Higher Education Bill

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The Chairman: It may be appropriate for me to make a few observations at this point. First, I trust that hon. Members understand the ground rules by now. I have deliberately allowed a fairly wide-ranging debate on these amendments because it is abundantly plain that others flow from them, so it is appropriate to clarify the position from the beginning. However, it is highly unlikely that I shall permit a clause stand-part debate.

I look studiously at the Wall as I make my second point, so as not to appear to point a finger in any direction—if I may mix metaphors. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have been criticised for making lengthy speeches. The House has a proper tradition of intervention, which stimulates the flow of debate and is part of our democracy. If hon. Members are generous in allowing interventions, it is axiomatic that speeches will be longer. Therefore, it would help the proceedings if interventions were interventions, rather than speeches. If time permits, I trust that this Chairman, at least, will call all those Members who stand or seek to catch my eye.

Mr. Allen: I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on his speech, which was long, but he took lots of interventions. He outlined the Conservative party's philosophy very eloquently, although, obviously, I wish to pick up on several issues. The speech was not of the sort that we have heard on other days, which have cost us at least 10 debates. It was a thoughtful speech.

Given your strictures, Mr. Gale, that we may go a little further than the scope of the amendments, I should like briefly to refer to the debates that we had under—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is an old friend, and he knows me well enough not to push his luck. The debate must relate to the clause in hand, not to previous clauses.

Mr. Allen: Thank you for that guidance, Mr. Gale. I was starting to stray—even in my second sentence.

We are considering how the market works. I will not revisit our earlier debates. We accept that there is a market, but how perfect is it and how can we make it work? I think that it is deeply imperfect. Opposition Members sometimes use the term ''social engineering'' as a pejorative expression, as though, if there is any intervention or regulation, some social engineering is going on. An imperfect market, by definition, socially engineers a different outcome to that of a perfect market. For example, when kids of five or six are given IQ tests, regardless of background, some of them will be shown to have a high IQ, and others achieve will lower scores. When those youngsters are tracked, those of high IQ from working-class backgrounds cross over with those of lower IQ from middle-class backgrounds because, as they go through school and receive good parenting, their environment changes and they are tested, challenged and supported, as perhaps

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other working class kids are not. That crossover has been demonstrated, and I hope that that is generally accepted in the Committee.

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That is social engineering; the social circumstances of those children are such that even bright working-class kids are starting to be denied the chances that perhaps a perfect market—whether in parenting or schooling—might create for them. The first point that I want to make in reply to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is that social engineering starts at an early age. Attempting, rather feebly, some regulation at a later point might well be insufficient. It certainly does not deal with the root of the question. The hon. Gentleman and I may agree on that.

Social engineering takes place at all points. What we are trying consciously to do is bring in regulation through OFFA to bring about a little rebalancing, not by denying anyone the right to go to university—I have to be a little sharp with the hon. Gentleman, whose party's policies would reduce the number of youngsters going to university—but by making sure that those who are able can get to university. That is important.

Of course there are vice-chancellors—even my good friend Sir Colin Campbell of Nottingham university—who would like light-touch regulation. Many of us would like spending on health, education and policing without taxation. What a wonderful world that would be. However, that is to close our eyes to reality. Light-touch regulation will not enable us to make progress.

I draw succour from the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks: he wondered about the consequences if what is proposed does not work, and where we will be in 10 years. My reply is that we are now 40 years on from the first statistic that demonstrated that about 20 per cent. of working class kids go to university. As I mentioned in my first contribution in Committee, that figure has stayed static for those 40 years. There has been little progress on that percentage.

A light touch has been tried. Four decades of effort has been expended on that approach. Any Government—of whatever political party—who find that statistic unsatisfactory must deal with the question.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. However, in talking about the percentage of working-class kids going to university, is not it important to remember that in the 1970s 90 per cent. of the population was defined as coming from those groups? That figure has now declined to 40 per cent. As a consequence the problem is smaller than it was. One needs to recognise the changes in society and the fact that university has allowed social mobility.

Mr. Allen: That is why we want university to be open to all those who are able and capable and who get the right qualifications. The raw numbers nevertheless fit into the percentages that I have explained. With the polytechnics becoming universities all of a sudden, there are more people going to university. We need to bear in mind the vast

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expansion in universities, but I ask my hon. Friend to look, as I know he will, beyond the simple statistics and attend to the underlying problem.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I grew up in an area in many ways similar to large parts of the constituency that the hon. Gentleman eloquently described in previous sittings of the Committee. At 16, at the school that I went to, a great deal of raw talent that could have remained, and might well have benefited from a university education, walked out of the gate. However, the fundamental problem was in the school. The school did not do enough to encourage those people and build their aspirations. It is arguable that universities might have been able to do more in interacting with the school, but in my experience the fundamental problem was at the schools rather than the universities, and that is where the burden should lie.

Mr. Allen: I am happily surprised by the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which is pertinent to the debate. No one should run away with the idea that OFFA will become a body that revolutionises education for most people in this country, but it can contribute even in its current weak form. It could make an even better contribution to help those youngsters to whom the hon. Gentleman referred.

In addition, the role of the Committee is to improve legislation. Whether we win or lose Divisions, by our very debates I hope that we will influence the minds of not only the Minister and his officials, but the vice-chancellors who read our debates. I have not yet heard anyone in Committee say that they are totally satisfied with the way universities bridge into the community.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important distinction between—to use a footballing analogy—the scouting of talent, which universities are doing in their different ways quite well, and the building of a football academy for six to 11-year-olds for training and skills a little earlier on. Perhaps we need to look to vice-chancellors to become far more a part of the education family, rather than just scouting for and picking out the youngsters who have got through an unnecessarily testing educational experience to make it to the top.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting and broadly sensitive speech. Would he not accept that, paradoxically, one danger of going down the regulatory route is that if minimum requirements for access plans are specified, certain institutions may be tempted to do simply that and not develop their own approach beyond the minimum requirements of the access regulator's remit?

