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I do not want the occasion to be entirely glutinous and consensual, but I wish to congratulate British
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universities on their achievements. They are not only huge money-spinners for the British economy, generating £45 billion according to Universities UK, but the chief motors of social mobility and the chief emancipators of women in the past 100 years. In spite of all the social and political obligations that we politicians place on them, and all the hectoring that we give them about widening participation, they remain places of light, learning and scholarship.

Paul Farrelly rose—

Mr. Johnson: I hope that I express common ground with the hon. Gentleman, to whom I shall give way, when I say that universities’ primary purpose is to achieve an intellectual transformation and—who knows?—an emotional and spiritual transformation, too.

Paul Farrelly: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also include a good standard of teaching. Before he gets carried away in congratulating universities, does he believe that they have invested enough of the extra income from top-up fees in rewarding lecturers a little better?

Mr. Johnson: It was perverse of the lecturers to oppose top-up fees and then go on strike for a larger share of the proceeds from them. It ill behoves lecturers and the hon. Gentleman to be grudging about the extra income—perhaps not as much as we would like—that has flowed to the academic community and also gone towards the bursaries that are so essential to the needs-blind admission that we all support in higher education.

Mr. Sheerman: Is not it a fact that we know our friends when there is a common and shared purpose and times are rough and tough? Where was the hon. Gentleman’s party when we were fighting for variable fees? Indeed, where were the Liberal Democrats? Is the hon. Gentleman today apologising for the position that the Conservative Opposition took in those tough times?

Mr. Johnson: I almost find myself apologising to almost everybody. If it pleases the hon. Gentleman to have an apology from me, I have absolutely no compunction about issuing one. All I would say is that the record will reveal that I did not, for one reason or another, contrive to vote with my party on that particular issue—one of the many reasons why I got into trouble—but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Unlike the creatures on the Liberal Democrat Benches, my party has changed. The Minister has hinted that there are signs of a thaw in the Liberal Democrat position, and it would be a good thing if representatives of the species other than the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) came to the House today and ventilated the change of heart that we are starting to see.

The Liberal Democrat position is being exposed by the statistics as against the interests of the universities and against the interests of students—we should look at the figures from Scotland, as the Minister said—as well as regressive and socially unjust. I do not say that
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the UCAS figures are definitive—of course not—but if they are correct in so far as they relate to lower socio-economic groups, they are, as the Minister rightly said, very encouraging. There is a great deal more to be done, as he conceded, and the Government have been open in their confession of failure to attract candidates from lower socio-economic groups. We are not doing well enough yet in convincing people of natural ability from poorer backgrounds that university might be the place for them.

The brutal reality—here I shall become more controversial—is that not enough of them are getting good grades in the demanding subjects that universities often require for entry.

In 2004, only 28 per cent. of those from socio-economic groups 4 to 7 went to university and only 13.1 per cent.—more or less the same statistic that the Minister mentioned— from Labour party’s traditional neighbourhoods. It would be quite wrong to blame the vice-chancellors, students or lecturers for those dismal figures, because all three are making huge efforts. Anyone familiar with today’s students or who looks at their CVs knows how much time ambitious students at least seem to spend—and who knows, they probably do spend—working with schools in deprived areas to encourage kids to think of themselves as potential university material. That happens to an extent that would have been unimaginable 20 or 25 years ago, or however long it was since I was at university. That is a wonderful thing for students to be doing, it will reap huge dividends over time and it is the way to go. That is why we completely support the objectives of the Aimhigher programme, though I note that the Minister has ordered a review of it and that it is to be cut by £19 million in 2007-08, so I would be grateful if he would explain the consequences of that cut for the objectives that we all share.

Paul Farrelly: As I mentioned previously, north Staffordshire has one of the lowest participation rates in the country. The crucial stage is 17-plus—getting people to complete their courses and then go on to higher education. What would the hon. Gentleman’s party do in particular to improve the careers advice service?

Mr. Johnson: One thing worth considering is getting rid of the Connexions service. The general problem that the hon. Gentleman raises is at the heart of the whole widening participation agenda. At every stage from 16 on, we are trying to remedy defects and divisions in our education system that appeared much earlier on. That is the key point that I want to make today.

Too often, there is a direct read-across from economic or social disadvantage to academic disadvantage. Let us consider two small kids of 22 months—one from a low socio-economic background and one from a well-off background. Let us suppose that at 22 months the kid from the poor background does well in a test and the one from the well-off background does relatively badly. By the age of six, their positions will have been reversed, and the gap will never again be closed.

