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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I appreciate the chance to take part in the debate and will do my best to be brief, as one or two others still want to get in. Some of my remarks derive from the time when I occupied the Front-Bench position now held by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) as shadow higher education spokesman, before I became batman to two successive leaders of the Conservative party—though a batman with no aspirations to climb on to a ledge of the palace. Some of my remarks are sourced from my continuing fellowship of the Industry and Parliament Trust and Universities UK. I am grateful to the universities of Holloway, Kingston and Bristol and to Imperial college London for the access they have given me over the past couple of years, though I stress that the opinions I express and the comments I make are mine, rather than theirs.

I warmly welcome the Minister to his position. We have known each other as friends for many years. He has always carried out his ministerial duties ably and competently—it says in my notes—and I see no reason why that should not be the case in his present position. We know that he will put into it all his endeavour and effort.

I strongly welcome the debate, as much as I welcome the change and development that have taken place in higher education since the 1960s. That more people go to university now is obviously good news, and that universities are different in their style and in what they provide for both graduates and undergraduates is also to be welcomed. Universities are not as they were. In most respects, that is to be welcomed, although one or two things are not so good and candid friends need to say so.

There are many issues in higher education that we could debate on the basis of the motion, but I shall deal with a theme that has emerged from one or two
 
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comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) first raised it and it is a point not truly brought out in the motion or the amendment. My colleagues have a better grasp of the issue—that is, the independence of the higher education sector.

The Liberal Democrat motion and the Government amendment imply that higher education is and will remain almost solely a creature of Government. Higher education and Government should, of course, form a partnership. The nation has expectations and interests of which higher education must take account, but a too close, too dependent relationship between higher education and Government is not a good thing.

I shall pick out a couple of examples of that relationship being overdone in this country. The regulation and direction of funding through the Higher Education Funding Council has been commented on. Although they may be improving, universities still complain, and they are right to do so on occasion. Not only is the task of applying for funds time-consuming and frustrating, but almost all funds come with strings. Universities long for a system that rewards their professionalism and integrity with earned autonomy by which they can use money to fit in with their long-term plans and aspirations. Subsequent irresponsibility can be punished, which is what random inspections are for, but more trust and autonomy would be warmly welcomed.

I therefore welcome my hon. Friends' development of our ideas for greater autonomy by changing the funding mechanism for universities and encouraging more voluntary giving. Voluntary giving raises some challenges, which are set out in the excellent paper prepared by Professor Eric Thomas of Bristol university earlier in the year. If we could get the £600 million to which he and my hon. Friends refer, which works out at £400 per student, it would be of great assistance.

Of course, money will not come in equally to all institutions, and I recognise the fears expressed on that point, but two things follow. First, as Professor Thomas makes clear, endowment and voluntary income does not replace money from students or taxpayers, so room exists to correct imbalances, if they occur. Secondly, and most importantly, we cannot and should not expect all universities to receive equal resources, because they are not all equal, in the sense that they do not all tackle the same role in a modern higher education sector. Some can and must conduct blue-sky research. Some want to run courses for the sheer hell of it, and some students take those courses for the same reason.

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills made some unfortunate remarks suggesting that education for its own sake is not valid and that universities should be more vocationally driven. We are right to reject that proposition. Somebody, somewhere should defend education for its own sake, and it should be the Secretary of State. This country needs a tier of universities that receive wholehearted support and that are recognised as being of world stature. They must compete internationally and draw the best researchers and teachers here in order to deliver the highest quality skills to our students, which benefits everyone. Such universities are likely to be better funded than others.

Not all universities can fulfil such a role, and others of them may perform different jobs with a degree of excellence: teaching may take precedence over research;
 
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care for students who need the greatest help may be of the highest quality; and relationships with particular industries may ensure that a university supplies a niche market. Individual departments of excellence can and do flourish in virtually all universities, and a system that enables those individual jewels to be recognised and supported is required.

Mr. Willis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt: No; the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) wants to speak.

Not recognising the difference between universities and seeking to hold back those of the highest intellectual and research capacity because not all are equal is bogus and likely to inspire a complete breakaway by a handful of universities from the rest, which would be to no one's advantage. Greater autonomy will lessen that risk.

Who goes to the university is the second area in which the Government threaten independence. My message to the Government is simple: leave it to the universities. All universities that I have visited in the past three years are searching for the best students, and no admissions tutor is unaware of the effort required by a student from a difficult background to achieve top grades at a school that may not have everything. Universities know how to make allowances and do not need the Government to set quotas for them.

The more the Government go on about that matter, the more likely it is that individual injustices will take place: youngsters will not be judged on their merits, individual rights will become subordinated to group rights and public confidence in the honesty and integrity of the admissions system will be fatally compromised. The issue is not unrelated to the Government's aspiration for more people to go to university, which is good, and their 50 per cent. quota, which is not good.

