Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: Fortunately I shall not be contributing next week.

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): You should have said the week after, Mr. Gale; we have a week off.

Mr. Lewis: I shall deal first with the situation that the hon. Member for Ceredigion described involving the Welsh student. That case was unacceptable. Universities UK is writing to all English higher education institutions to make it plain that, in any academic judgment, such attitudes towards A-level Welsh are completely unjustifiable. The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that the university reversed the decision. After there was a public clamour and, I presume, the person affected went to his Member of Parliament and the media, the university did the right thing.

If in such cases the university does not do the right thing, however, the young person affected or their family would be able to consider either going to judicial review or using equality legislation. I cannot determine whether a court would define what happened to the individual in question as relevant under equality legislation, but if a university admissions process has been exhausted and somebody feels aggrieved that a grave injustice has been done, the opportunity remains for that individual either to seek judicial review or to go to the courts under equality legislation. It is important that that is clear.

We do not believe that it is appropriate for the OIA to interfere with admissions decisions, just as we do not believe that it is appropriate for OFFA to do so.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): Would the Under-Secretary like to comment on whether judicial review is likely to be as cheap or quick as going to the OIA.

Mr. Lewis: I have no way of knowing the relative costs, but I am not sure that that should be the major factor determining our position on the issue.

Mr. Boswell: The Under-Secretary referred to equality legislation, on which I want to pick him up, just as the hon. Member for Newbury did. I can understand that such legislation might be relevant in cases involving ethnicity or linguistic competence, which are distinct from academic judgment. We shall in due course discuss OFFA, but does equality legislation take any account per se of socio-economic class, either of the student or their family?

Mr. Lewis: No, it does not.

Mr. Allen: I thank my hon. Friend for making clear OFFA's position in respect of admissions. Should he not also make it clear that it is damaging that there is a perception, which is put about by people for reasons of good political banter, although it is believed by people, rather like the nonsense about student debt being aggravated by additional payments, that in fact—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough not to try my patience.

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Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mr. Gale. Perhaps I shall speak to my hon. Friend later to reassure him that it is difficult and dangerous when politicians perpetuate myths that affect the judgment of the population and distort reality. Such perceptions cause young people and others to make wrong choices and have wrong views about the equity of the system.

Mr. Francois: Following on directly from what the Under-Secretary said, if we want to talk about altering perceptions, what more could one do to confuse people than to breach a manifesto commitment?

The Chairman: Order. I really must ask the Committee to address the amendment. There are matters that will be discussed, as was rightly pointed out to me, the week after next, when I am sure such issues will come up. However, now is not the moment.

10.15 am

Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I shall follow your advice.

On amendments Nos. 248 and 249, what is so ironic about the visitor, whose current role in some universities is to deal with appeals against admissions decisions, is that in many circumstances, it is effectively a Minister—either the Lord Chancellor or the Lord President. We are further reducing the Government's capacity to intervene or interfere in admissions decisions by taking the visitor out of the dynamic in terms of the consideration of students' grievances about admissions decisions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that as progress.

The Government have distanced themselves even more from interfering in admissions decisions and have not taken away a right that helps students. I believe that it is appropriate to remove the role of the visitor in that context. By doing so, we shall significantly reduce Government involvement in admissions decisions. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Thomas: Two important issues have been raised. I cannot talk about one, because we shall talk about it in a fortnight's time. The second is the fact that my amendment and amendments Nos. 248 and 249, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, show the emergence of a partial provision for applicants through the visitor system.

We know that the visitor system is rather archaic—some would argue that it is long-winded and not easy to use. We decided to retain it just for the staff, but it will be abolished for the applicants. However, no other system is being put in its place. That is a failure. I hope that the Under-Secretary will at least spend a little time thinking about it. What is currently available for some applications to some institutions—many of them are the older more traditional institutions that have shown the sort of attitude to applicants that we want to do away with in the Bill—is being taken away, yet those

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institutions may have an attitude to certain socio-economic backgrounds and so forth. Those applicants will no longer have an avenue for appeal, as nothing else is being put in its place.

