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15 Mar 2007 : Column 483

Higher Education

2.8 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

I am pleased to have this opportunity today for what I hope will be an informed debate about widening participation in higher education, which is rightly at the centre of the Government’s efforts to expand opportunities and life chances. As Members of Parliament, many of us will have direct experience of going to university, either as students ourselves or by having a graduate in the family. Many, like me, will be first in our families to have gone to university. I grew up in a council house and went to a comprehensive school. Without having gone to university, my life would certainly not have developed in the way that it has. I certainly do not believe that I would be standing here today as Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning.

The Government are strongly committed to ensuring that every student across all the socio-economic groups who wants a university place, and has the necessary talent and commitment, can get one, so that regardless of their background or financial position, they too can experience the challenges and benefits of study in higher education. We strongly believe that that objective is critical to the continued economic success and social well-being of this country. However, that opinion is not universally accepted. We sometimes delude ourselves into believing that we have achieved a consensus on the issue in this country.

I fear that there is still a strong body of opinion, which is most notably featured in the pages of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, that continues to argue against increased and widened participation in higher education. The opposition centres on the view that if more people are going to university, that, in some sense, devalues the degrees that are awarded. People say that quality will decline and that the Government will be interfering in admissions and fair access, and that, as a result, people from higher income groups or independent schools will miss out. I wholly reject the view that to validate one’s educational success, one has to see others fail. Frankly, such a view has held this country back for far too long.

Educational success should not be restricted to the privileged few. Increasing access to, and widening participation in, higher education is not in any sense about denying people from higher socio-economic groups or independent schools the chance to progress. It is, however, about helping everyone, whatever their background and circumstances, who wants an independent future through higher education to fulfil their potential.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I am sure that we all agree that we do not want to restrict access to further and higher education. However, does the Minister agree that one of the dangers of the way in which the Government are pursuing their policy is that they are giving the impression that the only way in which to succeed in further or higher education is to go
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to university? It is important to talk about a broad range of educational options that might be suitable for some, but not others.

Bill Rammell: I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman. It is not the Government’s policy to present university as the only route to educational success. One of the Government’s achievements over the past 10 years of which I am most proud is the tripling of the number of apprentices in this country. However, it is exceedingly difficult to get journalists and the national media interested in that issue. We need more people to be educated at all levels, and that certainly includes apprentices and people going through school, further education and, indeed, university.

We must be clear that ensuring that people have such an opportunity is an economic and social necessity. Failure in our education system, whether through illiteracy, high drop-out rates or an unskilled work force, breeds wider failure in our society and economy. In many senses, this is a fundamental economic imperative. I strongly believe that being a global economic leader demands a skilled and educated work force who have not only the right skills, knowledge and experience, but the ability to update them in the face of phenomenally rapid change. That change is very significant.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I am sure that the Minister will join me in acknowledging the great work that the Open university in my constituency has done for the past 30 years or so. Given that many people are considering part-time higher education, what does he propose to do to ensure that there is a level playing field for those in part-time and full-time higher education?

Bill Rammell: I am certainly happy to celebrate the achievements of the Open university, which was one of the finest creations of the previous Labour Government. The Open university was among the bodies that strongly welcomed the 27 per cent. increase in the part-time student grant that I announced last year. Indeed, the significant increase in the access to learning funds from some £3 million to £12 million has been a really important step forward that we should celebrate. The increase gives the Open university, Birkbeck and other institutions a real opportunity to thrive.

I was talking about the rapid rate of change. There is research showing that of the 12 million jobs that were expected to become vacant in this country between 2004 and 2014, 6 million would be in occupations that were most likely to employ graduates. Employers value graduate skills immensely. Over the course of a working life, a graduate, on average, earns over £100,000 more, net of tax, than someone with just two A-levels. The latest Universities UK report on the economic benefits of a degree confirms that graduates, on average, earn more, and are more likely to be in a job, than people without degrees. It also shows that higher education is likely—we should promote this very strongly—to be the best investment that a student will ever make. In addition, the report confirms that the graduate earnings premium is holding up well.

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Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): How does that £100,000 premium, which is an average, compare with the figure that was cited in the last Parliament—before I was a Member of the House—when the Bill that became the Higher Education Act 2004 was being considered? I think that the figure cited in 2004 was about four times that amount. Does the Minister think that if the research that is available now had been available then, the top-up fees Bill would have gone through?

