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Mr. Chaytor: Is not the hon. Gentleman aware of the research conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council that demonstrated conclusively that for any given A-level points score, graduates from state school backgrounds achieved a higher class of degree than graduates from private school backgrounds? Is not that a justification for the policies that Bristol university and others are now trying to implement to identify the best talent at the point of entry?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman's point would be stronger if Bristol university had not recently retreated on that policy. He has given us plenty of evidence of the targets that he wishes to set and the approach that he

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would wish to take. For my part, I want universities to admit children on merit, without discrimination according to which school they attended, which class they are perceived to belong to or any other facet of their background. The hon. Gentleman obviously disagrees and he is prepared to say so, but Ministers are not. However, they are sending out a clear message to the universities through the so-called Office for Fair Access and the letters that the Secretary of State will provide for guidance. No one should be in any doubt that the risk of discrimination against pupils will grow as universities feel under pressure to observe some sort of milestone or target to reduce the number of admissions of children who come from certain schools. There is a real risk that in the future, children will be discriminated against because of the school that they attended.

The hon. Member for Bury, North mentioned grades and university standards a moment ago. That sort of thinking carries the real risk that higher and higher grades will be demanded from children from particular types of school. Three A's from one school will be worth less than three C's from another, and many able pupils, who would be well suited to university education, would benefit from it and would contribute to society as a result, will not get an offer. They will not be wanted because their university fears exceeding the number of children admitted from a certain type of school. Universities will feel under pressure from the Government and fear losing funding if it exceeded its targets. That is where the real risk lies.

Mr. Hendrick rose—

Mr. Clappison: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if he will set out the milestones, because the hon. Member for Bury, North would not.

Mr. Hendrick: Discrimination is happening now. Students are finding that they did not go to the right school to get into the university that they want to attend. If the access regulator does his or her job properly, that will not happen.

Mr. Clappison: That is right. There is tremendous uncertainty and the categorisation of types of school should not be an issue. Admissions to university should be determined by the quality of the child. Individual application should be determined on merit, and not in any other way. The real problem with attracting people of merit, especially from lower income backgrounds, will arise from the greater and greater levels of indebtedness that they will get into as a result of the Government's policies. Whatever the Secretary of State says, the average debt of £12,000 is a much more substantial amount of indebtedness for someone from a lower income family. The other problem with the Government's policies is the failings in state secondary education, especially in certain places, of which we have seen far too much evidence recently.

Mr. Hendrick: The debt will not be payable until after the student has graduated and earns more than £15,000. That debt should be considered an investment, because graduates are likely to earn far more over their working lives than people who do not go to university.

Mr. Clappison: The terms that the hon. Gentleman uses will be understood by pupils from particular

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backgrounds, who will be used to professional, middle-class salaries and large financial transactions, such as mortgages. Those terms will not be so readily understood by people from lower income families, who will regard £12,000 as a daunting sum to owe. They will not be so easily persuadable. The Government's political interference in university admissions will combine with their financial policies to create serious discrimination with perverse results. Many people from lower income backgrounds will lose out, and others will lose out because they attend particular types of schools and are considered undesirable.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Does my hon. Friend agree that teachers do not only have the problem of lower incomes, even though they have had a university education? They also suffer if they happen to live in higher cost areas. The hon. Gentleman who has just intervened represents Preston, but I represent Orpington in Bromley, and the cost of housing for people in arts administration and teaching, for example, is huge. That is an additional stress, just at the time when they are trying to establish themselves in a career.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the same applies to my constituency. The high cost of housing and of living there means that it is difficult to attract people into public-sector jobs. As I said at the outset, the matter will be of concern to the thousands of children who attend independent schools in my constituency, and to the substantial number of children who attend outstanding state schools—grammar schools and former grammar schools—in and around my area. Parents worry that they will be discriminated against because of where they live. They have suffered from that already as a result of the local government funding formula, and there is a risk that certain types of area and the people who will live in them will suffer further discrimination as a result of Government policies.

The problem is all part and parcel of the Government's muddled attack on the middle classes. The Government discriminate against people who they consider to be middle class.

Alan Johnson indicated dissent.

Mr. Clappison: The Minister may smile at that, but parents feel that there is a serious risk that their children will suffer discrimination because they live in the south-east and are middle class. At the same time, children from lower-income homes in my constituency will face rising levels of indebtedness as a result of the Government's financial policies. The Government's policies on state secondary education are failing to raise standards where they need to be raised.

I think that the terms of the debate as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford are entirely right. The Government are getting themselves into a fine old mess over university finance and admissions. There will be perverse and serious consequences for hundreds of thousands of families up and down the country. Ministers will have to face up to that. They may feel that certain people do not have the same right to a university

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education as others because of the schools that they tend to choose for their children, and the Government's financial policies may diminish the opportunities for other people. However, although the Government may feel that the middle classes do not have the same rights as others when it comes to higher education, everyone has the same right to exercise choice at the ballot box.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. A number of hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. If those who speak can be concise in their remarks, more will be successful.

