Higher Education Bill

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Jonathan Shaw: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. He referred to other cases where people had contacted his office. Were they also issues about the Welsh language or were they about other A-levels?

Mr. Thomas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to clarify the matter. Those cases were about the Welsh language and not any other A-level or circumstance. But, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, we also know about other cases over the past couple of years that have had a high profile in the press where there have been other issues at stake.

I have set out the example and the fact that in such cases there does not seem to be any independent body that can arbitrate or resolve disputes. It is a question for the Committee and for the Government; there needs to be an independent body, and no doubt the Under-Secretary will have something to say about it. But if we are establishing an office of an independent adjudicator to look after student issues in the realm where students have been accepted by universities, it does not stretch the principle of such an independent adjudicator to say that that office could also look at individual applicants.

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Mr. Boswell: Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, does he agree that there may be some read-across into, for example, equal opportunities law, in that a refusal to employ on the grounds of a patent disability, for example, if inappropriate, may attract the attention of the disability legislation?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman opens up a new avenue of argument, which I will not go down, but I agree that it is relevant and pertinent. I have concentrated on one constituency example, but we know that in the past disabled applicants have found it difficult to be accepted by colleges and universities. We do not know what goes on in people's minds in that way; we cannot legislate in that sense for discrimination.

But if OFFA—or its equivalent in Wales—is to set strategic plans and say to universities, ''You need to have these procedures in place for fair access'', and if an independent adjudicator will look after students once they have been accepted into the institutions, the question remains of whether there is a missing link regarding the applicants? How can we ensure that applicants going forward under schemes to universities overseen by OFFA are fairly treated; how can we ensure that there is no unseen discrimination of any type, whether it is against a particular A-level, disability or any other type of discrimination?

For example, when we return from the half-term break we will be discussing the Gender Recognition Bill. If a person who had changed his or her gender sought to go into a particular single-sex hall or applied for a place, how would the application be resolved? Those issues need clarifying, and I hope that the amendment will allow us to have a debate so that the Under-Secretary can respond to our concerns.

10 am

Mr. Collins: In addition to commenting on the remarks that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) made in support of amendment No. 209, I shall speak to amendments Nos. 248 and 249. Like the hon. Gentleman, Conservative Members are keen for the Under-Secretary to clarify the Government's intentions.

Amendment No. 249 would delete the proposal in clause 19 that a visitor be prohibited from making a ruling on a complaint

    ''in respect of an application for admission to the qualifying institution as a student.''

In responding to the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary may say that it is not for the new OIA to consider such complaints. However, clause 19(2) implies that the Government believe it necessary to remove an existing right for visitors to rule on such complaints.

The Under-Secretary may tell the hon. Gentleman that we can leave things as they are and that there is no need for change, but he cannot realistically use that argument to resist amendment No. 249, because the Bill suggests that the Government are seeking to prohibit a practice that would continue in the absence of clause 19(2). It would be interesting to have an

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indication from the Under-Secretary as to why the Government feel the need to circumscribe any existing freedom of manoeuvre that visitors may have.

We understand that visitors do not use their powers very often, and we should put on record the fact that, overwhelmingly, universities have a good record on assessing admissions. It is not our contention that there is a fundamental problem of the sort that recently caused the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get very hot under the collar. On the contrary, broadly speaking, universities take sensible and correct decisions, and it is an important part of academic freedom that they, rather than outside bodies, should make the decisions. None the less, amendment No. 249 is an attempt to tease out from the Government why they seek to remove an existing right of appeal to visitors. In a sense, such people are part of the universities, which certainly do not regard them as a threat to their academic freedom or independence. Of course, visitors do not spend most of their time making such decisions, but it is interesting that the Government feel it necessary to prohibit them from doing so in the Bill. From time to time, people who apply to higher education institutions will make complaints, which they will want to have properly and fully considered. Although I am likely to have more, not less, sympathy with the Under-Secretary's resistance to amendment No. 209, which was moved by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, I would be interested to hear why he feels it necessary to go beyond the status quo by removing an existing right.

Mr. Willis: I rise to support amendment No. 209, which was moved by hon. Member for Ceredigion, and I hope that the Government will revisit the issue.

The Bill represents a new departure for the admissions process. I agree with comments that have been made about the process through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to universities with their own admissions systems. My colleagues and I would certainly not want to interfere with the decisions that those systems make about admitting people on the basis of academic merit rather than other things, and we shall return to that.

The Bill introduces a third party—OFFA. The need for OFFA to agree their plans will affect universities' admissions, because, in order to get the money from the students, they will have to satisfy OFFA that they plan to broaden access. That will lead to complaints such as the one that arose when Bristol university considered a system of preferential entry on to certain courses by certain groups of students. There will be a case for people to claim that they have been excluded from a university not because of the merit of their qualifications but because, thanks to a plan agreed by OFFA, there are insufficient places for people in their category, or from their background. I hope that that will not happen—I am sure that the Under-Secretary will say that it will not—but it is more likely to occur in the future than it was when there was a direct relationship between the university and the student admissions system.

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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I hate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in full flow. Is there any shred of evidence from any Minister or elsewhere—[Interruption.] I shall let the hon. Gentleman take his pager message; it could be the answer coming through, and I think that it will be no—that that is the intention, or that the Government are not wholly aware that they must ensure that it does not happen accidentally?

Mr. Willis: I am amazed at the hon. Gentleman's faith. If he believes what he says, what is the point of OFFA? If everybody is so pure and decent—I shall not go down that route. I have made the point and I am sure that we shall come back to it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I served with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on the Criminal Justice Bill for some two months. There were certainly times during that process when he lacked faith in the Government.

Mr. Willis: I rest my case.

Mr. Lewis: We have had an important debate, and there have been some interesting contributions. Before we go any further, we need to dispel the myth that OFFA is about admissions. It is about access to higher education. We must be clear about that; it is only Opposition members who do not understand the distinction. Some of us represent constituencies in which, for years, young people have been denied access to higher education because of low aspirations, because they reach the age of 18 without the two A levels that they need to get into higher education, or because they were turned off education at the age of 12 or 13 when they were told that academic, or even vocational, routes into higher education were not for them.

Those are the issues that are relevant in terms of higher education institutions and OFFA. It is about higher education institutions reaching out into communities in which low aspirations are culturally endemic and attacking and changing those aspirations. The role of OFFA is to achieve a university student composition that is far more representative of our society; that is the transformational change that the Government seek to make in communities in which, historically, the aspirations, educational standards and expectations of young people have been far too low.

The Chairman: Order. This is absolutely riveting. It has a great deal to do with matters that I suspect we shall discuss next week but nothing to do with amendment No. 209. Perhaps the Under-Secretary would like to return to the point, and I extend that invitation to the rest of the Committee.

Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mr. Gale, for the five minutes that you allowed me in which to put on the record what OFFA is really for.

The Chairman: Order. The Under-Secretary should not imagine that it will not be taken off his time next week.

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