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman makes a very sound point. There is always a problem, but I rest that part of my case on the failure to get stuck into the appalling statistic that eight out of 10 working class kids cannot enter university because they have a congenital learning problem. That is not the case, and at this point in our history, after 40 years of that relatively static statistic, we must take responsibility for it and help universities and vice-chancellors to progress.

We can help in Committee. The idea started as the brainchild of someone in No. 10 Downing street,

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perhaps assisted by Nick Barr—whose friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), reads his works at great length—and Mr. Iain Crawford, who was of a more practical mind and attempted to link fees with political reality. I understand that Mr. Crawford is not enjoying the best of health at the moment and I wish him well in his recovery.

When No.10 seized upon the idea, as happens when policy-making, the concepts of a £3,000 grant and proper regulation were not floated. Imperfect as the consultation may have been, and I do not cast aspersions on my right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Secretary of State, who have done an incredible job subsequently to get the show back on the road, Parliament, through the Opposition and Government parties, has helped to improve the Bill.

We ended up with a £1,000 grant at the beginning of last autumn; we now have a £2,700 grant plus a £300 bursary, perhaps overlain—when my right hon. Friend writes to the Committee once his officials have done their research properly—by dozens and dozens of universities helping to push the grant even higher.

In addition, OFFA has appeared through the White Paper, and we can improve that concept too. What started as an idea about how we could raise one thirteenth of the money that universities need by allowing graduates to repay when they are able to pay can become something far wider. It has, by dint of the effort of Members in this House, been made into something that could be extremely valuable for the people we represent.

We need to integrate our universities into our education system. It is a stereotype to talk about ivory towers and academics, and about people being distant from reality. Nevertheless, the reality is that universities are somewhat distant from the rest of our education system. On a later amendment I will talk about how the smallest nursery in someone's constituency is inspected by Ofsted. The most capable and able further education college is inspected by Ofsted. Every primary and secondary school is inspected by Ofsted, even to the extent of driving certain heads in the past—we have changed it a little now—to the verge of nervous breakdown and beyond. Can we get our most senior uncle in the education system, the universities, into that family and give them the joys of being inspected by Ofsted, so that they are making the contribution that we expect of everybody else, even of people dealing with under-fives? I will float that in a later group of amendments.

So as to have a rigorous process of inspection, so that we obtain proper effect and value for money from universities, what did we have in the White Paper? On the consultative paper on widening participation, it was suggested that OFFA would not have any inspection capability, but would merely enter into access agreements with any institution that wished to charge more than the standard fee for any course. That has become the way we do that. OFFA was intended to be a reactive body. The universities themselves would devise their own access agreements, according to what they deemed

    ''necessary to achieve their widening participation ambitions,''

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and to choose the milestones and indicators that would be used to monitor their progress. It would be OFFA that would then decide whether the institution was making a genuine effort to apply those.

This is a curious role and almost unique in regulatory history in this country. Most regulators operate from a statutory framework of rules and ensure that those affected comply with them. OFFA, it seems, will let the institutions write their own rules and then decide whether they are acceptable. That will draw some cynical chortles from school heads and further education principals who have recently had the Ofsted experience. Some, indeed, presented me with this badge, which says, ''I've been well and truly Ofsteded.'' I certainly would not suggest that this process should go up from the universities to the ministerial team or Back-Bench MPs or the Select Committee on Education and Skills. Who knows where full inspection could stop if we are determined to extract every possible assistance from those who service our education system?

It was initially proposed that the Education Secretary should write to the head of OFFA with intermittent revisions, setting out OFFA's statutory duties and how they were to be met. This presupposed a statute giving OFFA a clear set of principles to which to work. Unfortunately, this Bill does not do that. It is not clear from the Bill what that set of principles is. The Bill merely gives OFFA the duty

    ''to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education,''

which, sadly, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell would seek to remove from the Bill. That would not help us get the sort of education system we are all after. However, the Bill does not contain any definition of the highly debatable term ''fair access'' and leaves OFFA's criteria either to future regulations, which Parliament may not be able to amend, or to future guidance, which Parliament may not even see in advance. I raise that in a later amendment, so I will not continue down that path.

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I believe that OFFA's mission is so important that it should be defined on the face of the Bill, debated fully by Parliament, and revisited annually by Parliament, through the Select Committee on Education and Skills. That is why I have tabled my amendments. They define the key concept of fair access, they ensure that OFFA is guided by equality legislation and tackles overt and covert barriers to access, and they give Parliament, the universities and the public the chance to discuss how OFFA should work.

I would also like to see OFFA given the power and money to act on its own initiative, rather than simply react to what the universities set before it. OFFA could do a great deal to make young people think about further and higher education and could address the complex factors that keep them from pursuing it. More than that, universities should be part of the local education system, helping to raise standards in their own area.

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I hope that the Government will take my concerns seriously. In doing so they would remove uncertainty, and ensure that OFFA helps to achieve the higher education levels for those who can aspire in our system.

Amendment No. 193 seeks to prohibit discrimination of any prescription, and says that the director of fair access

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

Amendment. No. 194 requests that OFFA has regard to the need to eliminate covert forms of discrimination and the denial of opportunity. That is very pertinent to the points made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. We need our regulator not merely to be a referee once the game has taken place, we need it to dig back into those very causes outlined by the hon. Gentleman and by his colleague on the Front-Bench, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). We need OFFA to examine why this underachievement takes place, and why we waste those people of talent from a working-class background. If the regulator is to do anything, it must be encouraged and allowed to get on with that particular job.

 
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