I sense that I have been outgunned on the amendment, so it would serve no purpose to divide the Committee. However, I hope that the Under-Secretary will consider the situation. I hope also that other organisations, such as Universities UK and the students unions, will consider what is best for applicants and what system—both in terms of OFFA and the OIA—would best fit in the Bill. As we cannot make much more progress at this stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: Before we proceed, I must point out that one of the reasons why I am sitting here and why hon. Members are sitting where they are sitting is that my unenviable task is to try to keep the Committee not only on track but on time. We have eight clauses and four schedules to debate in rather less than one hour. I understand the temptation, but I would be grateful if hon. Members would try to confine the debates to the matters under discussion.

Mr. Collins: I beg to move amendment No. 184, in

    clause 12, page 5, line 21, at end add—

    '(3) For the purposes of this section matters of academic judgement will not include reasonable adjustments to the assessment process to meet the access needs of disabled students.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 4—Application of limit on time for complaints relating to disability—

    'For the purposes of paragraph 13(2) of Schedule 3 to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (c.50) a complaint referred to the body designated by the Secretary of State or the Assembly in Wales under section 13 shall be deemed to be conciliation under section 31B of that Act.'.

Mr. Collins: The amendment and the new clause were tabled at the specific request of the Royal National Institute of the Blind and of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities. I am delighted to note that not only do they attract the support of my hon. Friends, but that of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I am genuinely hopeful that the Under-Secretary will recognise that they were not tabled in a partisan spirit, and that they are not an attempt to trap or inconvenience the Government. They reflect the legitimate lobbying of legitimate interest groups, which believe that the Bill could be improved if the Government were to accept the changes. I hope that the Under-Secretary will reflect carefully on them. The amendments seek to address the entirely understandable concern of those who lobby on behalf of people with disabilities that the Bill should provide the maximum protection for the practical circumstances that may arise.

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Amendment No. 184 would allow the OIA to hear complaints against a university or other higher education institution about its failure to make a reasonable adjustment to the assessment process to meet the needs of disabled students. Such students want to ensure that a university's legitimate and desirable defence that a matter falls within the sphere of academic freedom should not excuse it from making proper facilities available to disabled students so that they have as equal a chance of succeeding as other students.

The RNIB entirely accepts, as I am sure we all would, that a student who turns in a very poor piece of work, who does not apply themselves properly or who does not turn up to lectures should be censured and marked down whatever their background and circumstances. If, however, a student is visually impaired and cannot complete an exam because the university has failed to provide them with the appropriate materials to enable them to read the question properly and to reply to it properly, the RNIB argues that the university should not be able to say that the matter falls within the sphere of academic freedom and that the adjudicator should not consider the complaint. I am delighted to say that many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee believe that to be an entirely reasonable point.

I know that the RNIB and Skill have corresponded with the Minister of State. In the material that they circulated widely to all members of the Committee, they explicitly state that they very much welcome the spirit in which he has replied. They do not question the sincerity of his wish to address their concerns, but they note that he concludes in his correspondence with them that the reviewer who works for the OIA should ultimately decide the merits of the case. They believe that it would help to provide proper and appropriate guidance to the reviewer if the Bill made it clear that the needs of disabled students must properly be taken into account within the sphere of academic freedom.

No one on either side of the Committee wants to limit artificially or unreasonably the sphere of academic freedom. We are all signed up in principle to the idea of academic freedom, and the Opposition will want to table amendments to later clauses that are designed to increase academic freedom. We do not believe that universities are malicious, malevolent or incapable of taking reasonable decisions, but we do believe that organisations that lobby for disabled people have identified a possible loophole in the legislation that could unfortunately be exploited in certain circumstances and could injure the interests of disabled students.

New clause 4 was tabled in the terms requested by the RNIB and by Skill. It refers to the disabilities legislation passed in 1995 and to the Special Educational Needs Disability Act 2001. It is intended to ensure that a disabled student has sufficient time to enter an appeal to enter a register of complaint.

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