Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Collins: The hon. Gentleman is now turning to the text of the amendments that he has tabled. Could I tease out from him a point of clarification? Although he has tabled amendment No. 193, surely the regulator would be governed, as is everyone else in our society, by whatever legislation relating to discrimination is put on the statute book by Parliament. I do not see how amendment No. 193 alters the legal position.

With regard to amendment No. 194, to the extent that there is a distinction between covert discrimination, referred to in this amendment, and the other forms of discrimination—which would, in any case, be covered by existing or perhaps future legislation—would he explain what he means, and whether he thinks he is broadening sensibly the range of interpretations of discrimination that have already been legislated upon at some length by Parliament?

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman is right to pick me up on my drafting. As he will know, when one is attempting to secure a debate in Committee, getting the amendment in is probably more important than getting the wording absolutely right. Even the Clerks cannot make a silk purse out of my sow's ear on OFFA.

Nevertheless, raising the issue of the broader discrimination that does take place, we are obviously now signatories to the European convention on human rights, and all the other things that flow from that. The aim is to draw in that wider sense of equity that we would all like to see in our society.

Amendment No. 221 states:

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

In a way, that gives the ability of initiation—by appointing someone, hopefully of extremely high calibre, who can address the problems, and not merely say ''if ever I get an access agreement I will

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make a few points.'' We need someone of great ability, who can address the questions that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell put on our agenda earlier.

There is a problem with the numbers available. If we pass the Bill, it will make virtually no short-term difference to my constituents' prospects. There may be a number who have been put off by not having a grant, and I hope that their teachers will encourage them to go to university rather than go to work. But I do not anticipate that that will make a massive difference in the short term.

I have not always agreed with the directors of Ofsted. However, if we employ people of that calibre—who are capable of getting their teeth into those issues and coming up with answers and proposals in order to push Governments of any complexion—in the long term, we will have done a great service to those people who wish to go to university, but often feel that it is not for them.

Amendment No. 221 is the most important of those amendments. For the first time, it imposes a duty on the institution that would allow it to see where the problems are and tackle them.

As I said in my intervention on the hon. Gentleman, we should look not merely for ways into sixth forms and 14 to 16-year-old education, but further back down the food chain and make serious proposals about how that would work. We should make serious plans and proposals for outreach, using best practice. Committee members have been inundated with good practice from universities. We need that pull together to ensure that people use those best practices at the earliest opportunity.

We also need to look at specific disadvantaged groups. I am not referring solely to their socio-economic class. Sometimes their racial or gender specification are important. In my constituency, it is my experience that ethnic minorities and asylum seekers often act as role models for established non-traditional and traditional groups. Universities need to become partners with the local education authorities and become intimately involved with them, rather than viewing them as bodies that merely come in, look at the best talent and help those people get to university.

The Minister knows that the universities of Nottingham and Trent—both of which are close to my constituency—have attempted to build on six school sites that have to kick children out on to the streets at 16, and help them provide vocational training for 14 to 16-year-olds. I referred to those sites earlier. The provision needs to be extended to 14 to 18 or 19-year-olds, in order to keep those kids on site at 16. Those young people could then continue to study information technology, health and beauty, service industry skills, catering, motor engineering and so on. There should be a small offering on each of those constituencies.

To their credit, FE colleges in Nottinghamshire have agreed to brand a 14 to 18 centre on those school sites. The universities have also seen the problem that lies within 1 mile of the ivy-covered walls of Nottingham university's nice campus and Trent university's dynamic city centre campus. Many

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Committee members have visited the former site. The universities have agreed to brand a centre on those school sites, even though it may appear to be of no relevance to them. That is not a talent-driven initiative, but is intended to help the community build vocational training that may not immediately appear to be of benefit to the universities.

Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman has put away the partisan knockabout this morning and, if I may say so, is making a thoughtful speech. Is the thrust of his argument, which I have been following closely, that the bulk of the responsibility for changing the existing culture will lie with schools even though universities have a role to play? Does he agree with that?

Mr. Allen: No, I do not. We are all in this together—it is a classic case of joined-up thinking. We must get universities working with secondary schools, and primary schools working with the under-fives. Sure Start needs to work through. There has to be a continuum, so that people who do not go to university can continue lifelong learning in some other way.

Universities sometimes see themselves as slightly apart from the rest of the educational system, but I am talking not only about education. I am offering my right hon. Friend the Minister the chance to draw the universities in so that they are willing to play a serious part in overcoming some of the deep problems encountered by my constituents and those of many of my colleagues. To take the argument slightly wider, we must link the issue with the way in which secondary schools deal with their local police, antisocial behaviour orders and discipline. We should not force schools to include people who will lower standards for those who are desperately trying to claw their way up the attainment ladder. So, the issue is far broader and involves health, policing and many other things.

To return to the Bill, however, OFFA gives us the chance, if we are prepared to take it, of drawing universities into the educational family. They would not merely be talent scouts but could bring their tremendous expertise to bear on deeper problems. Solving those problems will require us to tackle attainment at secondary, primary and pre-school level.

Let me give one final example. I have done a lot of work on social behaviour as opposed to antisocial behaviour. As soon as I discussed my proposals with Sir Colin Campbell and Neil Gorman—the two vice-chancellors of Nottingham's universities—they put the resources of their relevant departments at my disposal. That is a tiny example, but people working in child psychiatry or researching sexual health issues will now be at my disposal and at that of secondary schools in my constituency. That is one benefit of universities reuniting with the populations that they are meant to serve.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Allen: I am about to wind up, but I shall give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of my inspiration.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent speech. Is he not describing the powerful contributions that the university sector has made to

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help address problems about which he as a constituency MP is rightly concerned? Given that excellent practice, why is it necessary to pass a law?

Mr. Allen: It is not necessary to pass a law, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase. However, it is necessary to strip away the universities' need to be defensive about their role in our broader educational system. They are part of the family, and we should welcome them as such. We should challenge and make demands on them. We should ensure that they can make a contribution. I have given a couple of examples of what they might do from my experience, and I am sure that all hon. Members could bring similar anecdotes to bear.

I know how deeply the Minister cares—not least because of his constituency experience—about ensuring that every youngster who can do so takes up the chance to go to university. At the moment, however, OFFA is a reactive body that is unable to inspect—I shall come to that on later amendments—and which in many ways is a pussy cat. What we need is a tiger to ensure that universities play their full part in education. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment as its stands, I hope very much that he will at least take away the thoughts that we have put on record. We should make OFFA an institution of which all parties can proud and which will survive not only this Government, but which an incoming Conservative Government will welcome in 30 year's time as well.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the next Member, I should explain the Chairman's general approach to the calling of speakers in these debates. Traditionally, the Chairman will call the mover of the lead amendment, then those who wish to speak to amendments standing in their names, then other Front-Bench spokesmen and then Back-Bench Members; hence, Mr. Clappison.

10.30 am

 
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