Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Chaytor: With respect, the draft letter does not say that. It makes it absolutely clear that the milestones are to be set by the individual university, not by the access regulator.

Chris Grayling: I have quoted directly from the draft letter.

Mr. Chaytor: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has not.

Chris Grayling: Unless I am mistaken, the document that I am holding, which was kindly circulated, is a draft letter of statutory guidance from the Secretary of State to the head of the office for fair access. I could read it out, but the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) would undoubtedly accuse me of filibustering. I just read to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) the section of the letter that specifically sets out the details of what the Government expect to be contained in plans.

Mr. Chaytor: The section of the letter reads as follows:

    ''Institutions' own objectives (milestones), set by themselves''.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the letter says that, and not ''set by the director of fair access''?

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Chris Grayling: I totally accept that. However, the director of fair access has the right to reject the plan as not appropriate. The institutions have the right to set their objectives, of course, but the director of fair access does not have to accept them. If the director is not satisfied that the plan goes far enough, he has the power to say to the institution, ''Sorry, you may not levy fees.'' The hon. Gentleman is clearly deluding himself. The access regulator has the power to dictate to an institution the degree to which it acts to widen its nets.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Is not the logic of the point made by the hon. Member for Bury, North that if the institution continues untrammelled in its ability to set its own objectives, the whole function of the director of access is utterly irrelevant?

Chris Grayling: Absolutely. The hon. Member for Bury, North is a distinguished Member of the House in the field of education. He has wide experience of his subject. I am sure that he, like my hon. Friends and I, spends time in universities talking to the people who run them about the range of activities that they carry out. I am sure that he has experienced at first hand programmes that are designed to widen participation. He must have seen that there is good best practice out there. Universities try to encourage people who might not traditionally have applied to those universities to go there.

The hon. Gentleman is now arguing not only that that work is not adequate, but that it should be dictated and its parameters should be established by an access regulator. The access regulator has the power to say, ''You will produce a plan for me with these four headings.'' If he is not satisfied with the plan, he does not have to accept it and if he does not accept it, the institution cannot levy fees. That is the bottom line. That is a pretty powerful sanction. Other institutions that tow the line would gain millions of pounds a year extra through the levying of fees, while an institution that could not reach an agreement with the access regulator would not be able to do so.

Mr. Chaytor: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has given way because this is an important point. The question that he has to address is whether he would be satisfied if a particular university, or a particular set of universities, continued to pay no attention or minimal attention to the question of widening access to their courses. That is the issue that is at the heart of the amendment.

The key point that I want to correct is the hon. Gentleman's earlier assertion that the director of fair access will determine the milestones. It is clearly set down in the draft guidance—it may not be the ultimate guidance but, as it stands, it is clear—that the milestones are to be established by the university. It is important that there is an element of self-regulation and that the universities take responsibility for themselves. However, it is equally important for universities, as in any broadly self-regulatory scheme, where people do not take that responsibility—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is not making an intervention; he is making a speech.

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Chris Grayling: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman, and all that I would say to him in return is that if he believes that institutions are wilfully declining to widen participation, perhaps he would care to name them for the information of the Committee. My experience is that there is a lot of committed work taking place in the higher education sector to widen participation.

I visited a university college last week and talked about precisely that issue with the vice-chancellor. He said that the college ran a programme of outreach in conjunction with a number of other institutions, through which it genuinely sought to widen participation. I believed him, because the nature of the college was such that it had a clear strategic reason for wanting to broaden participation in its courses. However, he said that although the college had been doing its best, it had had difficulties finding students. Universities face real obstacles and cannot simply be told, ''You will go out and find non-traditional students.'' The task is not necessarily easy.

I profoundly disagree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North on a number of issues, but I strongly agree with him on one thing. In many parts of the country, there is a culture that militates against going to sixth-form college and doing A-levels, let alone applying to university. That is a real challenge for us. That culture is not new in this country. One of my closest university friends came from what by any measure was an exceptionally deprived neighbourhood. I went to Cambridge. I came from a middle-class background and arrived there as, perhaps, a traditional applicant. My friend most definitely did not, but he probably achieved more than anyone whom I have ever come across in education to get into Cambridge. His was a startling achievement, helped by a university tutor who interviewed him and spotted his potential. He did not jump the hurdle at A-levels, even though he achieved pretty good A-levels for his background, but none the less he got to university.

I fundamentally agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that there should not be parts of this country in which there is a culture against going to university. That is a shame on us all. We should encourage young people to see their aspirations beyond the age of 16. The hon. Gentleman made a compelling case on where the real problem lies, in that it is seen as naff to stay on beyond the age of 16. We are some distance from addressing that issue and there will be a feed-through period even when we start to do so. Until we address the problem, however, we shall not even begin to pull such people into university.

Last week's debate was relevant, because access to higher education for people who have missed out could, and probably should, come through the part-time rather than the full-time route. Otherwise, we would probably be pulling people out of employment in their early and mid-20s. Instead, we should open up opportunities to them through part-time courses. I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North about the need to do something about the problem, but I do not believe that gerrymandering the university admissions system is the way to solve it.

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Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and makes it sincerely. We are quite close on the matter, so I will not make the partisan point that his party voted against both Sure Start and educational maintenance allowances, which might have assisted. However, I would like him to address the fact that it is not enough for universities to be involved with the strata in our secondary schools that may go to university. If the problems that he rightly highlights are to be tackled, universities must be part of the wider educational family and involve themselves much lower down the pecking order, as it were. That way, more youngsters can rise to the level at which all the access stuff, on which I commend the universities, will seriously come into play. Universities must get involved a lot earlier. If they do not do so voluntarily, however, they must be encouraged to do so through effective regulation, which is what the Bill is trying to do.

Chris Grayling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's aspirations, but I disagree totally with his way of achieving them. Such developments are already taking place. The idea that the university sector sits in an ivory tower and pays no attention to society at large is not correct. All round the country, there are partnerships between universities and local further education colleges, for example, to create bridges between those who have gone into further rather than higher education and to help them make the jump into higher education. Universities run programmes all over the country to open their doors to people whose potential they recognise and who often perform well at university.

My point is simply that passing laws is not the solution to the problem. If the Government do not like something in our society, their natural instinct is to pass a law. The problem should be handled voluntarily through the university sector, encouraged by politicians and through information about the nature of the challenge. I passionately believe that passing a law—we shall discuss the consequences of that in a moment—is the wrong thing to do.

9.30 am

Mrs. Campbell: I essentially want to make the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many universities—Cambridge is one—there are insufficient young people from lower income backgrounds? They do not attend those universities for a variety of reasons. Promoting an access programme whereby universities raise aspirations at a much earlier age—12, 13 or 14—so that children have an incentive to do well at school and obtain the qualifications that can get them into universities such as Cambridge is an essential part of the Government's strategy. Does he believe that that could be achieved without the access regulator?

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