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Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady makes an important point, but she should be looking elsewhere in the education system to deal with those very real issues. It is not a solution to gerrymander the higher education entrance system.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Speaking as someone who was a professional lecturer for six years in the kind of institute that encouraged wider access, may I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman the unseen potential of people who come to higher education through non-traditional pathways? It is not a desirability but a necessity to ensure that such people have equal access to all higher education institutions, because they outperform people who come through with more traditional grade scores.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. He talks about his own experience in higher education and the role that he and his colleagues clearly played in selecting students with academic potential. It is the job of his colleagues who are still in the profession to take those decisions; it is not for politicians to impose those solutions on them.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Grayling: No, I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me. The point is that it is exactly that principle that the Government are seeking to destroy today, and we want to prevent that from happening through our new clauses and amendments.

The proposal to introduce the access regulator represents all that is wrong with this Government. University vice-chancellors have told us that they hope that the regulator will prove to be a paper tiger, but they should have listened to the Minister when he spoke in a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall earlier this year. He said that

Our goal this afternoon is to draw those teeth, and to establish the principle, which should be inalienable, that these matters should be outside the control and involvement of politicians.

Let us be clear: we believe that entry to university should be based on academic achievement and potential and on nothing else. It is not for politicians to interfere in this.

1.30 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): The hon. Gentleman may recall from Committee that my position is somewhere between his and the Government's on this matter. There is a serious point to be made: the university funding system is already subject to an element of political interference. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, for example, already sets a threshold for the number of applicants who must come from the 100 most deprived communities in Wales.

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Would the new clause weaken existing arrangements, or does the hon. Gentleman think that he is merely tackling the office for fair access? I am a little concerned that he may weaken efforts already being made in relation to access to higher education.

Chris Grayling: I see no reason why the new clause would have that effect. Nor do I believe that our universities would be enhanced by another layer of bureaucracy, which would make it more difficult for them to do the job that many of them are already doing.

The important point at the heart of this debate is that there is a need to create opportunity within our education system for those who are let down by it. There was no dispute in Committee about that, and there is no disagreement that there are young people who do not achieve what they could under our current education system. There are young people with the potential to go to university, who, for family or other reasons, such as the social environment in which they are brought up, do not end up doing so. That is wrong. There is agreement on both sides of the House about that.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who is sadly not in his place at the moment, made an impassioned and important speech and quite a long one about the situation in his constituency, where anyone who stays on in education after the age of 16 is regarded, in his words, as weird. Clearly, that is wrong. I did not disagree with his analysis of the situation in his constituency, nor with the fact that it needs to be addressed, but I fundamentally disagree with him about the solution. The problem that the access regulator is being appointed to tackle is deep-rooted in our schools, and it is there that the change must come. That solution will not be found by gerrymandering the university admissions system, or by requiring university admissions tutors to follow anything other than their natural instincts and expertise in judging academic achievement and potential.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman also recall that we heard in Committee of examples of universities and schools working together in communities, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), to expose universities to young people who had no previous experience of them? The regulator will oversee exactly that type of access extension.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and anticipates the next section of my speech.

The frustrating irony of the debate about the access regulator is that good work is already going on in the university sector to try to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds.

In Committee, numerous Labour Members praised the efforts of their local universities in this regard. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who is not in her place today, said:

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said:

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But he went on to praise the work done by his two local universities, Nottingham university and Nottingham Trent university, in seeking to extend opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds.

Jonathan Shaw: It is right that we gave examples of good practice in Committee, but we also said that it was not uniform, it was not across the piece, and that some universities were doing very well, and others were not. We want all universities to perform to their best in terms of widening access and reaching out into communities to young people who would not have thought about attending university. That is what the regulator will do: it is about spreading good practice.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman must understand that the fundamental difference between us is that we do not believe that we should pass laws to do that. One does not legislate best practice; one encourages it. The flaw in this measure is the belief that passing a law is the right way to deal with a genuine problem. That is the difference between Conservative and Labour Members.

Kali Mountford: I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises the hard work going on in junior and primary schools as well as in secondary schools and universities. Alongside that good work, does he not recognise that there is a problem with people following their natural instincts, to use his words? Is not the problem that some people's natural instincts may not be benign, and some people's natural instincts may need some encouragement in a more generous direction?

Chris Grayling: If the hon. Lady is right, and if the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) is correct that there are potential students out there who will out-perform in higher education, by definition, those institutions that are good at recruiting them will rocket up the academic ladder, and others will realise that they are missing out. Surely best practice is best developed in that way, rather than through clumsy bureaucratic laws from the centre.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Grayling: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make some progress. I do not want to take up the whole debate with my contribution.

The problem is that when the Government feel that something is not right, they rush to pass a law. Although the natural instincts of Labour Members to nationalise everything have long been curbed, those instincts are still to look to interfere in every aspect of our lives. When there is something with which they do not agree, passing a law is their only solution. The introduction of an access regulator, whose job is to ensure that universities are pressurised into changing the way that they shape their future intakes, is based too much on class prejudice and not enough on academic good practice. We do better if we empower people to take those decisions themselves, rather than trying to be prescriptive from the centre.

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I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that something must be done to address those failing schools and communities where education is an alien concept [Interruption.] He has just returned to the Chamber, and he missed my remarks referring to his speech. I very much agreed with his diagnosis of the problem in his constituency. My point is that that problem simply should not exist in a modern society in 2004. It behoves all of us as politicians to seek ways to address it. We differ not on the aspiration but on the solution. Fundamentally, we do not believe that passing laws is the right way to do it. Nor do we believe that creating potentially draconian regimes for the university sector is the right way to do it.

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