Higher Education Bill

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Jonathan Shaw: Amendment No. 268, which I tabled, concerns the extent of the Secretary of State's leverage or power in respect of OFFA. I want to make some comments on what else has been said. There will be no convincing Conservative Members that OFFA is anything other than a sinister form of manipulation. They are portraying the proposal as one for a Minister for admissions. We are not going to have that; that is the difference between Labour and Conservative Members.

The OFFA proposal presents a clear ideological difference. I understand why Conservative Members do not support it; it is a level of intervention that they think unnecessary. That is an entirely reasonable standpoint. However, we on the Labour Benches s believe that, as we are putting additional public money into our higher education institutions, it is reasonable for us to have a light-touch expectation that they will do their level best to widen participation—for all the reasons that we have agreed. Working-class kids from poor backgrounds should have the opportunity to go to university.

One can argue that the issue is attainment and about getting those two A-levels, but it is how you get the attainment—not you, Mr. Gale, I am sure that you have lots of attainment. How the young person arrives at that attainment relates not just to the school but to the wider community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said so eloquently, this is about universities being part of that wider family and spreading their influence. That will have an impact on schools, which will have an impact on individuals.

We have heard about lots of cases of best practice. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that perhaps we had heard too much about the elite universities and not enough about the former polytechnics. I referred to Greenwich university, which has a joint campus with Kent in the Medway towns in my constituency. Some excellent work has been done there: summer schools and a children's university, which has been inspiring. The vice-chancellor has taken part in graduation ceremonies for youngsters leaving the children's university, and all the parents have come to see that wonderful occasion.

Chris Grayling: I join the hon. Gentleman in applauding the work of the two universities that have come together in his constituency. Does he not recognise that he and his colleagues are making the case for those of us on the Conservative Benches? Each time that a Labour Member stands up, they applaud the work of their local university. What more evidence does the Committee need that the work is being done and that we do not need to pass new laws and set up new bureaucracies to deliver the goals that the hon. Gentleman is talking about?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely reasonable point. He describes an ideological difference between us: laissez-faire; it is working; do not intervene. As I was about to say, my hon. Friend

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the Member for Nottingham, North and others have referred to examples of good practice. We want that to be widespread. If we are making additional investment, it is reasonable to want assurances and a light-touch plan for that. Some hon. Members say that the provision is not necessary and that the universities will widen participation anyway, but we are not satisfied with the level of participation at the moment. We are not convinced that we should leave the job to universities or the market, or that we should take a laissez-faire attitude.

There were the same ideological differences about the minimum wage. Conservatives argued that the issue should be left to employers and employees, who will ensure that they get a good rate for their work. That did not happen; people were exploited—not by all employers; the majority are fine. It follows that some universities will make every effort to push the boundaries of intervention in their communities but that others will not be so proactive. We have heard that figures for the participation of people from different social groups vary considerably among similar universities. Yes, we can point to examples, but perhaps they are of some universities not doing as well as others. Therefore, we say that if we are increasing investment, we should have a light-touch OFFA—an organisation that will ensure that best practice is spread.

11.15 am

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically modest speech. Does he agree, however, that the provisions do not differentiate between levels of performance, and will not solve the problem of differential performance? As long as the institution complied with the requirements of the director of fair access, there would be no need for its performance to approximate that of its neighbour or counterpart.

Jonathan Shaw: I believe that the proposals in the draft guidance have helped universities to understand what they can expect from OFFA and what it will expect them to do to widen participation. I do not think that they have much to fear. However, I am concerned that we are giving assurances that OFFA will have a light touch and that it will not be draconian, but subsection (1)(b) gives it carte blanche. It says:

    ''The Director must . . . in the performance of those functions, have regard to any guidance given to him by the Secretary of State.''

Conservative Members may agree with me. I have no intention of pressing the matter to a Division, but will the Minister say why he believes it necessary to have such a potentially draconian piece of legislation that will give the director of fair access carte blanche? To set up OFFA and to issue guidance is one thing, but to say ''any guidance'' is causing universities concern. As someone said to me, it is like having a dog but wanting to bark oneself. Will the Minister say why such a provision is so necessary? Setting up OFFA is the right way forward, but it needs to have a light touch, and the legislation should reflect that. I am slightly concerned that the provision goes too far.

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Mr. Rendel: I am delighted to have the chance to participate briefly in the debate. I shall not speak for long, partly because of the many erudite and well argued speeches made by Members on both sides of the Committee on a matter that I am delighted has been raised as a result of Conservative amendment No. 24. However, I am not sure that either side has got it right. I say that with some trepidation, as I risk creating a great many enemies in Committee.

I am entirely in favour of promoting fair access, but I fear that the Government's original wording says nothing about widening participation, which is a very important part of what we all seek to achieve. I believe that everyone accepts that it is necessary not only to make access fair, but to try to widen participation among groups of people who may not have fully participated in higher education until now. Simply to make access fair does not tackle the problem properly.

On the other hand, the Conservatives want to ensure full access, and their amendment tries to define how that access should be achieved. It does not, however, say anything about how access should be made entirely fair. I have considerable concerns about the definition of access based on academic ability and potential. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell quite rightly defined that as more than A-levels. I have been delighted to hear that the Conservative spokesmen are unanimous in their approval of the idea that A-levels are not enough. I am totally in favour of the suggestion that we need more than A-levels to promote access to universities and to decide fairly on access. I have been making that argument over the past year.

Although independent schools still appear to be determined to suggest to universities that access should be decided purely on the strength of A-levels—presumably because they believe that their students can get better A-level results than those in the state sector—I am delighted that, despite that, the Conservative party now appears to reject the move.

Mrs. Campbell: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with some of the academic research that has been carried out into the relationship between A-level grades and final degree classification. There was a considerable amount of work done in the 1970s. One publication was called Degrees of Excellence—I am sorry, but I do not have the names of the academic authors who produced it. Their conclusion was that the only strong correlation between A-level grades and degree classification was in physical sciences and in maths. In every other subject, A-level grades were irrelevant. I do not know whether that adds to the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Mr. Rendel: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for producing that evidence. I have seen research in all directions on the issue; it is not a subject on which the research is entirely clear. However, it is clear—the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell gave an example from one of his friends—that in instances A-levels are not the best indicator of grades at university.

Alan Johnson: Is the hon. Gentleman as delighted as we are that the apparent Letwinisation of the Conservative party has led to hon. Members saying

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that it should be down to the institution to decide whether A-levels are sufficient? Does he remember the criticism that came from the Conservative Front-Bench team when the university of Bristol decided to do just that?

Mr. Rendel: I do. However, I was in the process of making enough enemies without directly attacking the Conservative party in quite that way. I accept the Minister's comments.

Mr. Boswell: At one point, the hon. Gentleman tossed out a remark about the attitude of independent schools to the maintenance of A-levels. Could he give the Committee some evidence of that? He should bear in mind that, as I recall, the master of Marlborough college, Mr. Edward Gould, was a member of the Tomlinson committee that recently reported and advocated a severe shake-up in the system.

 
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