Higher Education Bill

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Jonathan Shaw: In effect, my hon. Friend is talking about carte blanche, in that there is no beginning or end to academic judgment. One can understand the anxiety of staff that this provision may become law and that they will have no idea of the parameters of academic judgment.

Mr. Lewis: Any Minister who could define the parameters of academic judgment would be doing exceptionally well. The best that I can do is give examples. Academic judgment is used to decide the marks awarded in examinations or other assessments, and ultimately to decide the class of degree. Only examiners are in a position to make such decisions, and to change that would be a serious infringement of their autonomy in academic matters. However, complaints would qualify if they related to procedural matters such as whether a student had access to an academic appeals committee and whether that committee was properly constituted. The OIA could

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consider a complaint when a university was attempting to hide behind the excuse that something was a matter of academic judgment and it could be proved that that was not appropriate or reasonable.

I cannot give my hon. Friend a clearer and more definitive definition of academic judgment at this stage, but I do believe that the OIA will be best placed to make that judgment.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Under-Secretary is doing an admirable job of trying to define something that is difficult to define. Would he say that the concept academic judgment went so far as to include a lecturer or tutor who plainly was not giving good lectures or was not qualified to give the lectures in question?

Mr. Lewis: I certainly would not. One thing that members of the Committee agree on is the need to put more resources into our universities—however it is done—in order to raise standards and quality. No student should be short-changed in the quality of his learning experience. If there was evidence to support the contention that the quality of the learning experience was not up to scratch, the student would first complain through the usual channels within the institution. However, if necessary, he would then have the opportunity to go to the new independent adjudicator. With that in mind, I ask that the Opposition to consider withdrawing the amendment.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I support the amendment—not, I hasten to add, that it would go to a vote, but I do not want it to be brushed aside. I am not suggesting, however, that the Under-Secretary has not dealt with it gracefully and with great wisdom.

About four or five years ago, when I was an Under-Secretary for Education and Employment, student complaints were discussed with universities. The universities were given 12 months to sort out the problem. They have not sorted it out. As was suggested the other day, a number have agreed a students complaint procedure, but many have not. We are now legislating for a students complaints procedure—so much for consensus, so much for waiting for the universities and their wisdom.

I was puzzled why we had taken time to legislate on the matter. I wondered whether the provision was merely padding to widen the Bill's provisions, so that it did not deal only with variable fees. Such a cynical comment would be unworthy of me, so I shall not make it. However, when I looked at the explanatory notes, I noted that human rights were involved. I then realised that cynical people, such as myself, would know why the provision had been included. The universities could not be persuaded to act—in my time, they had no intention of acting. We let the timetable of 12 months' notice extend to five years, and only now are we legislating. I suspect that we are legislating only because of human rights issues. If we let the matter go, it would be challenged in Europe. Indeed, the explanatory notes suggest that strongly.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough suggests that we should also deal with the prickly issue of staff complaints. However, much as

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I am sympathetic with the Under-Secretary and much as I think his argument was first- class, I suggest that the problem will not be dealt with properly. On the evidence, one cannot expect universities to regulate themselves and agree something. The slowest will always set the pace—and that is very slow. I would rather that the Under-Secretary decided to consider the matter. If he thinks that there is merit in the suggestion, I hope that he will examine whether an opportunity arises as the Bill passes through its various stages to do something about it.

The solution cannot be left to the universities, and we will not get another chance to introduce fresh legislation for a long time. We should grasp the opportunity now. The universities have had their chance and demonstrated that they do not have the will to act.

Mr. Boswell: I have some sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie). I had very little experience in my time as an Education Minister of the actual operation of a visitor system and, of course, could not have nobbled it had I chosen to do so. I remember one case that was drawn to my attention, which, without identifying the institution, took place outside England. There was a procedure in which the visitor was invoked. However, as I think that that was Her Majesty, somebody had to stand in and consider the complaint for her. My only comment on the process is that it was very messy and extremely prolonged. The member of staff involved was supported by their union.

9.45 am

I say to the Committee only that there is a potential problem. I am not disposed to challenge the Under-Secretary's judgment about the need to concentrate on student complaints. That is proper and we need to get that working, but we should not close our eyes to the fact that institutions need to have viable arrangements. They may need to think about whether those arrangements need to be updated. Above all, they need to ensure that the delivery of a resolution of those complaints is reasonably timely and proper.

Mr. Lewis: It feels like a Yorkshire conspiracy against a Lancastrian, with the two hon. Members joining up. May I respond to the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East who as usual made an important and reasonable contribution? Why he is being unfair, and the reason we are putting this on the statute book, is because the higher education sector has created a self-regulatory framework that it has asked us to underpin by statute in this Bill. The implication that the higher education sector has not acted about student complaints is very unfair. It has already established the OIA, and, although not every part of the sector has signed up to it, the majority of institutions has. The sector has then said that by putting this on the statute book all students in all institutions can be sure of access to a high quality, transparent complaints process.