2.52 pm

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Our universities do a good job. Higher education is no longer restricted to tiny and wealthy elites. Our top universities are, I believe, among the best in the world. More overseas students are coming to the UK for their education than ever before, and university research drives the hi-tech industries in my area and in the nation as a whole.

However, we face real challenges. Other countries already send more young people into higher education, boosting their economies. While an increasing number of people from all backgrounds go to university, the proportion coming from lower-income families has not increased sufficiently. Opposition Members argue otherwise, but I believe that the Government's policies will increase that proportion, despite the increase in top-up fees.

Universities warn that lack of resources is preventing them from employing the best and brightest academics, or funding the cutting-edge research that our economy needs to prosper. College facilities need upgrading, and the size of lecture and tutorial groups is increasing. To that end, the partial financing of education by students is a necessity.

As I said earlier, people who gain a university degree or further education qualifications have more opportunities, not just to command a higher income but to achieve personal fulfilment in their lives. The strategic review announced in October 2001 aims to widen participation. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that it would discriminate against middle-class families, but that is not so. Wider participation in higher education means that more people from all social classes will be included in the Government's plans. I welcome the Government's plans to get half of the population under 30 into higher education.

The review also aims to simplify the education system, especially in the areas of hardship support; to provide more up-front support for students, and especially for those from less well off backgrounds; and to ensure that all students have access to sufficient financial support throughout their years of higher education. It will also tackle the problems of debt and the perceptions of debt—an important point because, as I said in an earlier intervention, debt is somewhat akin to crime, in that the fear of debt is far worse than the reality of the debt that students will face after they have graduated and entered full-time employment. The constant and deliberate emphasis on the word "debt" to describe what is really an investment in the future deters people from entering higher education. If the financial commitment were sold as an investment, it would be far more attractive, and the numbers entering higher education would increase rather than decrease.

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In the decades since the 1960s, university education has changed. What was a preserve of the elite now supplies the mass market that the Government are trying to create through the rapid expansion of higher education. That expansion has occurred simultaneously with funding falling by 36 per cent. between 1989 and 1997.

The Government have taken a sensible look at the structure of the entire higher education system, and are addressing the problems that exist. Their aim is to deal with student finance in the longer term, and to open up access.

Demand for graduates is strong. A House of Commons Library paper on the future of higher education found that, by the end of the decade, 80 per cent. of new jobs will require higher education qualifications. We can achieve that only by widening access. Although 50 per cent. is the target, nobody is saying that we should stop there and, even if we do not reach that proportion, there will still have been a huge increase in the numbers of people going into higher education. Given that 80 per cent. of new jobs will require higher education, the target makes perfect sense. It would be wrong to remove it, and it is dishonest of the Liberal Democrats to claim that higher education need not cost more.

There needs to be fair access to higher education, which is a "gateway" to "opportunity and fulfilment". The social class gap among those entering higher education has widened. Young people from professional backgrounds are more than five times more likely to enter higher education than those from unskilled backgrounds. The White Paper describes the current position as "socially unjust" and says that it

I am pleased that the Government are taking steps to address the financing of student education while tackling the wider issue of ensuring that we have an education system which will meet the needs of Britain in the 21st century. It is not a matter of saying that students should not pay fees, or that targets should not be set. The task is to educate people to meet the needs of the 21st century.

For the reasons that I have set out, it is regrettable that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats want to open up the higher education system to make it more socially just and dynamic enough to compete in the modern world. The background of the Conservative party is one of cutting investment in public services. Since 1997, the Opposition have supported cutting spending levels to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product and have opposed every one of the Government's Budgets, pre-Budget reports and spending reviews, and they have refused to match Labour's spending plans.

We all know that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) revealed plans to cut public spending by 20 per cent., and the Leader of the Opposition has talked about "across-the-board" cuts that would include cuts in the numbers of teachers and support staff. [Interruption.] Opposition Members say that that is not true, but on 31 December 2002 The Daily Telegraph stated:

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This is a real ideological issue. The choice for higher education is between the Government, who believe in greater equality of opportunity, choice and an education system that will boost the economy, and the Opposition, whose proposals would lead to cuts in funding and to an elite-driven higher education system.

That has not always been the case, however. On 19 January, on the GMTV programme, the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said:

The Tories' sums do not add up; they would starve universities of resources, cap opportunities for students and force universities to close. They underestimate the cost of scrapping fees, especially as they are committed to cutting spending by up to 20 per cent., as I said earlier.

The Tories are planning to revert to the time when university places were capped and the well-off benefited disproportionately. They openly admit that they want to cut the number of people in higher education; the hon. Member for Ashford said that earlier in the debate. Ninety thousand university places would go immediately, which is equivalent to 13,000 lecturers losing their jobs. A further 150,000 places would go, as universities would not have the additional income from the variable fee funding system.

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