Interfering with independence is dangerous in two respects. First, continued emphasis suggests to the nation that only higher education is worth having and that those who pursue further education, and even those who learn on the job, are somehow second class, as are those who teach such courses. I absolutely reject that notion. We cannot truly talk of "parity of esteem" for post-16 destinations if we give such an impression.

Secondly, a quota increases the likelihood that someone will be encouraged to take a course they do not want, in a university that they do not want to go to, in order to fulfil the quota and ensure that a university stays in business. That neglect of the interests of the individual student, who is considered as a commodity to fill a quota, is sad and wrong.

The pressure on universities to widen and increase access and to make allowances for quality runs the risk of taking the spotlight off secondary education, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage mentioned, and its responsibility to ensure the best outcomes and grades for its students.

The problem of ensuring that a strong group of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds is ready for higher education is not solely the responsibility of the universities, and their efforts to address that are
 
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helped substantially when secondary schools act in partnership with them and increasingly support such efforts.

Let us take on the next phase of higher education. Let us give universities as much autonomy as we can and a light regulatory regime. Let us give students the sort of support that my hon. Friends propose by ensuring that they do not pay fees, cutting their debt and enabling them to borrow enough to live on at university—a message that was missed out of the Government's original White Paper. I strongly support my colleagues' package of measures, which is designed in the best interests of universities and students.

3.35 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): I am conscious that we are coming to the end of the debate, and I am grateful for just a few minutes to put one substantive point to the Minister, whom I too welcome to his post.

My constituency does not have a great tradition of higher education: that was not generally what people from the old boroughs of Southwark and Bermondsey did. The one notable exception was the great teaching hospital of Guy's, which won prizes around the world and had dental and medical schools that were pre-eminent for a century. After that, things moved on. We had Borough polytechnic, which became South Bank polytechnic and is now London South Bank university, which is doing very well in terms of widening access. We have students living in premises south of the river who go to the London School of Economics and Westminster university.

I was prompted to make this contribution by figures that alarmed me when I got them from the then Minister in July; I mentioned them in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). They suggest that something is badly wrong as regards opening up access and encouraging people to go on to higher education in London, our capital city. I have since asked questions relating to the other parts of England, and those figures will be available when we come back after the next break.

The figures show some worrying trends that I want to put to the Minister. They relate to the 32 London boroughs—the City of London is excluded—and cover the years 1996 to 2003, the last year for which figures are available. In the past year, 20 of the 32 boroughs experienced a decline in the percentage of students going on to higher education. Four local authorities—this is not a party political point—have experienced a decline over the whole period, which means that a smaller percentage go to university now than in 1996. They are Camden, with a 4.5 per cent. drop; Hammersmith and Fulham, with a very small 0.5 per cent. drop; Kensington and Chelsea, with an 8.5 per cent. drop; and Richmond, with a 1 per cent. drop.

There are huge variations in the level of attainment. In two boroughs, only 12 per cent. of school leavers go on to higher education: Barking, which is a traditional working-class area, but an outer London borough; and Hackney, an inner-city borough with all the educational problems that we have heard about. At the other end of the scale is Harrow, where more than 40 per cent. of students go on to higher education. In 1996, the figure was about 30 per cent.—there has been a huge increase in that relatively affluent borough.
 
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Six local authorities have experienced good increases since 1996 in the numbers of students going on to higher education. When I list them, hon. Members will see that, again, I am not making a party political point. They are Harrow, with 9 per cent.; Newham, with 8.5 per cent.; Redbridge, with 9 per cent.; Waltham Forest, with 8 per cent.; Wandsworth, with 8 per cent.; and, I am pleased to say, my own borough of Southwark, with 8 per cent.

Those are the best performers. Overall, however, the London figures have started to turn down rather than up for the first time in seven years. For the first time, we have an indication that people in Greater London are not going on to higher education—I am not referring to the 50 per cent. target to which the Government aspire—because the figure for the capital is less than 25 per cent.

The best conclusion that I can reach—I do not draw on a great amount of research; I am happy for the Government to conduct the research—ties in with conversations in my constituency and anecdotal evidence that I have picked up across London. More and more people say that they will not go to university because of the cost and risk of debt.

I am not trying to bolster my party's case for the sake of it. As a London Member of Parliament who hopefully knows the subject relatively well, I simply want to share the fact that the evidence on the ground suggests a worrying trend. If that is the case, although we have the Higher Education Act 2004, the orders have not been laid and I hope that the Government can think again, not only about whether they insist on breaking their earlier commitment but about whether it would be wise in the foreseeable future to increase the contributions that students are asked to make to tuition fees. There is a danger that the people who need university most may be most put off and that the opportunity for widening access to which we all say that we aspire may not be fulfilled.

3.41 pm


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