Higher Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: Let me make two points. First, there needs to be some sort of threshold of achievement for getting into university. Surely we should tackle the problem of under-achieving young people in sink schools in inner- city areas who do not secure the necessary exam grades to go to university. Creating a university admissions system under which

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the benchmark examination passes apply only to some people, based on social class, and not to others, is a difficult road because admission to higher education would be based not on achievement but on subjectivity. That is a huge mistake.

My second point, which tends to be missed, is that universities are great changers of social standing. I return to the example of my university friend. He is now a successful business man who lives in the countryside, having benefited from his university career. His children, under the Government's categorisation, are from a traditional background. We tend to forget that if the first person in a family to go to university is a target for social attention, the second generation immediately becomes part of the middle-class rich against whom we should discriminate. There is a danger that universities will be forced constantly to pull up from the bottom, but they are not social engineers; they are engines of achievement for the nation and it worries me profoundly when Labour Members see universities as vehicles to right wrongs lower down the education system.

Mr. Chaytor: Everyone on the Committee will accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the need to make rapid improvement far earlier in our education system—in primary and secondary schools. His confusion between admissions and applications and his concern about admissions policy is a valid subject for debate, but not at this point in the Bill.

The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the debate has been out of order, he is incorrect.

Mr. Chaytor: I apologise for any implication to that effect, Mr. Gale.

If the hon. Gentleman believes that everything in the university sector is acceptable—I am attracted by his endearing faith in the status quo—why are university rates of success in attracting students from different social backgrounds so hugely variable?

Chris Grayling: Because the education system in schools is failing to provide the opportunity for many young people to get the exam grades they need to get to university.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman used the phrase ''social engineering'' and one of his hon. Friends used it in an earlier debate. Setting aside whether three As from Eton are worth the same as, or are as difficult to get as, three As from an inner-city comprehensive, the data show that people from a non-traditional background with a particular set of A-levels are less likely to go to university than people from a traditional background with those same A-levels. Surely it is not social engineering to correct that.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is correct, but the practical reality is that 90 per cent. of young people in this country who achieve two A-levels go to university. As a nation, under Governments of both persuasions—much of what has been done has been achieved under a Government of our persuasion—we have done a huge amount to widen participation. Are

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we going to end up with an application process for universities that discriminates against people on the basis of social class?

Let me pray in aid somebody to whom some, but not all, Labour Members look up to and hold in estimation: the Prime Minister. Twelve months ago, during Prime Minister's questions, I asked the following question:

    ''There are increasing reports of pupils of high ability and achievement being turned down by universities because of their social background. How would the Prime Minister justify that to the people who are losing out?''

The response was:

    ''The simple point is that I would not. If universities are doing that, they are wrong. What is more, people should go to university based on their merit, whatever their class or background. That is what should happen . . . Well, the hon. Gentleman asked me a question and I have given him an answer.''—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 256-7.]

I completely agree with him.

I simply do not accept the point that the hon. Member for Bury, North makes about the difference between admissions and applications. If all the access regulator is about is saying to universities, ''Look, we want you to go out and make contact with lots of people, and talk to them about university,'' why did the Minister say what he did in the debate that took place about six weeks ago in Westminster Hall? It was a 30-minute debate and I came in to listen at the back. He said that the access regulator would have ''teeth''. It is clear that if the university sector does not deliver and manage to widen participation, the Government expect the regulator to step in and do something about it.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I have been following my hon. Friend's argument closely. Will he spend a moment addressing the importance of getting from the Minister a clear answer about whether he agrees with the majority of Labour Members who have spoken so far, who indicated that they believe that the problem stems at least in part from inadequate behaviour by universities and that universities need to be compelled to alter their behaviour? That is what we have heard from many Labour Members. It is not what Ministers have been saying up until now. If the Minister does agree with those Members, does my hon. Friend agree that he should name the universities that he thinks should be compelled to behave differently?