While I accept my hon. Friend's point, which is the same point as that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, that the status quo on staff

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complaints is not good enough, I do not believe that the case has been proven that the complaints process that we are establishing for students in the Bill would necessarily be the right vehicle for an independent approach to staff complaints, and there is no significant consensus in the sector that would support that. I do not want to add more, but I would ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Willis: I thank the hon. Member for Leeds, East for his support for the amendment. The Under-Secretary is right that the universities came up with an independent system for adjudication, although not all of them did; some have opted out and refused to play ball. They came up with the system as a result of the Nolan committee and the post-Nolan inquiry that was set up by Universities UK in response. There was a process by which they were brought to this point.

I will not be pressing this to a vote, because I hope, like the hon. Gentleman, that the Under-Secretary will reflect on this and come back on Report with an appropriate amendment of the Government's making. What amazes me, and what I do not think that the Under-Secretary responded to, is that it cannot be right to argue that the current visitor system for students contravenes the Human Rights Act 1998, but that the one for staff does not. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in those two positions.

We have an opportunity in the Bill to resolve the matter. Clearly the university sector will not do it, and yet we have the staff of the universities urging the Government to do so. We cannot have a twin system for dealing with academic staff complaints, one of which depends on the old visitor system—which is archaic according to the Secretary of State—and another that will apply mostly to the redbrick and new universities. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I urge the Under-Secretary to look at this again.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I beg to move amendment No. 209, in

    clause 12, page 5, line 19, at end insert—

    '(c) who is applying to become a student at that institution.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 248, in

    clause 19, page 7, line 37, leave out '(2) or'.

No. 249, in

    clause 19, page 7, line 38, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Thomas: I hope that I need not detain the Committee long on this amendment.

We have been discussing the staff implications of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, but it is important that we also consider another group of people at present seemingly cast outside the remit of this Bill: those who apply for places at universities and are refused. Such refusal can be given not just on academic grounds but for all sorts of complex reasons,

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as we know from several famous cases in the last year or so in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself became involved.

We know that things can go wrong with the application process. Certain decisions can be made that are nothing to do with an applicant's academic abilities, but rather concern other qualities that a particular institution may be looking for. Before we consider this amendment, it is important that we recognise that OFFA does not deal with such situations.

OFFA, as set out in this Bill, will work with institutions at the strategic planning level only; it will have to agree their fair access plans with them, but my reading of the Bill is that it will not intervene if these plans fail in individual cases. OFFA will try to get things right, but if there is a failure on admissions, there is nothing in the Bill that says that an applicant can then turn to OFFA and say, ''Hey, this university has failed in what it said it would do.'' Of course, if there is a pattern of failure, the Higher Education Funding Council could step in and say, for example in the Welsh context, ''You have not succeeded in attracting the target of applicants from the 100 most deprived communities''. The Welsh OFFA would be able to do that with Welsh universities, but it would not intervene in individual cases.

I shall briefly tell the Committee of a constituency case that I have been dealing with in the last three weeks that has made me realise that we need to debate the matter in Committee. Hopefully the Under-Secretary can explain how such a case would be dealt with in the future, if not through this amendment.

The case concerns Mr. Cemlyn Davies, the head boy of Ysgol Penweddig, the bilingual Welsh language school in Aberystwyth. In passing I will say that Ceredigion has some of the best A-level results in England and Wales, and Penweddig is one of the best schools in Ceredigion, so there is a good academic record at this institution. Cemlyn, whose name is public and has been in the press, was studying for A-levels and wanted to study politics at the university of Nottingham. He had a successful interview and the university said that it would offer him a place. It wanted him to achieve two A's and a B, or whatever, in three of his four A-levels, but one of his subjects was Welsh and it said that it would not count that result, as Welsh itself did not count.

Cemlyn is a first language Welsh speaker studying a Welsh A-level, in the same way that any English speaker would study an English A-level. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) will know that a Welsh A-level is the same as an English A-level, in which one studies history, literature and everything in the same way. We are not talking about a second language qualification. Curiously, Cemlyn was studying English as well, so this university was prepared to accept an applicant's success in an A-level in English, but not in Welsh.

Needless to say, as soon as a very able and bright pupil in one of the best schools in Ceredigion was told that his Welsh qualification would not count, the media knew about it pretty quickly, as did I. So did the

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Commission of Racial Equality, which announced an inquiry into the university's decision. Within a week the university had reversed its decision and said, ''Please come to us'' and, almost, ''We will take whatever you get.'' They said that they would accept his Welsh A-level. Of course, in that time the confidence and trust between the applicant and the university had broken down, and Cemlyn decided to go elsewhere. The publicity engendered by the case led to several other people contacting my office with similar stories. Similar things had happened at Bristol university and in the past at the London School of Economics.

We cannot know how in the past those academic judgments were made. It is clear, though, that in the case of the university of Nottingham it was not an academic judgment but a prejudice against one particular subject. There is no reason on earth why an A-level in Welsh is not more or less relevant to studying politics than an A-level in English. I do not accept that it was an academic choice. Indeed, the university itself, by reversing the decision and holding up its hands, also accepted that it was not an academic choice. To be fair to its academics, they acknowledged their mistake.

That highlighted the question of to whom the applicant would have turned had the university held firm. Yes, he could have gone to the press or come to me, or involved the Commission for Racial Equality because we have the Welsh Language Act 1993 that gives equal status to Welsh and English. But in another context, involving an applicant with a different sort of A-level or approach, or with different cultural values or confidence or whatever, how would such a dispute be resolved? That is the question that I had in mind when I approached the Bill.

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