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Standing Committee Debates
Higher Education Bill

Higher Education Bill

Column Number: 455

Standing Committee H

Thursday 4 March 2004

(Morning)

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Higher Education Bill

9.10 am

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I want to rectify an error that I inadvertently made when we debated amendments Nos. 260 and 182 on part-time students last week. I said that the Open university had 28,000 students, but that is the number of part-time students who get fee remission across the sector. The actual number of students at the university is an incredible 200,000. I thought it best to make that clear so that staff there did not wake up thinking that they had lost about 180,000 students.

The Chairman: Happily, that is not a point of order for me, but it is now a matter of record.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. The Minister kindly agreed to supply all members of the Committee, through your good self, with a list of the universities offering bursaries that will come on top of the £3,000 grant in the Bill. I very much appreciate the fact that he has responded quickly but, in his desire to do so, he may inadvertently not have given us the complete picture. I know from my researchers that, as well as the four universities mentioned in his letter, another five—

The Chairman: Order. Nice try, but that is obviously not a point of order for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to make it a matter of record. Of course, it would be perfectly reasonable for him to ask the Minister to update or amend his letter.

Mr. Allen: In light of your guidance, Mr. Gale, I wonder whether the Minister could update his letter, given that even I have been able to obtain that information through my sources. Could the Department write to individual universities to ask what the current position is?

The Chairman: That is not a point of order for me either, but the Minister will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. When the Minister writes to us, could he also update us on the thresholds below which such bursaries will be available? Even at Cambridge—the most generous case that the Government have put before us—help will be available only below a very low threshold of about £15,000.

The Chairman: Once again, that is not a point of order for me, but the Minister will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Clause 30

General duties of relevant authority

Column Number: 456

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 24, in

    clause 30, page 13, line 39, leave out from 'to' to 'and' in line 40 and insert

    'ensure full access to higher education based upon academic ability and potential.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 268, in

    clause 30, page 13, line 41, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 193, in

    clause 30, page 13, line 41, after 'functions', insert

    'have regard to any legislation for the time being in force which is intended to prohibit discrimination or promote equality and'.

No. 194, in

    clause 30, page 13, line 41, after 'functions', insert

    'have regard to the need to eliminate covert forms of discrimination and denial of opportunity'.

No. 221, in

    clause 30, page 13, line 42, at end insert—

    '(1A) Without prejudice to the performance of his duties under this section, the Director may take any further action which he considers likely to promote fairer access to higher education.'.

No. 235, in

    clause 31, page 14, line 16, at end insert—

    '(2A) A plan under this section relating to any institution may not include any provisions relating to admissions to that institution.'.

No. 195, in

    clause 38, page 17, line 12, at end insert—

    ' ''fair access to higher education'' means the principle that no person shall be precluded or deterred from pursuing any qualifying course for any reason other than academic ability, and in particular that no person shall be so precluded or deterred by reason of his income,'.

Chris Grayling: We now reach the second crucial element of the Bill. Having spent last week debating the fundamental issue of top-up fees, we come now to a subject that is perhaps less welcome to universities—the access regulator.

Let me start by saying how surprised Opposition Members were when the Government imposed a guillotine after clause 29—the first of this group of clauses, which relates to the establishment of the access regulator. It would have been more understandable had they imposed one before clause 29, and it is altogether regrettable that we have been forced to start debating the issue at clause 30 instead. For no obvious reason, the Committee has been deprived of the opportunity to debate certain issues relating to the establishment of the access regulator.

Mr. Allen: Would the hon. Gentleman not concede that time-wasting by Conservative Members in our first four sittings and, indeed, on Thursday—

The Chairman: Order. I am going to curtail this discussion right now. We are discussing the amendments, not the allocation of time.

Chris Grayling: Absolutely, Mr. Gale. It is important, however, that we give proper and full consideration to the establishment of the access

Column Number: 457

regulator, and it is regrettable that we are being forced to start with amendment No. 24, which relates to issues beyond the principle of establishing the regulator. However, we must move on and discuss the details of the regulator's remit rather than whether the regulator should exist in the first place.

The principle behind amendment No. 24 is a fundamental one that Conservative Members feel passionate about. We do not want the access regulator at all. We believe that the provision is a mistaken attempt by the Government to interfere in the independence of universities. With the amendment, we are trying to redress the balance, and to do so in a way that, as I will come to shortly, has many supporters, not least among those in senior positions on the Government benches.

The access regulator is being established by the Government to give them the power—for the first time—to wield a direct influence over how universities select their students. The Minister and the Secretary of State have been at pains to say that it is not about the application process, but purely about the admissions strategies of universities. The two are umbilically linked. The concept of a strategy to secure applicants cannot be separated from how those applicants are admitted. They are, inevitably, two sides of the same coin. The Government's approach is designed to give the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government the ability to tell universities what they must do when admitting students.

Conservative Members have profound misgivings about the measure, as do many vice-chancellors. I think that if it were brought forward in isolation and if it were purely a social engineering measure and not attached to a carrot—if it were just a stick—there would be a widespread rebellion by vice-chancellors. Many vice-chancellors already do excellent work in trying to encourage applications from non-traditional backgrounds. Good work takes place in the higher education sector, trying to create opportunities for people who would not traditionally have gone to university or would have found it difficult, in the past, to achieve the level of success in their school environment that would have given them the opportunity to be credible applicants for university. That work is already happening. The Government are seeking to interfere and dictate where, in our view, they should not be doing so.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that the access regulator would not be concerned with admissions, as I would like it to be, but with access plans and ways of attracting non-traditional students into universities. Those students are under-represented at the moment and I have not heard anything about the Conservative's plans for attracting them to universities. Perhaps he could clarify them.

Chris Grayling: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is getting caught up in semantics. The reality is that one cannot create a system in which universities are fined £500,000 if they do not have a proper strategy to admit

Column Number: 458

non-traditional students and do not provide financial support for them. If that is not interference in the application process, I do not know what is.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman accept that, as the draft guidance to the director of fair access makes clear, the capacity to fine an institution is not related to its failure to admit a particular type of student?

Chris Grayling: No, but the ultimate sanction that the access regulator has is to deprive an institution of the power to levy fees.

Mr. Chaytor: Of course, the ultimate sanction is to deprive an institution of the power to levy fees, but the Government have made it clear that they do not expect that sanction to be used because they expect institutions to conform to the requirements of the access regulator. That sanction does not relate to admissions, but to the Government's plan for widening access and increasing the breadth of applications.

Chris Grayling: Let us take a look at what the letter says about the powers and content of the access agreement, and the areas in which the access regulator has the power to get stroppy with universities. It mentions:

    ''Institutions' plans for bursaries and other financial support for students''.

The Government set minimum limits for that. It also mentions:

    ''Any outreach work that institutions plan to encourage more potential students to consider higher education . . . The provision of financial information to prospective students on available funding . . . Institutions' own objectives . . . set by themselves, by which they will monitor whether their efforts to safeguard and improve access are succeeding.''

The access regulator clearly has the power to decide whether or not those objectives are acceptable. If the access regulator is not satisfied with the objectives to improve access, he will not approve a plan.

 
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Prepared 4 March 2004