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Mr. Sheerman: There has been a character assassination of Martin Harris. He is a distinguished academic and a fine university administrator with a great record. Some of his remarks have been taken out of context today, and that has done him and the House a disservice.
Mr. Rendel: Is it the Under-Secretary's understanding of Conservative policy that total academic freedom over admissions would mean that such a man, if he were an unreconstructed, left-wing Marxist, would be free to allow only those who came from the state sector to go to his university?
I stress to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that the debate has been bogus in that it presents a false choice between raising standards in early years, schools and colleges of further educationthe Government are more committed to raising standards at every stage of a child's development than any previous Government, through financial investment and a clear reform programmeand tackling the problem of endemic,
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cultural low aspiration in some communities, whereby no one in a school or family has had the opportunity to go to university. That is a false choice. Any responsible Government should address standards and the quality of education in institutions and raise the aspirations of those whom we wish to make best use of the education system.
Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is clearly not listening. I question the standard of education in the school that he attended. To claim that we have to tackle either standards in pre-university institutions or communities where there has been no experience and evidence of higher education is to present a false choice. Surely the responsible policy involves bringing together an undying determination to improve standardsas I have said, from the earliest years until the further-education stageand an equal determination to tackle the low aspiration and low attainment that have held back too many of our communities for too long.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell talked of the virtues of the Conservatives' financial package for the future of higher education, and of a new-found friendship with the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). What he did not say was that the hon. Member for Wantage had described the Conservatives' proposed package as regressiveand, as a distinguished former higher education Minister, he should know.
My distinguished colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, told us about the questions that were asked of him when he went to Norway to talk about relative performance in education. The Norwegians, he said, respected our progressand we are making progress. We have a long way to go before we achieve the educational performance that the country needs and that we desperately want, but it is in the Conservatives' interests to do nothing but talk down our achievements and the improvements of recent times.
As my hon. Friend said, the process of applying to university is very complex for many young people and their parents. It is difficult and challenging. Asking universities to engage with young people of 14 or 15 and talk them through that process is an important part of presenting university as a serious option. He also pointed out that universities are diverse institutions. They are indeed, which is why we are not proposing a one-size-fits-all agreement between OFFA and the university sector. We are talking about individual negotiated agreements that are fit for the purposes of individual institutions.
The hon. Member for Wantage said that admission policies were being supervised by the external regulator. That is simply not true. Access agreements will deal with outreach work, bursaries and the provision of accurate
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financial information to help students make the right choices. He said that there was a danger that benchmarks would become targets and quotas because of the way in which this is being reported in certain sections of the media. He could have added, "and because of the way in which certain members of my party are presenting this debate and these issues."
I am always interested in the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). He spoke of establishment pleasures and privileges being sustained by the Conservatives. I might point out, in an historical context, that establishment pleasures and privileges have sometimes been combined with communist plots in at least one of our top universitiesbut we need go no further. My hon. Friend also said that pupil funding was almost the only determinant of relative performances of which we should take account. I do not agree. I would expect anyone who had ever represented Bury to accept that, although pupil funding has improved considerably more under this Government than under our predecessor, it is not the only determinant of higher-education achievement.
The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) referred at one point to the danger of an intellectual Jurassic Park developing on the Labour Benches. His is the party that has just returned the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to the shadow Cabinet. The Conservatives know all about intellectual Jurassic Parks.
We heard how much better the education system used to be when we had grammar schools and secondary moderns. Not only is that untrue; it is not as if the Government are seeking simply to perpetuate the status quo in the quality of education available to young people. The move towards foundation specialist schools, the creation of city academies, the emphasis on basics in primary schools, the key stage 3 strategy, our new approach to 14-to-19 policy, education maintenance allowances all constitute a recognition that the status quo is not acceptable. However, I accept his point about schools' responsibility to engage with higher education institutions, as well as vice versa.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) spoke passionately, as he always does, about part-time and adult students and about the importance of tackling poverty of opportunity and creating social justice for all. He was right to focus on the barriers that still face many carers, especially young carers, who want higher education.
I have considerable respect for the independent and thought-provoking contributions of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) to political debates of all kinds, but especially to education debates. Let me say to him again that, while low prior attainment is the main issue, it is not the sole issue. The idea that state schools are not as good as private schoolsand that aspirations and skills, and parents' support for their children, are nothing to do with thatis nonsense. It is equally unacceptable, however, to excuse poor state school performance on the basis of a difficult and challenging home background. That is why we are modernising public services in exactly the way described by the hon. Gentleman, personalising them and putting customers at the heart of what we offer.
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I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), another Member from Bury. He asked whether we would intervene in decisions on admissions if the figures remained the same. We will not, but I can tell him this: I am extremely confident that the figures will not remain the same. The results of tests on seven, 11 and 14-year-olds are improving, and inner-city schools' performance is improving faster than the performance of schools elsewhere. We have introduced education maintenance allowances and relationships have been developed between higher education institutions and local communities in which going to university has not been the cultural norm.
The tactics deployed by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and his partyscaremongering about young people not being able to afford to go to universitywill be what helps to deter young people, not the Government's financial package. Our package offers income-contingent payback and the reintroduction of maintenance loans. Whatever package of financial support has been available in the pastgrants for all, among othersthere has been no break at any stage in the link between social class and access to higher education. The answer to the question, "What will the new system mean in terms of that link?" remains to be seen, but I believe that our other reforms will make a significant difference.
The truth is that neither the Government nor the main Opposition parties favour state interference in determining admissions to higher education, which is properly the responsibility of universities and colleges themselves. That, however, is where the consensus begins and ends.
The Conservative party stands firmly and proudly in the finest traditions of its past. It believes that higher education should be confined to an unrepresentative socio-economic group, that low aspirations in disadvantaged communities are inevitable and that higher education is for the middle classes, while the working class should be sent on vaguely defined vocational courses.
When exam results improve and the current generation of teachers is described by Ofsted as the best ever, the Conservatives claim that standards are not what they used to be. Their leader proposes a system whereby a young person who works hard to achieve a high grade will be penalised simply because an arbitrary numberor perhaps even a quotaof students achieve that grade. That is the real quota issue that has developed recently in higher education policy.
This Government will not interfere in universities' right to determine their own admissions, but we will not betray Britain's interests either. Any country achieving economic success in the 21st-century global economy will have to energise and use the talents of all its people. A civilised and fair society will be real only when individual destiny is no longer determined by postcode, family background or social class. That is the age-old
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difference that divides the political parties, and I strongly urge the House to reject the Opposition motion this evening because it is designed to promote myths and propagate division and is not an accurate reflection of the Government's policy to improve participation in higher education and ensure wider access.
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