Chris Grayling: The Government do not need to introduce laws if they think that everything is right. So the clear implication is that Labour Members, the Minister and his boss, the Secretary of State, believe that universities are failing to admit students from poor social backgrounds and that that needs to change.

It has been interesting watching the Government in the various discussions about the access regulator. I hope that the Minister can clarify some points. All the discussions so far have been about the establishment of the plan, what is expected to be in the plan and the powers to levy a penalty if the plan is not implemented. What happens if that does not work? Let us suppose that it is four or five years down the

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track. The university has got a plan, it has spent a bit of money, and it has given some bursaries to students. One of the interesting things about the comments that hon. Members have made about universities that are offering bursaries above the basic level to their undergraduates—an admirable initiative and I applaud universities for doing that—is that the students they are giving the bursaries to are probably already there, because every university has got a proportion of students from non-traditional backgrounds. I am not at all persuaded that the introduction of all those bursaries will suddenly lead to a wave of people from the estate mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North going to university. To some extent, I wish that it would, but I do not think that it will.

Mrs. Campbell: I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says because Cambridge university has long been generous in providing bursaries to students from low-income backgrounds. The trouble was that until recently it had not told anyone about them so people would apply to Cambridge university, get there and then find that they had a bursary. That did nothing to attract low-income students to Cambridge university in the first place. It was only if they happened to get there that they were lucky enough to find that they had a generous bursary. However, that is changing, partly because of the Government's statements on the introduction of the access regulator. Surely, the hon. Gentleman can see that there has already been some benefit.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady describes a situation in which a university is already doing the right thing, but doing a lousy job of communicating it. There is good practice in the universities sector. She makes a perfectly fair point, but we do not need to pass a law to rectify the problem. That is where the difference lies between Government and Opposition Members. My colleagues and I do not disagree, nor do I suppose for a moment that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) does, with the desire to ensure that we do not waste talent in our society.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but my hon. Friend intervened because he mentioned a specific problem—that bursaries do not attract students and probably go only to students who would have been at the university anyway—and then said that a law was not necessary to resolve it. Clause 31(4)(c) states that the regulator will

    ''require the governing body to make available to students and prospective students information about financial assistance available''.

It offers a specific resolution to the very real problem that the hon. Gentleman described, which has not been resolved through any other means. Surely that is a step forward.

Chris Grayling: I am afraid that I do not accept that. Let me give the Minister a practical example of what he could have done. I promise that I shall not digress far, Mr. Gale.

We debated financing and top-up fees. The Government will spend more on the new student

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support systems than will be raised from fees. If they had taken a small amount of the extra money that will be used to subsidise the student loan system to enable students to pay their fees, set up 20,000 or 30,000 bursaries at £3,000 or £4,000 a year for people from non-traditional backgrounds, and left everything else as it was, they would have had a much greater impact on participation than they will through anything that is in the Bill.

The Government believe that such problems are resolved by passing laws. My argument is straightforward: they are not. There is also a risk of creating injustices. One point on which I agree entirely with the Prime Minister is that there are losers as well as winners if covert or overt pressure is placed on universities to change the way in which they admit students.

The amendment is specifically designed to address the issue of academic ability defining people who go to university and to ensure that we do not create entry points for social reasons alone. We would insert the words

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

We included the word ''potential'' as many universities look beyond immediate exam results for potential in the student.

We do not want a situation in which the regulator, in effect, imposes a plan by saying to a university, ''Produce a plan. Show me your targets.'' We do not know what would happen four, five or seven later if the university's proportion of students from non-traditional backgrounds had not changed a jot. What would happen to the university if plans were drawn up for an outreach programme but nothing much changed? The Minister said that the access regulator will have teeth. Would it be encouraged by the Government to step in again and ask for a tougher plan and more funds to be set aside for bursaries? It is not clear what would happen, which is a worry for Opposition Members and, I have no doubt, for universities because if the regulator truly will have teeth, the powers that are implicit in what the Government ask it to do must go beyond the formulation of an initial plan.

 
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