That raises deep and difficult philosophical questions. What do we mean by raw intelligence? What is the role of the Government in winnowing out and
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encouraging raw intelligence? Is it randomly distributed throughout the population? It would be crazy to discriminate against parents who read to their children and who make an effort to turn the television off and take away the PlayStation in order to improve literacy. We also have to recognise, however, that the system is simply not working for poorer brighter kids.

By the age of 16, almost half of those qualifying for free school meals in 2005 failed to get a single A* to C-grade GCSE. Only 19.8 per cent. received five or more A* to C-grade GCSEs including maths and English. In recent years, the gap in attainment between the free-school-meals lot and the non-free-school-meals lot appears to be widening. Those people do not go on to do A-levels, and the consequence is that there are very few candidates in that socio-economic group with the requisite A-level qualifications to get into university. There were about 850 in that group, all told, who got three grade As at A-level. It is no wonder that it is so hard for the universities, which are keen to meet these political objectives, to show that they are widening access and participation, when they are all chasing the same small number of candidates from those groups.

Paul Farrelly: During the debate on top-up fees, I met the then Secretary of State to discuss the effectiveness of the Connexions service. The hon. Gentleman has just said that he would get rid of it, but we would then have nothing. What would he replace it with?

Mr. Johnson: I am sorry, the hon. Gentleman must have misunderstood me. It is our purpose to reform the Connexions service, not to get rid of it. I am grateful to him for allowing me to clarify that point.

We were talking about the gap in attainment between free-school-meal kids and non-free-school-meal kids, and what worries me is that the position is even worse when we look at their respective performances in the kind of subjects that universities traditionally value. I tend to get into even more hot water than usual when I talk about this, because I use the term “crunchy subjects”. That is not popular with the educational establishment—it does not seem to be popular with anybody—but I continue to use it. It seems to be an article of faith that all academic subjects are equally academically challenging, but I am not sure that that is entirely true— [ Interruption. ] Perhaps I have support from the Liberal Benches on that. I do! I am very glad to see it.

I shall defend my position on this by making reference to a study by Durham university which looks at the rates of progression from an A grade at GCSE to an A grade at A-level. I hope that we are in agreement across the House that it is palpably easier to progress from an A at GCSE to an A at A-level in some subjects than in others. Are we agreed on that? Thank you. In so far as there are crunchy subjects—I think that it is agreed that there are—the worry is that they are being increasingly ghettoised in the independent sector and in the top performing state schools.

Mr. Chaytor: Before we leave the subject of differential attainment between children of different social backgrounds, may I point out to the hon.
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Gentleman that the amazing insights that he is bringing to the debate have been common knowledge on this side of the House for many years? Not only that, but it has been an article of faith for us that something needs to be done about it. Is the logic of his new insight into these matters that he now completely accepts the kind of intervention that our Government have brought in since 1997 in early years and primary education, and in raising achievement in secondary schools? Does he think that anything done by the Government since 1997 has not been designed to contribute to closing that attainment gap?

Mr. Johnson: Of course, the Opposition support anything that can be done to improve children’s performance in the early years, but I am afraid that recent statistics do not bear out the hon. Gentleman’s confidence in the Government’s record. I am glad that he says that my analysis is common ground—

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

Mr. Johnson: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to complete my point.

In 2004, an increasing divergence was seen between the maintained sector and the independent sector in the crunchy subjects. No amount of extolling what the Chancellor has done can massage that away. Let me give the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) the figures. If he looks at the 2004 A-level statistics, he will see exactly what I mean, and the Labour Government cannot escape responsibility for the problem. In 2004, there was an increase in some of the easier subjects—I am glad that he accepts that analysis—with art up 11 per cent., communications and media studies up 22.9 per cent., design and technology up 23 per cent. and business studies up 13.4 per cent.

I do not wish to deprecate those subjects—I greatly admire the teachers of those subjects, and they are in many ways wonderful qualifications to attain. In parallel, however, some of what the hon. Member for Bury, North and I would agree to be the hardest A-level subjects have declined in the maintained sector. Let me give him the figures. Chemistry was down 2.4 per cent.; physics was down 9.1 per cent.; maths was down 10.4 per cent.; French, which the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning studied at university—I cannot remember whether he is the hon. or right hon. Gentleman, but he jolly well ought to be right hon.—was down by 16.7 per cent, in spite of his efforts; and German was down 24.9 per cent.

