Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Francois: I want to reiterate a point that my hon. Friend has touched on. Whatever universities do, they can choose to admit only from the pool of people who apply to them; they cannot compel people to apply. It is not fair that they should be punished if people from certain socio-economic groups do not apply to them in the first place.

10.45 am

Mr. Clappison: On what should be done to encourage people from individual schools to apply later on, one of my contentions is that interfering in admissions, and putting financial pressure on universities, will not help or encourage the people that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North mentioned.

Mr. Allen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman made a lengthy speech, so I will give way to him later, perhaps when he has heard the full extent of my remarks. I know his thinking on the issue and I agree with much of what he says.

The guidance refers to ''a broadly based intake''. That is the bottom line for the Government as far as the universities and the director of fair access—the whole caboodle—are concerned. The Government owe it to the Committee and the universities to tell us precisely what that phrase means. What are the size and nature of the hoops that universities will be required to jump through? I think that it will create distortions and possible unfairness in the system. There will certainly be a widespread perception of unfairness.

Sir Howard Newby, who, as the chief executive of HEFCE, should know what he is talking about, predicted today that there will be a large influx of students from EU accession countries. That is his prediction, not mine. He thinks that the 5,000 undergraduates from those countries could rise to at least 20,000. Will they come under the remit of the director of fair access? Will they be regarded as part of a broadly based intake or will they be exempt from the attentions of—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) disagrees, but I am only quoting the words of the Government and Sir Howard Newby.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clappison: I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Bury, North and then the hon.

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Member for Nottingham, North, if he feels that he cannot constrain himself any longer. To be fair, I will then let my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) intervene.

Mr. Chaytor: Accepting the ingenuity of the hon. Member for Hertsmere, which I think worthy of the front page of the Daily Mail, in linking the accession countries and the office for fair access, does he not think that his honest and welcome remark earlier about his support for a realistic approach to merit implies that there will be a move to a broader-based intake? Is that not the consequence of what he argues?

Mr. Clappison: No. The hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience in the sector, but I think that universities largely take merit into account. It is in their interest that they do so because they want to reach the highest possible standards. They will do that by admitting people on merit, as far as they possibly can, which means admitting the best possible students. If a student from a difficult background, who has perhaps not had the same educational advantages as others, has merit, they will adjust things accordingly.

The question is how to interpret the principle of merit. The financial pressure that the measure creates wholly overrides the principle of merit and is all about a broadly based intake. The hon. Gentleman has made a number of interventions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry has been patient. I will return to the hon. Gentleman as I have a question that I want to ask him later on, to which the Committee needs to know the answer.

Mr. Boswell: Going back to the specific point that my hon. Friend rightly raised relating to the extension of the European Union, is it not the case that all 10 of the new entrant countries have national income levels that are less than 75 per cent. of the Community average? If it is a matter of taking an interest in access for the most disadvantaged students, a priori, one would expect that the universities would be under an obligation to admit more from such groups, bearing in mind that the basis of European legislation is that there should be no distinction between citizens of this country and applicants from other member states. In other words, if we are in the business of expanding access, does OFFA have to take an interest in European Union students and secure their best interests?

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He mentioned European legislation, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. I would be very interested in eminent legal opinion—I have not received any such advice—as to whether the Government are breaching the European convention on human rights with the discrimination that they are introducing.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman obviously has to make his points about the straw man—that OFFA will try to impose unqualified or less suitably qualified people on universities. I accept that that argument is an aspect of the party political battle, but no one has said anything to sustain it.

I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a personal question. Imagine a young person, not from a

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privileged background, who had fought very hard and worked his way through difficult educational circumstances to get a couple of A-levels. He applies to a university and is given preference over people who are better qualified. Can the hon. Gentleman put himself in the position of that young person and imagine how he would feel? He would not want to be in that situation and would rather go to a university that is appropriate for his level of qualification. He would not want to be a fish out of water or seen as in some way inferior to his peers. Were this straw man actual policy—it is not—it would not benefit even the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, but would make them feel worse and would lessen their educational attainment.

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but he has not grasped the fact that I am talking about merit. I am asking what it is. I have not employed the argument that is sometimes used by people to attack what the Government are doing because it is not necessary to do so. The problem is that they are not taking merit into account at all. They are overriding it by requiring universities to have a broadly based intake. If he searches through the statutory guidance and the Bill, he will find no mention of admissions on merit.

The hon. Gentleman makes a convincing case, to which I hope the Minister will listen, for accepting amendment No. 24, which seeks to

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

The Minister would also address the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises were he to accept amendment No. 235, which states:

    ''A plan under this section relating to any institution may not include any provisions relating to admissions to that institution.''

Admissions should not be affected. If the Minister is prepared to be as good as his word, he will accept that amendment.

Does the hon. Member for Bury, North agree with the interpretation of the hon. Member for Cambridge, that the measure applies to admissions as well as applications? I give way to him. [Interruption.] I must have reached a lacuna in the Committee's proceedings.

The Chairman: Order. First, the hon. Member for Bury, North was not seeking to intervene. Secondly, with great respect, the hon. Member for Hertsmere cannot invite another hon. Member to make a speech.

Mr. Clappison: We reached a rare moment in our proceedings when the hon. Member for Bury, North did not wish to intervene. If I have managed to silence him, I have achieved something.

Mr. Boswell: Does it occur to my hon. Friend that the non-speech of the hon. Member for Bury, North may be analogous to the non-application from the disadvantaged student who ought to go on to higher education but has neither sought nor been offered a place?

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I seem to have brought forth another one.

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Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for calling me ''another one'', and for giving way.

The hon. Gentleman needs to pay greater attention to one part of his argument and perhaps give a definition to the Committee. Given that, depending on one's point of view, there are different ways of using the words ''merit'' and ''potential'', which have a range of definitions, can he define what he means by the terms and explain how the amendment helps the Committee?

Mr. Clappison: I apologise if there was any ungraciousness on my part. I was referring to the intervention, not to the hon. Lady.

I am happy with the wording of amendment No. 24, which I commend to the hon. Lady. I think that it is widely understood. I would leave the assessment of merit and academic ability in the hands of institutions and academics, free from pressure.

Mr. Mudie: Free from pressure, but surely not free from examination. The hon. Gentleman will accept that a great deal of public money goes into those institutions, and the spending of public money should be transparent. That raises the matter of admissions.

Mr. Clappison: I accept that universities have to be transparent when making it clear that they are assessing people strictly on merit and that applications are all determined on merit. However, I fear that that is not what widening participation is about. There is a different agenda altogether, which is reflected in the statutory guidance, in some of the funding mechanisms that the Government have put in place, and, in particular, in policies relating to education. I am happy to go into those, but I think that I would be trespassing on your patience, Mr. Gale. You have already been extremely patient. I will try to make some progress, but I can give Labour Members chapter and verse of where academic merit has been overridden in the name of—I hesitate to use the phrase ''social engineering'', so I will use the Government's own choice of words—''a broadly based intake''.

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