Bill Rammell: If the hon. Gentleman had done his research a bit better, he would be aware that the £400,000 figure was the difference in earnings between a person with a degree and someone with no qualifications. The figure that I am citing is the difference in earnings between someone with a degree and a person with just two A-levels. The figures are not comparable. The body of evidence suggests that the graduate earnings premium has not declined as we have expanded participation in higher education.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): One aspect of what the Minister just said was puzzling. According to Universities UK, nearly everyone with two A-levels or better goes on to higher education. The figure that he cites must therefore be calculated from a low statistical base.

Bill Rammell: That demonstrates that a little research can go an awfully long way towards misleading people. It is not the case that virtually everyone with two A-levels goes on to university. The figure that I am citing is robust. There is a sustainable graduate earnings premium. If hon. Members wish to try to decry that notion, they are doing a disservice not only to their argument, but to the young people throughout the country whom we need to inspire to participate in higher education.

There is an international dimension to the debate. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development show that there is a clear relationship between the number of graduates in the economy and increasing rates of growth in gross domestic product. Emerging economies such as India and China are developing large reserves of talent with people who are highly skilled and ready to reap the rewards of globalisation. Countries such as China and India are certainly not having navel-gazing debates about whether to expand higher education; they are just doing it. That should give us a strong pointer in the right direction. Unless we face up to the challenges that arise from the changes that are taking place around the world, and do more to educate people right through the system to higher levels, we will be blown away by the global competition.

Given the challenges that we face, what have we actually done? Increasing and widening participation in higher education is a good social policy and an invaluable economic policy. To make it a reality in this country, the Government have rightly focused on attainment, aspirations, applications, admissions and affordability, which involves delivering high-quality education to enable people to gain higher education entry qualifications; increasing people’s knowledge and understanding of higher education so that they see it as
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a possible and realistic option; encouraging young people to apply to the institution and course that best suits their potential and ambitions; ensuring that higher education institutions are fair, transparent and professional in the way in which they make their admissions decisions; and addressing perceived financial barriers that might deter young people from poorer backgrounds from going to university or college, or delay their going there. Through pursuing those changes, we have made a real difference.

In 1997, less than 82 per cent. of young UK higher education entrants came from state schools. Some 12 per cent. of higher education entrants came from neighbourhoods that were known to have a low proportion of young people in higher education. By 2004, the number of young UK higher education entrants from state schools had risen to nearly 87 per cent., with almost 14 per cent. of higher education entrants coming from neighbourhoods with little participation in higher education. We have certainly got more to do, but I believe that we are moving in the right direction. Overall, the number of UK students in higher education, as measured by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, has risen from 1.8 million in 1997-98 to 2.2 million in 2005-06. For those undergraduate students for whom HESA has social class data, the proportion from lower socio-economic groups has risen from 30.8 per cent. to 31.5 per cent. since 2002-03.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I have listened to the figures with interest, and particularly to those for before 2004, but according to the Government’s own figures, only a fifth of those going on to higher education are from the lowest socio-economic groups. We have not yet felt the full impact of top-up fees; when will the Minister publish those figures, broken down by demographic group, and what will he do to get more than a fifth of those from the lowest socio-economic groups into higher education?

Bill Rammell: I believe that I am right in saying that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service published the breakdown by socio-economic group when it announced the January admission figures in February, but I certainly agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says. We have made progress in widening the participation of people from lower socio-economic groups in higher education, but I am the first to admit that we have a great deal more to do. The system that we have put in place really does help young people from such backgrounds to move forward, but we need to do a great deal more genuinely to encourage them.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): On that point, does my hon. Friend know whether UCAS still levies a charge for providing the information that it compiles to local Aimhigher partnerships? If it does, does he not think that that is unacceptable, and that the information should be made available, as of right, to the Aimhigher partnerships?

Bill Rammell: I am genuinely not aware of the detail on that issue, because UCAS is separate from the Government, but I will look into the matter. On the face of it, I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s point; the data ought to be available as widely as possible, and should particularly be available to Aimhigher partnerships.

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Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to say that a general breakdown of data has been provided, but there has been no disaggregation of the data by university. One of the main arguments put forward by those of us who opposed variable tuition fees concerned the possible deterrent effect on people from poorer backgrounds, and we were also concerned that they might consider choosing cheaper universities. We need that data, and I would be grateful if the Minister published it. We have had only two years’ worth of data, in which the figures were up and down. May I just quote Ivor Crewe, who was one of the main supporters of tuition fees—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Not in an intervention; that would be extending it much too far.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is not Question Time; this is a debate, and the Minister must be given a chance to respond to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly).

Bill Rammell: If I may, I shall respond to the point that has been raised, and then I will happily take other interventions. One of the benefits and challenges of our higher education system is the fact that the Government are not directly responsible for the compilation of all statistics. A number of issues are dealt with by UCAS. I do not believe that the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) is borne out by the evidence that I have seen, but I agree that thus far, nationally, the evidence on the proportion of people from lower socio-economic groups going to university under the new system is encouraging. However, we need to see that information on a university-by-university basis as quickly as possible.