Mr. Chaytor: Those statistics are not under dispute. What is under dispute is the way in which the hon. Gentleman, to get himself off the hook, is trying to conflate two separate issues: the differential levels of achievement by social class over time, which have been reduced since 1997 because of the Government’s efforts, and the distribution of high-ability pupils between the state and private sector.

Mr. Johnson: My point is a simple one. In trying to widen participation, which we all want to do, we must ensure that the crunchy, difficult subjects, which the
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hon. Gentleman and I agree are particularly valued by universities, are popular and well studied throughout our school system.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman the figures for the independent sector. As in the maintained sector, the number of A-level candidates has increased, by 11 per cent. The key point, however, is that entries have also increased for the crunchy subjects. In 2004, chemistry was up 8.6 per cent.; physics, which, if he remembers, was down 9.1 per cent. in the maintained sector, was up 6.5 per cent.; maths was up 8.5 per cent.; and modern languages, which saw such dismaying declines in the maintained sector, were up 5.5 per cent. overall. That translates directly into university admissions.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am not entirely sure where the hon. Gentleman’s argument is going. I think we all recognise the need for more young people to study science subjects at A-level and at university, but is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should not encourage students to study other subjects that he listed, such as design and technology or media studies? In the north-east, we need students with such qualifications so that they can help to develop our creative industries.

Mr. Johnson: Of course we need students to study those subjects as well. I am merely trying to account for the problems involved in persuading universities to admit candidates from a wide range of social backgrounds at a time when the difficult subjects required by the admission procedures of many universities are not being studied sufficiently in the maintained sector.

In 1995, 15 per cent. of first-year chemistry students came from the independent sector; in 2004, the proportion had risen to 18.5 per cent. In 1995, 26 per cent. of new modern languages students came from the independent sector; in 2004, under the present Government’s watch, the figure was up to 30 per cent. Alas, the trend is all the more pronounced at the so-called top universities. I know that we are not allowed to use that phrase, and the Minister carefully avoided it, but as usual I have introduced an unthinkable phrase into our discourse. In 2004, 48 per cent. of the French department at Bristol university came from the independent sector. I do not believe that that is the university’s fault: as any Labour Member with an ounce of fairness would agree, it makes huge efforts to widen participation. I believe that it is the fault of the school system.

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Johnson: I will happily give way.

Mr. Chaytor: Where is this leading us? The hon. Gentleman is—

Mr. Johnson: If the hon. Gentleman would let me finish—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) is in the middle of an intervention.

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Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman is defending the status quo. He is repeating a set of statistics with which everyone is familiar. What conclusion does he draw, and how does this relate to differential levels of achievement in the early years?

Mr. Johnson: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish my argument, he will understand. The problem is that we cannot widen participation in the universities by concentrating on the universities alone, at a time when the performance gap in the schools sector continues to become wider and wider.

While I am on the subject, let me say that I think it quite wrong of the Government to seek—as they have today, apparently—to politicise university admission procedures by the incredible expedient of forcing students to give details of what their parents do, the race to which they belong, and whether their parents obtained a university degree. In my experience, universities are not interested in the background of parents; they are interested in the potential and the academic ability of students. I think that it would be disastrous for every university admissions procedure to become a nightmarish discussion about nature versus nurture. I believe that students have a right to withhold that information, and should be judged on their educational performance and potential alone.

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Johnson: The hon. Gentleman keeps asking me where my argument is going. If he will allow me to make some progress with it, I shall be happy to enlighten him. The school system and the imbalance of the progression and uptake of the crunchy subjects are at least partly responsible for the difficulties that we are discussing.

Bill Rammell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnson: With pleasure.

Bill Rammell: I cannot resist pointing out that during an earlier discourse, the hon. Gentleman strongly agreed with me that one of the virtues of the new system was that there had been not a fall but an increase in the proportion of students from the lower socio-economic backgrounds. How can we obtain that information unless UCAS asks for it on the application form?

Mr. Johnson: I think the Minister knows the answer to that. Indeed, I think he was about to give it to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). It is perfectly all right, in general, for UCAS to have the information so that we, as a society, can know what kind of people are going to university and can study social progress. What is not right is for university admissions tutors and academics to feel the pressure and oppression of such data, and to be constantly dragged into discussions about the background and parentage of individual candidates when they are seeking to make a judgment about their academic potential. That is wrong, and I hope that the Minister will give students the option to withhold that information.

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