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Several hon. Members rose

Chris Grayling: I am going to conclude my remarks, as I want to allow other Members the chance to speak.

The Government have sought to assure us that they have no intention whatever of trying to become involved in admissions. The measure, they tell us, is all about applications, not admissions. They just want universities, they tell us, to cast their net wider. The problem is simple: we do not believe them. They have form in this area. They know that they have already gone back on a clear manifesto pledge on tuition fees, to which we will no doubt return later this afternoon.

When the Government tell us that the access regulator will have a light touch and confine his interest to a loose set of guidance in relation to the application process, I do not believe them. Do we honestly believe that two or three years down the road, if by some unhappy accident they are still in office and their goals are not being met by the higher education sector, they will stand aside if the changes that they want have not happened? No one in the higher education sector should be under any illusion about that. When the Secretary of State talks about substantial financial penalties £500,000 fines for universities that do not conform that is a threat to be taken seriously. In time, those threats will become a harsh reality.

There is a simple way of removing this threat. The new clause would limit the ability of the regulator to impose a social engineering agenda on our universities. It would ensure that our universities cannot be forced to admit students on the basis of any factors other than academic achievement and potential. The Prime Minister had it right a year ago when he said that anything else would be wrong. He was right then, this new clause is right now, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): I shall not detain the House, because I am sure we all want to proceed to the next group of new clauses and amendments.

The Liberal Democrats will support the new clause, because, as we have said from the outset, we consider the whole system of targets to be nonsense. The idea that precisely 50 per cent. of young people no more, no less should go to university is absurd. The target will probably be achieved quite easily anyway; it has already been achieved in Scotland, and the chances are that it will be achieved in England in the near future regardless of whether the Government take any action. What we should be doing is deciding how many university places

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we ought to be providing, and for whom they ought to be provided. We have long believed that places should be provided for all who have the ability, potential and qualifications to make proper use of university courses.

We are particularly happy with new clause 1 because the Conservatives, who in Committee tabled an equivalent amendment proposing the removal of the clause in the Bill that insists on fairness, have now included subsection (2) in the new clause. It provides that the system of choosing between applicants must be fair and non-discriminatory. That addition makes all the difference: it enables us to support the new clause.

While we are thinking about fairness, we should bear in mind that A-levels are not the only measure of ability and potential. I was somewhat surprised, but nevertheless delighted, to find in Committee that the Conservatives held that view as well. There had been some concern about the issue over the past year. Some independent schools had seemed to think that A-levels were the only important measure of ability, and that those with the right A-levels should be chosen on those grounds alone. That, of course, has become impossible in the case of our most prestigious universities: so many applicants are achieving three or four A grades that it is impossible to choose between them purely on that basis.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab): While we are discussing the central issue of enforcing fairness, may I make a point about Oxford university? I should mention that I went there from a state school. Oxford accepts a proportion of applicants from state schools, but it is also true that more people from state schools will end up with better degrees the corollary being that those from the private sector will end up with worse degrees. Does that not imply that something is going badly wrong at the margin, and that there should be more factoring in of social backgrounds? That is the job of the regulator, and it should be enforced.

Mr. Rendel: I do not think that those from state schools necessarily get better degrees. What is certainly true is that those from state schools who have lower A-level grades tend to do at least as well as those from independent schools who have higher grades. I do not think that that is quite the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, but it is my reason for thinking that A-level grades should not represent the only way of choosing between applicants. If we do not have other mechanisms, our most prestigious universities will not have the opportunity to admit applicants with great ability and potential who come from state schools and whose A-level grades may not be as good as those of others in their age group.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I think that the hon. Gentleman has misinterpreted my hon. Friend's point. The other side of the picture is that when people who have been carefully nurtured and groomed, and on whom an enormous amount of money has been spent in the private system who have been glossed up reach university, the glossing up does not persist. It gets them into university because they look good at their interviews and have plenty of self-assurance and yes, they have achieved three As at A-

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level but when confronted with the rigours of a university degree course, they do not perform as well as people from state schools with similar qualifications.

Mr. Rendel: I suspect that, in fact, we are all misunderstanding each other. I think that what I was saying is exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Those from state schools will not necessarily get better degrees than those from independent schools, but those from state schools with lower A-level grades tend to end up with the same degrees as those from independent schools with higher grades.

1.45 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman join me in commending to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) the Chairman of the Select Committee and to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) a report prepared for the Higher Education Funding Council? It concerns the effects of schooling on higher education achievement, and concludes that the difference in the degree performances of students with the same A-level scores from independent schools and state schools is very small indeed at the most selective and highly academic universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Mr. Rendel: I think that we are all saying much the same thing, and that I should now make some progress.

At present, independent schools are selling themselves largely on their ability to produce better A-level grades than state schools for pupils with the same ability. Universities should therefore take the opportunity of choosing state school applicants with lower grades, rather than those from independent schools; but the choice must be made on the basis of a number of criteria. Past exam success clearly makes a difference, and it is one of the measures that universities can use fairly not just in respect of A-levels, but in respect of earlier exams. Current tests of potential along the lines of the American SATS are a possible method of differentiation. The application form itself may give universities a hint, and pupils could perhaps send examples of written work to show what they had achieved in the past. Interviews are another possibility, as are teachers' assessments. If teachers are at all fair in their assessments, the best way of judging the ability and potential of young people may be what is said by those who have known them best at school.

New clause 1 would, I hope, produce a fairer way of choosing university students than the methods currently used in some universities. It is only fair to add, however, that a certain level of resources would have to be invested. It is quickest and simplest for universities to choose between applicants on the basis of A-level grades; if these more complex and subtle, but fairer, methods are adopted, universities must put in more money than they do at present.

New clause 2 would remove from the Welsh Assembly some of its rights to determine how university admissions are handled. That clearly conflicts with the whole principle of devolution to the Assembly. I should like the maximum number of powers to be devolved, and I believe that these powers should be included.

Chris Grayling: As the hon. Gentleman will know, new clause 2 is effectively consequential on new clause 1.

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Is he saying that he supports the principle that universities should not be subject to political interference in England, but does not apply that principle to Wales?

Mr. Rendel: No, I am not suggesting that Welsh universities should not have a fair choice of applicants. What I am saying is that it should be up to the Assembly to determine how it will put pressure on universities to employ a fair and sensible way of discriminating between applicants. We in this Parliament should not make that decision.

I am not sure whether anyone will speak to amendments Nos. 99 and 100. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who tabled them, did not seem to want to speak a moment ago. In case he does speak, however, let me say that we consider the amendments unobjectionable but probably superfluous. I suspect that OFFA would work more or less in that way in any event. We see no great need for the amendments, but we have no great objection to them.

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