Mr. Sheerman: Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was merely trying to help my hon. Friend the Minister to answer an earlier intervention. On the breakdown of the figures, we really should make it plain to those who opposed top-up fees and variable fees that applications are up by 6.7 per cent. in England, but down in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. That is a success story, but some on the Liberal Democrat Benches will still not even talk about those facts.

Bill Rammell: I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. He anticipates what I shall say towards the end of my speech—I always thinks that it helps to leave the best news until last. I will come back to that issue, but he is fundamentally right.

Paul Farrelly: The Minister faces many challenges in Harlow in Essex. This year, there was a rise of 5 per cent. in the number of applications to Essex university, but Professor Ivor Crewe has said:

The rise is fuelled by greater numbers of middle-class applicants.

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Bill Rammell: I genuinely do not believe that there is national evidence that backs up my hon. Friend’s claim, but I agree that we need to see a breakdown of the figures, university by university, as quickly as possible. On the general trend in applications, the point that he tries to make is not borne out by the evidence. If we look at the first year of the operation of the new fee system, we see that there was some variation, both upwards and downwards, but it was difficult to detect a pattern in the kinds of institutions affected, and in what was taking place. We need more information, and we need to get it as quickly as possible.

David Howarth rose—

Bill Rammell: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I will make progress.

David Howarth: I thank the Minister for giving way again. When he gets to the end of his speech, will he take into account the fact that far more children—almost 18,000 more—were born in 1988-89 than in 1986-87? If we compare the figures for those two years, taking that into account, the picture is not quite as rosy as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) suggests.

Bill Rammell: Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, he too anticipates a point that I was going to make later on. Desperate people searching around for a fig leaf to justify their continued opposition to fees have come up with that argument, but if we consider the applications for 2007-08, we see that the increase in the age cohort was about 0.8 per cent., but there was a 7.1 per cent. increase in student applications in England.

David Howarth indicated dissent.

Bill Rammell: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is right, and the upward trend in applications is moving significantly ahead of the demographics.

Mr. Chaytor: On that point, and to put in context the Liberal Democrats’ attempts to undermine the progress that has been made, is it not the case that the figures that we are talking about relate only to full-time undergraduates, who account for about 55 per cent. of all university undergraduate admissions? To see the complete picture, we need to consider what is happening elsewhere, where there has been an amazing expansion in part-time education. Part-time undergraduate applications represent about 45 per cent. of all university undergraduate applications.

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and one of the frustrations in this debate, when variable fees—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is turning away from the microphone, and I have already been told that he is going off-sound, which I am sure is not what he wants.

Bill Rammell: I am off-sound rather than off-message, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My apologies for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North
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(Mr. Chaytor) makes a pertinent point, because one of the frustrations in the debate about variable fees and their introduction concerns the obsession of the opponents of variable fees with focusing on full-time students instead of on the many thousands of other students who are rightly accessing higher education.

On attainment, despite claims in the media that it is now easier for a person to get the qualifications that they need to go into higher education, the demands of studying and of achieving those qualifications are as high as they have ever been. The gap in attainment between higher and lower social classes goes some way to explaining the relative success that they have in getting to university. Our significant investment in schools since 1997 has helped to raise standards overall. The attainment gap, at age 16, between higher and lower social classes at level 2 is narrowing, and that is welcome, but it is still the case that only about a quarter of lower-social-class 18-year-olds achieve two or more A-levels, compared with around half of those from higher social classes. That is one of the most worrying and troublesome challenges that we face.

The research shows that in the 1990s, children with parents whose incomes were in the highest 20 per cent. were about five times more likely to acquire a degree by the age of 23 than children with parents whose incomes were in the lowest 20 per cent. That is simply unacceptable, and we are determined to address the problem. Evidence shows that if someone makes a decision to stay on at school or college at 16, they are much more likely to stay in education after 18.

The choice of too many 16-year-olds not to stay in education is the biggest barrier that we have to overcome. Through the development of diplomas, ongoing investment in personalised learning in schools and colleges and, crucially, initiatives such as education maintenance allowances, we are making progress. EMAs have contributed to an increase in participation in post-16 education that we expect to feed through to higher education. The proportion of 16-year-olds in the first post-compulsory year of full-time education at the end of 2005 is estimated to be 76.5 per cent.—the highest ever rate and an increase of 2.7 percentage points since the end of 2004. It is the biggest step change in participation in full-time education at 16 since 1993.

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