Higher Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Chaytor: Once again, the hon. Gentleman confuses admissions and applications. He really must confront this point: does he not accept that there is a fundamental difference between an agency—be it the director of fair access or whoever—that requires universities to increase the pool of candidates that apply, and an agency that intervenes directly in the process of selecting candidates from that wider pool?

Chris Grayling: I understand that the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a difference between the two, but I do not agree. At the moment, 90 per cent. of young people who get two A-levels go to university. I asked the Minister in a written question what happened to the other 10 per cent. and he said that many of them went into the job market by choice, and some went off and did other things. In an

Column Number: 466

interesting and enlightening comment, he also said that some were put off by the cost of going to university. How top-up fees will affect that proportion I have no idea—well, I do have some idea.

9.45 am

The reality is that, to all intents and purposes, virtually all people who get two A-levels already go to university. So if the net is going to widen, inevitably, what the Government are asking the universities to do, through the regulator, is to start taking people who do not have A-level passes—there is no one else to take. To my mind, I am afraid, that is saying to universities, ''You have to change the criteria for admission to your universities.'' That is inescapable.

Mr. Collins: Does my hon. Friend agree that, under clause 32(5), Ministers can instruct the director, by regulation, on whether to approve any university's plan? We know for a fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is interested—some might say that he is obsessed—with not just access, but individual admissions. They are something of direct concern to the most powerful domestic Minister in this Government.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend's point speaks for itself. The Government have a track record of interference. The hon. Member for Bury, North, spends time with head teachers, college principals and vice-chancellors. He will know—unless they are telling him a very different story to the one that they are telling me—that across the education sector and particularly in higher education there is a real feeling of frustration about the dead hand of Government: the bureaucracy and the interference in their affairs. Why would we believe that a Government who have a lifestyle of interference would have a light touch, when the Secretary of State will have powers of interference through the access regulator into what universities do? That is incredible and unbelievable, and I do not believe that there is a single vice-chancellor who thinks that that is the case.

Alan Johnson: Just in case the hon. Gentleman runs away with the idea that there is not a single vice-chancellor who feels that way, I refer him to what Nottingham university, which is part of the Russell group, said:

    ''The University of Nottingham welcomes the light touch approach proposed by the access regulator''.

There is one.

Chris Grayling: It has been quite interesting to have conversations with vice-chancellors during the past two or three months. Their perspective on the access regulator has changed by the week. About three months ago, they were saying that the change was not particularly dramatic. During the past couple of weeks, they have been getting quite worried about it, as the comments that Ministers have been making about the access regulator's powers and aspirations have become more and more tough.

The Minister has said that the regulator will have teeth. I do not believe that one can have a light touch and teeth in the same regulatory body. In reality, it will be a vehicle to compel universities to change the mix of

Column Number: 467

students that they admit in the future. I accept the points that the hon. Member for Bury, North made about admissions and applications, but I do not accept that they are separable concepts. The two are integrally linked—the consequences of one are integrated with the other.

Mr. Chaytor: If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that admissions and applications are inextricably linked and that the director of fair access will therefore intervene in the selection process, he cannot simultaneously raise the question of what will happen in five years' time when a university's social mix has changed. Presumably, things will have changed as a result of the intervention by the director of fair access.

Chris Grayling: That is a perfectly fair point. We have two scenarios. If what I say is right and the body is, as the Minister says, one with teeth that will indirectly compel universities to change the application processes for students, the social mix will change. I accept that. At the same time, universities will admit people on subjective rather than objective grounds. There will be those who pass exams who do not get places, and those who do not pass exams who do get places. If I am right, that will happen, so the hon. Member for Bury, North is absolutely right: five years down the track that will not be an issue because the interference is happening now.

I have a question for the Minister. Let us assume that the hon. Member for Bury, North is right and the body is a light-touch regulator. The Government are clearly determined to ensure that there is change in universities. So what happens in five years if things have not worked? The regulator clearly has powers to put pressure on universities at the very least. What are the Government planning to do in those circumstances? It is hard to believe that this is all simply about having a plan, and that all that matters is that every university has a strategy and does not have to deliver anything. The access regulator becomes a much less problematic creature if that is all that we are talking about, but I do not believe that we are. Nothing in the Government's record convinces me that they simply intend that the plans will sit on the shelf.

Mr. Collins: It is, of course, the Conservatives' hope and expectation that we will be in government in five years. The Labour party must recognise that if, by some ill fortune, it were still in office then, it is quite possible that the Chancellor will be Prime Minister, and he would undoubtedly use his powers to interfere with admission.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is looking five years into the future.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is also testing the boundaries.

Chris Grayling: In that case, I will let my hon. Friend's comments speak for themselves.

Amendment No. 24 would provide a clear counter-balance. We did not have the opportunity to set out our principal objection to the establishment of the access regulator during the debate on clause 28. In this

Column Number: 468

debate, however, we can suggest that, if the Government use the majority that they established for themselves in the Committee and insist on pushing through their proposal for an access regulator, the regulator's powers and remit must be tempered at the very least by the simple provision that he is constantly mindful of his objectives and the work that he does in the higher education sector. He must have a duty to ensure that full access to higher education is based on academic ability and potential, and that we do not start to admit people purely because of their social background. To do so would do those people no favours.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I am becoming more and more angry, the longer that the hon. Gentleman speaks. He would delete fair access from the Bill on the premise that we seek to interfere with the admissions policy for the purpose of social engineering. I wish it were so, but where is that in the Bill?

Chris Grayling: I do not want to repeat all my comments, but was the hon. Gentleman not listening when I said that almost all young people who obtain two A-levels go to university? By definition, if we are going to widen the net, the Government and the access regulator must be talking about admitting to universities young people who do not pass their A-levels.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the fundamental nature of outreach work in the field that we are discussing. It is not about leaping people over the need to pass the examinations and achieve the grades or to have the ability, but about trying to reach out to people and to generate the aspiration at a young enough age, backed by their parents and schools, to pass the examinations and achieve the grades at school. That is what outreach work is about, and he should support it.

Chris Grayling: The Conservatives understand that perfectly well. I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North when he talks about his constituency and his constituents. Our point is that the university admissions process will not solve the problem. Of course, people's aspirations should be addressed. The difference between us is that the Conservatives believe that the Government are seeking to gerrymander the university admissions process by pressing the universities to sort out a problem that should be solved elsewhere. The problem lies in the absence not only of choice in inner-city schools, but of Government determination to stamp out failure in many parts of our education system. The Government tolerate the fact that many school-leavers are unable to read or write, and they tolerate the culture that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North talked about.

Those problems cannot be dealt with by the higher education admissions system. That is where we differ: we believe that this measure is the wrong solution to the problem and an unwarranted interference with the university admissions process. It fails totally to reflect the good work that has been done already in many universities, and it is an inappropriate gerrymandering exercise that interferes with universities' independence

Column Number: 469

in a way in which politicians have never done in the past. We passionately believe that this measure should not be in the Bill.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 4 March 2004