharply and wisely in the face of opposition. We need proper, objective criteria for judging whether a course is worth while or not so that prejudices, whether against medieaval history or media studies, do not become the basis of policy. It is clearly sensible to look at drop-out rates, the qualifications required to take up a course and a range of other factors. However, it is clear that the university sector needs to be better focused.

We need to pay more attention to vocational qualifications, a point made in one of the multitude of interventions by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). I suspect that he and I would agree that this country has an historic problem in not taking high-level vocational education seriously enough and that there is not enough of it on offer. In many cases, vocational education will give people a better start in life and a better chance to realise their full potential than what the Minister for Children referred to as "Mickey Mouse" degrees. Professor Barr and others have asked how that vocational education is to be provided, a point that the hon. Member for Bury, North also made in an intervention.

The choice for many children who are left behind every year by the system is not university or vocational education but vocational education or nothing. The relevant financial calculation is not university versus vocational education costs but vocational education costs versus the cost of unemployment benefit, the new deal for young people, police and judicial actions, the impact of crime and economic dependency on others. On 9 June, David Bell, the head of Ofsted wrote wisely in the New Statesman that at 16

The idea that all the money for vocational education has to come out of the higher education pot is therefore mistaken.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Would he further agree that the figures that he gave earlier on graduates show that in many areas the economy does not need extra graduates? By contrast, the building industry and many other industries desperately need more trained tradesmen.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for allowing me to make the point that the CBI and the TUC estimate that the cost of the skills shortage to the British economy is £10 billion a year or about £170 for every man, woman and child. The idea that a lack of graduates is undermining skills is nonsense—the problem is actually poor vocational education. I want to address the point about money directly because business spends £23 billion of private sector money a year on training, more than three times the amount that the Government spend on equivalent education through the Learning and Skills Council. A change in the mix so that more importance is given to vocational education would greatly increase the potential for private sector money. The funding mix in higher education is 60 per cent. public: 40 per cent. private. If we increased the importance of vocational education in the educational

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mix, we would attract much more private sector money. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made the point that by doing so we would improve the skills base and address directly a problem that has dogged our economy for years. It does not relate to the number of graduates but the long tail of completely unskilled people. That is not a charge against the present Government, as the problem has dogged us for 50 years. However, it is an area where the education system is still failing badly, and where the economy has failed badly. We should therefore pay attention to the long tail of completely unskilled people in this country.

David Wright (Telford): I understand the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the need to attract further private sector resources, an initiative for which there would be a cross-party welcome. However, evidence suggests that that needs to be pump-primed by public sector resources, which would require an uplift. Is the hon. Gentleman planning for that in his programme?

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