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David Taylor: I declare an interest in that one of my daughters attended the university of Wolverhampton.

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Does my hon. Friend believe that a possible outcome of the plans is that the existing two tiers of Russell group universities and others will expand so that third and fourth divisions emerge from the murk?

Peter Bradley: I agree with my hon. Friend. I concede that there is already a two-tier—and probably a multi-tier—hierarchy among our universities. I hope that the Bill will give us an opportunity to narrow the gaps and not widen them, which I fear will happen through variable fees. The rich will get richer, the poorer universities will get poorer and some will struggle to survive. The elite will continue to get the best education and career prospects but the rest will simply get access. That is not a price that people should be asked to pay; everyone should have the same opportunity for quality and enhanced career prospects.

Things do not have to be that way. It is possible to reconfigure the Government's proposals to expand access and improve standards without establishing or entrenching inequalities in the system and within the Government's proposed spending limits. In my view and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), with whom I have collaborated on our proposals, the first step is to replace variable fees with a flat rate of £2,500. That would produce more income for higher education—to the tune of some £200 million to £250 million—than the £3,000 variable fee that the Government propose.

Secondly, we must be clear and logical about student support. As I suggested in an intervention, if fee repayments are contingent on income after graduation, what is the relevance of parental income before the student goes to university? It is not relevant. We should therefore abandon the tuition fee waivers and put the money into maintenance support, where it is needed. If we do that within the Government's financial model, we could provide up to £5,000 a year for the poorest 20 per cent. of students in London and £4,000 for those elsewhere. For the next 13 per cent., we could provide up to £3,000.

But then we need to remove the burden of maintenance costs from the universities with high intakes of people from low-income backgrounds. It is essential to equalise the funding mechanism so that those universities are no longer penalised for the maintenance costs represented by high intakes of low-income students.

We propose that fees be collected centrally, that grants be distributed from the centre and that the remainder be allocated in core funding to the universities. That is progressive and redistributive and means that all universities, not only some, will have additional income. Our approach is principled, practical and equitable. It will make the investment that higher education needs, but it will distribute it to all rather than simply to the elite universities. It will lift standards for all students, not just for some. It will remove the hurdle of living costs and go a lot further than the Government's proposals—their proposals go a great deal further than those of any other party and tribute should be paid to them for that—in making university accessible and ensuring that all those who qualify will be able to attend. That means being able to go to the university of their choice, not simply the one closest to them, without the fear of accumulating unmanageable debt.

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We are not proposing that all universities are or should be equal. We seek not equality, but equity. It is not our purpose to say that all universities should be the same. They are not, they will not be and it would not be to our advantage if they were. We will still need research-driven universities, which have a key role to play in our economy and our competitiveness, but I want to see a levelling up of the gap between the richer and the poorer universities—the prestigious universities and those with lower status—and, crucially, of the career prospects of the graduates who emerge from them.

The Government have challenged us to produce alternative proposals. I hope that they regard these proposals as a constructive contribution to the debate.

5.21 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), particularly as he attended a grant-aided school. The party he decided to join took that opportunity away from people of my generation.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Your generation?

Mr. Gibb: I am younger than I look. When the Labour party leaves office, those interested in our education system may well look back over its years in government and lament not universities' admissions policies, but how little was achieved in raising standards in our schools and in changing the attitudes and views in the profession as well as among education academics.

The Gracious Speech includes this sentence:

I wish to focus on that aspect. I hope that the Government's reforms will begin to raise standards, because there has been no genuine rise in education standards since 1997, as there has not been for 30 years, during which our state education system has been in permanent decline.

The problem that both parties face in government is tackling and challenging the dominant viewpoint on teaching methods expounded by the education academics. Like experts in so many areas, from MMR to global warming, no dissenting opinion is tolerated by that group. Perhaps that would not be of enormous concern in education if our schools were the envy of the world, but 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read properly compared with just 7 per cent. in Sweden. According to the trends in international mathematics and science study, Britain lies a poor 20th out of 41 developed nations, behind countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria, Malaysia and the Czech Republic.

The quality of education in our schools remains the No. 2 political concern in opinion polls, but among parents of school-age children it is not only their No. 1 political concern, but their overwhelming anxiety. That issue forces parents to move house, paying up to 33 per cent. more in the catchment area of a relatively good school.

However, so strong is the grip on policy of the education academics that they devote considerable resources to trying to convince Ministers and the public that standards are improving. They cite, for example,

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the programme for international student assessment survey—a new international survey of 15-year-olds in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which puts Britain's education system fourth in science, seventh in literacy and eighth in maths. This flatly contradicts other international surveys, including TIMSS.

The PISA survey says:

Unlike TIMSS, it did not test knowledge of the school curriculum. It is, in effect, more of an IQ test. Thus, our position in the international table will depend solely on who makes up the sample. There is ample evidence that the UK sample was skewed to exclude weaker schools and weaker pupils.

The literacy figures show that in 1996 just 57 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieved level 4 or above in the SATs. The Government now claim that that figure has risen to 75 per cent. It is still not a good figure, but that dramatic improvement is questioned by the leading authority in this area, Professor Tymms of Durham university, who said that

Professor Tymms's department tests 5,000 year 6 children in the same 122 primary schools each year, and he has found no statistically significant improvement in children's literacy since 1997.

My own view is that there has been some marginal improvement due to the literacy hour, which forced schools, initially in the face of fierce opposition, to address some of the weaknesses in the teaching of reading in our schools. But literacy teaching remains a cause for concern.

There is also the question of the pass mark used to grade SATs tests, which the 1999 Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report said was exaggerating SATs results by between 5 and 10 per cent. That report remains unpublished. I have been assured by the Minister responsible in a written answer that it will be published before the end of this year. Perhaps the Minister will say in his winding-up speech, after receiving a note from his officials, when that will be, because we are getting awfully close to the end of the year.

Similar issues arise regarding GCSE results, such as grade inflation and the increasing proportion of marks given for coursework. There is strong evidence that the rise in GCSE pass rates can be explained in part not by rising standards but by including GNVQ results in those statistics, which means that we are not comparing like with like.

If none of this convinces hon. Members, they should ask business and higher education what they think about standards in our schools. A report by the Engineering Council, based on diagnostic tests taken in 60 university departments, showed

A report by the Institute of Directors states:

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I could go on. The point is that the pretence that standards have risen is just that: it is a pretence. There has been no serious attempt to tackle the deep-rooted causes of declining standards in our state schools.

I shall give just one example in the time available: mixed-ability teaching. The 1997 Labour manifesto said that it would increase the amount of setting in our schools because children

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