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I now turn to aspirations, which are the most important challenge that we face. Significant investment in the Aimhigher programme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned, and other interventions are raising the aspirations of more young people with the ability and talent to enter higher education. Through a range of activities, such as university visits, master classes, mentoring and summer schools, we aim to show students from disadvantaged backgrounds what study at a higher level involves so that they can experience the realities, challenges and joys of being a higher education student. We welcome the fact that early evaluation of Aimhigher shows that its participants have more positive intentions towards higher education than non-participants. Furthermore, national data indicate that the gap between higher and lower social classes at age 16 intending to go on to higher education narrowed by almost 5 per cent.
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between 2001 and 2003. I strongly believe that the Aimhigher programme helps to show students from disadvantaged backgrounds that they, too, can strive for entry to universities with the most demanding admission requirements.

That work is critical. Evidence suggests that even when their qualification levels are similar, people from lower social classes are slightly less likely than people from higher social classes to apply for higher education—and if they do, they are less likely to apply to the institutions and courses with the most demanding entry qualifications. That is a challenge for all of us, and for the way in which we advance the debate.

Paul Farrelly: In north Staffordshire we are slowly cracking the 16-plus argument, but the key issue is making sure that students aged 17-plus complete their courses. A policy in the White Paper package aimed at widening participation proposed that every district should have a choice adviser, who would advise students on which universities to choose, given the myriad fees and bursaries available. What happened to choice advisers, and will my hon. Friend point me to my local one in Newcastle-under-Lyme, because as far as I am aware, we do not have one?

Bill Rammell: A range of advice and assistance is available to young people locally, and I will ensure that I send my hon. Friend the details of what is available in his constituency. We must constantly review the advice and guidance given to young people to ensure that all the available opportunities are highlighted and signposted.

Mr. Sheerman: I understand that the Sutton Trust is piloting choice advisers for the Government.

Bill Rammell: The Sutton Trust is doing excellent work, often in conjunction with the Government, which can contribute to the improvement of the advice and guidance given to young people and mature students locally.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): We have heard a great deal about social class, but we have yet to hear anything about what the Government are doing to help to widen access for disabled students.

Bill Rammell: There is significant expenditure under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Acts to ensure that all university premises are genuinely open. There are specific funding programmes, too, to enable more disabled students to attend university. Many people from different backgrounds have benefited from further and higher education who would not have done so 10, 20 or 30 years ago, and we must promote their involvement.

I should like to say a few words about the university application process.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): Before the Minister moves on to another “A”, it would be bizarre if he did not comment on asset sales. There was a story in the Financial Times this morning about the securitisation of the loan book. Is the Minister aware
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of that, and was his Department consulted? I should like to know whether the story is true, and whether the Government will get a better deal on the sale of the loan book this time than they did in 1997.

Bill Rammell: I have learned in politics and in government never to comment on stories about what may or may not, or might possibly in some circumstances, happen in the Budget, and I will not break that rule today.

I shall deal now with applications. I welcome UCAS’s changes to the higher education application process to improve it for everyone trying to get into higher education. I remain strongly committed to a system of post-qualification application. Such a system would help to ensure that students are better matched to their courses, and reduce the potential for students to drop out. Fifty per cent. of predicted grades are inaccurate, and they are most inaccurate for students from lower socio-economic groups; we need to be clear that that is unacceptable. Whatever a student’s background, that level of inaccuracy is a cause for concern. I acknowledge that change cannot happen overnight. Our target is 2012, but the HE sector is already developing early reforms that will improve the HE application process for all students.

Mr. Chaytor: Is the Minister saying categorically that a fully developed post-qualification application system will be in place by 2012? Can he say a little more about the interim steps that are being taken to achieve that?

Bill Rammell: The Government are not responsible for the HE applications process. Nevertheless, the Department, the Secretary of State and I have driven the debate and are strongly urging universities to sign up to a pathway leading towards post-qualification applications. We had a constructive working party chaired by Sir Alan Wilson, the former director general for higher education at the Department. We achieved a consensus among all the representative bodies in higher education, which sets out a clear timetable for progress on this important issue. It is a two-stage process of reform.

There is the end date objective of 2012 for a full PQA system, and there are significant reforms in 2008-09, such as students being given the access profile course by course, institution by institution, a reduction in the number of applications that each student makes from six to five, to ensure that students can make more informed choices, and the opportunity by 2008-09 for a student who does better than their predicted grades to re-apply once they have gained those grades to a course or institution that better suits their needs or interests. These are important changes, which we should strongly encourage universities to take forward.

