Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Clappison: I shall speak to amendment No. 235, which stands in my name and deals with the important matter of admissions. I also speak in support of the excellent amendment No. 24. In addition, although it may come as a surprise, I listened carefully to the thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and I have a certain sympathy for his amendments Nos. 193 and 194. However, I shall need to hear more about them during the debate, and I shall be extremely interested to hear what the Minister says.

We are considering one of the parts of the Bill that worry me the most. As the Committee will have gathered, the other effect that worries me the most is that on families with lower and middle incomes—a vast range of families. My concern is that there will be a disincentive for young people from such families to apply to universities, because they will face an additional burden of debt that is far worse than the debt that they face now. However, if I go much further down that road, you will call me to order, Mr. Gale, and rightly so.

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I feel strongly about this matter, which is why I am anxious to go into the facts and figures with some particularity to compare the situation for students now—in pounds, shillings and pence—with the future situation, which in my view will be much worse under the Bill. My feelings are so strong because my assessment is that people's opportunities will be reduced.

The measure could reduce opportunities in another important way. We established earlier that higher education institutions face serious consequences if they fail to comply with the requirements of the director of fair access. Although I made the argument in earlier debates, it is relevant to remind ourselves that the issue concerns not only the director's will, but that of the Government, given the relationship between the Secretary of State and the director that the legislation creates and the detailed statutory guidance to the director that the Government have issued. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly said in an intervention, the Bill means that behind the director will stand the Secretary of State.

I have also argued, equally relevantly, that higher education institutions will inevitably direct their minds to complying with the requirements being set for them, given the serious financial consequences if they fail to do so. Higher education institutions will be exercised by exactly how to jump through the hoops being set before them. We have already heard that, in essence, the issue is about encouraging applications and not interfering directly with admissions, and we shall no doubt hear that said again. The Minister used that form of words, and I think he is giving his assent to that. I completely accept his good faith on that point.

It seems, however, already to be in the interests of institutions to seek talented youngsters from as wide a range of sources as possible. I am mindful of the great deal of evidence that institutions are doing just that, including, and perhaps especially, the most prestigious Russell group universities. In the light of that, I pose this question: is there is any evidence or suggestion from the Government that those institutions, including the prestigious ones, are failing in that regard or not doing as much as they could? I want to hear from the Minister specifically on that.

It seems to me that those institutions would not be serving their own interest through any such failure or complacency, given the competitive nature and much greater extent of today's university sector. Universities face severe competition. They are under a lot of scrutiny—I take the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—and it is in their interest to keep their standards as high as they can manage.

The key question for universities is how they are going to be judged. How can they show that they are complying with the requirements of the director of fair access and the Government? Accepting for the sake of argument that there is a distinction between applications and admissions—to put it another way, there is a difference between activity in promoting applications and outcomes in terms of admissions—I draw the attention of Government Members to the fact that, although universities can encourage

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applications and do a lot to do just that, they cannot control them. In particular, although they might encourage applications from one source, they cannot discourage applications from another.

We have spent a lot of time discussing Cambridge, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), as its representative, has rightly drawn to our attention. However, I shall have a lot to say about other universities that we might have overlooked but which, like Oxford and Cambridge, are very important. It is a fact that certain universities—obviously including Oxford and Cambridge, but a number of others as well—attract a disproportionately high number of applications from certain types of school. Let us be frank about that and put our cards on the table. They receive a higher number of applications from independent schools, selective grammar schools and a certain number of high-performing state schools, some of which are in my constituency. A large number of parents in my constituency send children to such schools and a number of them go on to prestigious institutions.

Mrs. Campbell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a university is to keep up its high standards, it is essential for it to attract the best applicants? Does he also agree that when only 9 per cent. of the applicants come from the lower social classes, it is obvious that that university is not attracting all the best applicants? Some applicants from the lower income groups are not applying to that university but should be, if it is to achieve the highest standards.

