Higher Education Bill

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Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): I should like a little more clarity from the hon. Gentleman. As I understand it, amendment No. 24 will ensure that the clause reads: the director must perform his functions to

    ''ensure full access . . . based upon academic ability and potential.''

How could anybody ensure full access based on those criteria unless he knew what was meant by academic ability and potential? If that is left up to the universities, I do not understand how the director can fulfil that function.

Mr. Clappison: I said that I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, who can say more about it. I am supporting his attempts to make the best of a bad job. I do not want a director or an office for fair access. Instead, I want matters to be left in the hands of individual institutions and a more realistic approach to be taken towards creating opportunities for young people.

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

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Mr. Clappison: I will make a little progress, if I may, because I think that I might get into trouble for taking up too much of the Committee's time. I know that other Members are waiting to speak. Perhaps I will give the hon. Gentleman one more try later. [Interruption.] Well, go on then. I am being tempted.

Mr. Chaytor: I accept that it would have been entirely out of order for me to have responded to the hon. Gentleman's question earlier, but if he cares to repeat it the next time I intervene, I will happily reply to it. My current point is that if he is so satisfied that existing arrangements work well, can he answer the question that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell could not? That question is: why does the record of individual universities vary so greatly?

Mr. Clappison: Dare I say it, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not been paying attention to what I have been saying because I covered that point earlier. When I gave way to him before it was because he had indicated earlier that he wanted to intervene. I was just being patient and trying to get around to him after I had taken interventions from other hon. Members. Perhaps in the fullness of time we will hear whether he wants the director of fair access to deal with admissions rather than applications.

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of cause and effect, which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell dealt with quite properly in his opening remarks. If we want children from the backgrounds to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North referred to go to university, which is a laudable intention, we must examine standards and aspirations in schools and how they can be raised to encourage children to apply to universities.

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We have spent a lot of time discussing Oxford and Cambridge—understandably, as the hon. Member for Cambridge is keen to discuss Cambridge—and other illustrious universities, such as Nottingham, which is near the top of the prestigious list of Russell group universities. Those universities have a relatively small student intake compared with the whole university population, and they are elite institutions that demand very high standards.

If such high numbers of students from the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North or anywhere else are to go to university, we must talk more about other universities, some of which have not received a look-in at all—certainly the new universities. It was very good of the hon. Lady to mention Anglia polytechnic university, but we have not heard any mention of other former polytechnics or the huge number of places on offer at excellent universities, such as Leeds, Manchester, and Hull, which is represented by the Minister. I am sure that he knows Hull university well.

I am not sure whether Hull university is a member of the Russell group, but the standard of teaching and quality of university life there is second to none. To add a word of praise, I know that it does a tremendous amount of work helping local people get into education. I am told that the cost of living is very

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cheap as well, but the right hon. Gentleman can probably tell us more about that. We must talk about those universities as well as the elite institutions.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the spread of universities. If we agree with Labour Members that talent is being wasted and that there are people who would excel at university if they had the opportunity to go, does he accept that the results at universities that voluntarily widen participation will improve and that they will set a precedent that others will want to follow, given the need for all universities to demonstrate that they are delivering academically?

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend makes an important point. What does the Minister think the effect of all that financial pressure will be on universities? I look forward to hearing his answer. I suggest to him and other Labour Members that the Government are overriding the merit principle of admissions and, importantly, the independent academic judgment on admissions that should be part of academic freedom. The Government may say that they are not interfering with that freedom, but the only freedom that academics will be left with is to choose how to do what the director of fair access and the Government tell them to do.

The proposal will put academics and university departments in an invidious position. They might find themselves saying, ''On strict merit, X is the best candidate, but if we admit him we may be penalised for taking too many students from his type of school.'' The pressure to override merit will probably be greatest in elite universities and in over-subscribed subjects such as law, English and psychology. That will be unfair on academics, whose judgment will be overridden; they are being asked to do the Government's and OFFA's dirty work. It will also be deeply unfair on applicants, who will suffer because of factors in their background that are unrelated to academic merit.

I shall quote once again—I can do no better than to do so—from the fair-minded article in the Evening Standard. [Laughter.] Labour Members may like some parts of the article, but they should read all of it. Perhaps the Minister can answer the question that it poses:

    ''What does Mr. Clarke propose to say to the 18-year-olds turned down despite meeting the necessary standards? They chose the wrong parents? Or the wrong postcode'',

or whatever would be wrong under the definition of a broadly based intake that the Minister is to supply later?

Mrs. Campbell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison: No, the Committee will have to accept that I have been generous in giving way. I put it to Labour Members that the proposal is unfair on universities and applicants and will cause a deep sense of resentment of the type that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North described. It will be unfair on the wider public, too, because it will inevitably result in a dilution of standards in our universities. They will not be allowed—particularly the most prestigious institutions—to select and admit students purely on

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merit, but will have to apply other criteria as well. Standards will suffer and the country will suffer from that. Our universities will be less competitive than those of other countries that admit strictly on merit.

What will happen to the individuals who have been turned down because of something that is wrong about the type of school that they have attended, or in their background? They will be left with a long and lingering sense of resentment. They will certainly, in many cases, feel that they have not attended the university of their choice. It will be interesting to see whether many choose to go to universities in other countries where such discrimination is not practised. Labour Members should not be under any illusion. Some may welcome the measure, but it will put huge financial pressure on universities and put people at risk of discrimination.

Mr. Mudie: The amendment refers to access ''based on academic ability'', and I accept that the hon. Gentleman is sincerely pushing that, but how can a university offer places to people before the A-level results on that basis? It must choose people to offer places. The hon. Gentleman will understand the response of the student who applies for a place at Leeds and is told not that he has a place if he gets two As, but that a place is not on offer. How can choices be based on academic ability when offers go out before the results are known?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am no expert, but I think that he will find that universities look carefully at the grades that children accomplish at GCSE and at their school reports. They then set a certain level for the students to attain at A-level—an A and two Bs, or two As and a B, or for Oxbridge, probably three As—depending on the level of demand for the university in question. It is guided by academic ability. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to practice; at the moment, many of the popular, over-subscribed and most prestigious universities make higher offers to children from some types of school than they do to children from other types of school. That is what I believe has happened.

Increasingly, children from certain types of school will not receive an offer at all, no matter how well they have achieved in their GCSEs or how many As or A*s they get, because they will run up against the problem that the Government are creating for universities. The university will be afraid that it will not have the broadly based intake referred to in the statutory guidance, on which a judgment will be made as to whether it will get its hands on the variable fee that the Government will allow it to charge.

Universities are under huge financial pressure and that is how I fear—with good reason, I believe—that the provisions will work. There may be Labour Members who would like to see it work in that way; they might find that it is even better than they think it is already. I find myself hard put to say which aspect of the Bill is more obnoxious—the huge amount of debt with which students are being saddled, or the discrimination that is being introduced. If Labour Members will answer my question about whether the measure should deal with applications or acceptances,

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I will in the fullness of time be able to tell them what I think about that. However, at present, I consider both elements are discriminatory and against the interests of individual students and the universities.

 
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