Mr. Sheerman: Five years ago the Select Committee made a strong recommendation about post-qualification access and about the nonsense of Oxford and Cambridge having an entirely different date, time and structure for their admissions process. The debate is about broadening access. When will the Government push Oxford and Cambridge into a sensible admissions policy that is the same as any other university’s?

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Bill Rammell: I can assure my hon. Friend that we have ongoing discussions with all institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge. One of the changes included in the 2008-09 reforms is the concept of a gathered field before the evaluation of applications takes place. Although that will not move the Oxford and Cambridge application date, it should ensure that all applications are dealt with on their merits. That will help to improve the admissions process for those two institutions and many others.

Although we have always said, rightly, that admissions are the responsibility of universities, we do have an interest in these policies and practices. I was encouraged by the findings of our independent review of admissions led by Steven Schwartz. The review showed that, overall, admissions are fair, but that more could be done to demonstrate professionalism and transparency. With universities and colleges, we continue to take action in this area.

On affordability, a matter that was raised earlier by Liberal Democrat Members, it is important to say clearly that all the evidence suggests that the critics of the new system of higher education are being proved emphatically wrong. The UCAS figures released earlier this month show a significant rise in applications from students in England. Applications have risen from 271,700 in 2006 to 291,000 this year, which is a very encouraging rise of 7.1 per cent. Among those providing social class data, applications from the lower socio-economic groups have increased from 30.9 per cent. to 31.3 per cent. Although it is true that the rise in applications will have been affected by demographic trends, that explains only a small part of the increase. The population in England is rising, and applications are rising even more strongly. The increase is well in excess of this year’s 0.8 per cent. population growth among 18 to 20-year-olds.

Stephen Williams: Before the Minister draws too many firm conclusions from the socio-economic data derived from the UCAS collation of statistics, will he concede that the biggest group in the data is unknowns, because students do not have to tell UCAS which social group they come from? How can we be so certain that the proportion from lower socio-economic groups is going up?

Bill Rammell: I concede that one cannot be absolutely certain. We seek to ensure in the best way possible that we get as much information as possible on the backgrounds of students who are applying to university, and UCAS is looking at that. If we are having an adversarial trading of blows on this issue, I know whose position I would much rather be in: I would rather defend the changes which we have made and which the hon. Gentleman opposed. One of the reasons why I am confident that we are protecting access for those from poorer backgrounds is that the new system of student financial support is genuinely progressive and genuinely fairer. Student grants have been reintroduced, and we have ensured that students do not start to repay until they are in work and earning more than £15,000 a year, which is effectively a postgraduate system of repayment that rightly ensures that the greatest resources go to those who are most in need.

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Paul Farrelly: The Minister is right; the robust argument that we had on these Benches during the changes meant that the student support and bursaries were much improved to sweeten the pill. I would be delighted to be proved wrong about participation by people from poorer backgrounds, but the evidence from overseas shows that when fees are raised all the other moves tend to be neutered, so the overall result is neutral. Does the Minister agree that there is a world of difference between having a cap at £3,000 and giving in to the blandishments of some universities to raise the cap and to introduce a system similar to that used in the United States? I hope that he will resist any such blandishments.

Bill Rammell: I disagree with my hon. Friend about the evidence from overseas. This debate raged long and hard during our proceedings on the Higher Education Act 2004. In some countries where higher fees have been introduced, there has been an increase in applications. On his core point about what we will do about the cap after 2009, we have made it clear that we will not move until we have seen the first full three years of operation of the new system. There will then be an independent commission. I say, both to those who advocate lifting the gap and to those who say that we should scrap fees now, that both those approaches are premature, because we need to see the full operation of the first three years of the new system.

The role of the Office for Fair Access has been significant in helping to smooth the passage of the new system. The introduction of access agreements through which universities can commit publicly to what they will offer students from poorer backgrounds out of the additional income generated from fees has been an important step forward. In the Higher Education Act 2004, we legislated to ensure that a university must have an access agreement approved by OFFA if it wishes to charge more than the basic fee. The introduction of variable fees was an incredibly difficult decision to take, but the Government had the courage to take it, and as I have said, we are being proved right.

I welcome the fact that the Conservative party has shifted its ground on that issue. If I look long and hard, even some Liberal Democrats appear to be shifting their ground— [ Interruption. ] Maybe not the ones who are present today. In my experience, different groups of Liberal Democrats come up with different conclusions. Nevertheless, the pamphlet that was produced before Christmas by the Lib Dem think-tank, which fundamentally endorsed the Government’s approach on a post-graduation repayment system, was very significant.