Mr. Clappison: There are a number of assumptions in what the hon. Lady says. Although universities can encourage applications, they cannot control them or determine that applications should come from a certain source. There is another important assumption that I think she has accepted, given her earlier intervention: if the universities control admissions, she assumes that that will somehow have an effect on applications from particular schools. She can correct me if I am wrong, but I think she is on record as saying that although OFFA will be concerned with applications, in her view it should also be concerned with admissions. I shall give way if she wants to correct that or enlarge on it.

Mrs. Campbell: I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my intention in this area. It is important that OFFA should encourage applications from students with non-traditional backgrounds. My concern is that, having got those students to apply, the universities may exclude some of those students if they continue to use the admissions procedures that they use at the moment. At a later stage, I am prepared to make a short speech—it would not be appropriate to do so during an intervention—to amplify what I want to say.

Mr. Clappison: On the point of admissions, the hon. Lady and I may not be as far apart as she might think. I would be prepared to leave admissions to individual universities, strictly subject to the principle of merit. She and I might be close, perhaps on how merit is interpreted, but if merit is to be overridden by other factors, that might be a different matter. I fear that the Bill will do far more of what she hopes it will do than she apparently believes at the moment. I fear that it

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will meet what I take to be the objectives of some Labour Members. If she will listen, I shall explain how that will come about.

When there is a high number of applications from certain types of school and those applications are judged on merit, it is likely that the student body of the institution will contain many more students from such schools than will that of other institutions. This may provide the hon. Lady with some comfort, but in those circumstances I would support a realistic approach to merit in appropriate cases, subject to the individual judgment of academics.

I commend to the Committee an excellent editorial on the subject in the Evening Standard last week. Among other matters, to which I shall refer later, it mentioned the subject of merit:

    ''Admission tutors already recognise that decent grades from a sink school, alongside other evidence of talent, may represent a greater achievement than better scores from a good school.''

I would certainly accept that in appropriate cases, but it would have to be subject to the judgment of individual academics, free from any outside pressure and strictly based on a realistic assessment and interpretation of merit. That is how the principle of merit should be interpreted, but that, I fear, is not what the provision is about. It is about something completely different from and antagonistic, if not antithetical, to the principle of merit, which will certainly override it.

My next point will certainly give comfort to Labour Members. The Secretary of State gave us some clues as to what this is really all about in his statement of 8 January when he referred to the focus of OFFA's work. He spelt that out clearly in the draft statutory guidance that was given to OFFA and which contains the answer to the key question of how universities are to be judged by OFFA. In fact, this is spelled out clearly twice in the document, in which he says:

    ''I would expect that OFFA would expect the most, in terms of outreach and financial support, from institutions whose records suggest that they have furthest to go in securing a broadly-based intake''.

That is in paragraph 2, and the same is said of the access agreement under paragraph 6—''Approving an access agreement''—which clearly spells it out for the institutions, in a similar form of words, that the most is to be expected

    ''from institutions whose records suggest they have furthest to go in securing a broadly-based intake of students.''

This is the key point—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) will contain herself for a moment. The key point is that what is expected of universities is to be determined by the intake. If the intake is not broadly based, they will be put in the dock, hauled up for judgment before OFFA and told to do more. They know what lies in store if they fail—a substantial penalty.

I have a question for Labour Members, including the Minister: given that that is what universities are being told is expected of them, how can it do other than put huge financial pressures on them over admissions? They will be judged on outcomes in terms of admissions, not on activity in terms of

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applications. There is no provision on how many applications they must encourage; they will be judged purely on outcomes in terms of admissions.

I am not the only one to have noted that. It has been widely noted, and I quote again from what I regard as the fair-minded article in the Evening Standard:

    ''Mr. Clark may insist that Offa will have no power over individual admissions. But if he creates a procedure which penalises universities for the overall outcome of their decisions in individual cases, he is manifestly interfering in admissions.''

The Bill and the statutory guidance do precisely that.

 
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