The time has come for those who criticised the concept of OFFA and the bursaries regime in 2004 to move on from that position. OFFA has been an important success. All the institutions that have chosen to set fees above the basic level have successfully completed an access agreement. I take this opportunity to pay the fullest of tributes to Martin Harris and his team for the outcome that they have secured and for how they have gone about it. As a result, access agreements are in place and forecast to deliver in excess of £300 million per year in bursaries to students. I have no doubt that the right to additional fee income for universities must go hand in hand with a social and
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moral responsibility to students from less advantaged backgrounds. Universities have demonstrated their genuine commitment to that principle through the extent and generosity of the bursary schemes and additional outreach commitments in their access agreements.

At this juncture, I should refer to the concerns that have been raised about a potential underspend on bursaries in some universities. I have been monitoring that situation very closely. The overall scale of underspend has been exaggerated in some reports. In several universities, including a significant number in the Russell group, the projections are that there will be no underspend at all. Forecasts of spend inevitably carry with them some uncertainty, especially in the first year of an entirely new bursary scheme, and some universities set a high figure for reasons of prudent financial management. I am not in the business of unfairly or unjustly criticising people. OFFA will monitor expenditure and performance annually, and we will have a full picture of year 1 after the relevant monitoring information has been collected this summer.

At the same time, universities should be doing all they can to ensure that students get the support to which they are entitled. In recent weeks, several vice-chancellors have explicitly said to me that they intend to invest any underspend in their original bursary estimates on other measures to improve social inclusion. One of them told me:

That is heartening. I would urge all universities forecasting a genuine underspend on bursaries to take that approach.

Mr. Chaytor: Before we leave the question of bursaries and fees, we must recognise that we are still talking about full-time undergraduates. In the context of widening participation, part-time students are likely to provide the greatest number of new students. Will my hon. Friend say a few words about improving financial support for part-time students? I know that he has agonised about the complexity of this. What is his latest thinking?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend hits on a key point. The 27 per cent. increase in the part-time student grant that we announced last year was a very significant step forward. However, there remains a challenge. If we simply replicated the full-time system of student financial support for part-timers, there would be an immense amount of dead weight. We need to encourage employers to invest more in the higher education of the people who work for them. Bearing in mind—I am quoting these figures from memory—that 35 to 40 per cent. of part-timers receive a financial contribution from their employer, I do not see why the state should automatically step in through a replication of the full-time student support package in order to absolve the employer of that responsibility. We must ensure that we keep these issues under review to ensure that the part-time student package is as flexible and attractive as possible.

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Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I recognise what my hon. Friend is saying as regards the contribution of employers, but would he acknowledge that many potential part-time students are not in employment? Some are carers, for example. How would he address that question?

Bill Rammell rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind the Minister about speaking into the microphone? Those taking notes may experience difficulty in hearing his contribution.

Bill Rammell: My sincere apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The point about carers is important. One of the changes that we recently announced—an additional bursary for those leaving care—is an important step forward. The specific point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) made is one of the reasons why we need to keep such issues under review. I am not committing to anything today, but it is important that the system is as flexible as possible.

As I said, I urge all universities that forecast a genuine underspend on bursaries to take the approach that I described earlier. It is right in principle, consistent with universities’ social obligations, and important for the credibility of the new fees regime. That is why I am pleased that the Russell group and the 1994 group of universities are making clear their support for that principle today. I am also glad that the National Union of Students has given its support.

Malcolm X said:

If we want a work force that can compete with the best in the world, adapt flexibly to the challenges of the global marketplace and deliver high productivity, we must ensure that more people have the higher-level skills needed to achieve that. In my view, that will involve a big future expansion in work-based, flexible higher education.

If we want a society that is fair and tolerant, where everyone has an equal chance to succeed and fulfil their potential and dreams, we must ensure that everyone with the talent and ability to benefit—whatever their background, class or bank balance—can pursue higher education. The Government will continue to take the actions necessary to bring about the fundamental changes required to widen participation, increase access and overcome the obstacles that continue to prevent too many bright people from disadvantaged backgrounds from entering higher education. The future success of our country depends on it.

2.51 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his kind remarks about my party’s position on some aspects of higher education. Of course, we agree with many things that he said and I admire him for the sincerity with which he speaks about widening participation.

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