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15 Mar 2007 : Column 514

Mr. Sheerman: Most of us in the Chamber, including the hon. Gentleman, know that the figures are much more complex than the ones that he has shouted at me.

Mr. Johnson: But I am right.

Mr. Sheerman: No; the hon. Gentleman is not right.

Mr. Chaytor: The point is that the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) conceal the fact that in the 1960s direct grant grammar schools were deemed to be part of the maintained system. That figure comes from the redefinition of which schools were in the maintained system, which is completely irrelevant to widening participation.

Mr. Sheerman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Opposition spokesman has been infuriated by the fact that one particular aspect of my speech is about the power and influence of one sector of education in this country, which is highly privileged and from which he took advantage.

David Howarth: As one of the working-class kids who was not put off by Cambridge’s atmosphere and who went on to interview applicants for Cambridge undergraduate courses for 20 years, may I say that the reason why there is a different cut-off point for the Cambridge entrance procedure has to do with the desire to interview as many applicants as possible in as short a time as possible, in order to be fair in comparing various applicants. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) might be right to say that a different system would have a better effect, but he should be aware that there might be negative results of switching away from that system.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman has brought me to the last thing that I want to say in my contribution.

Mr. Johnson: Great!

Mr. Sheerman: All that training at Eton and Oxford never actually raises the level of the debate.

Mr. Johnson: This is chip-o-rama.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Sheerman: I want to end my remarks by saying this: this country must use all the potential of all the people. One valuable point that has come out of today’s debate is that we are not focusing simply on the potential of young people at 18 or 21. As my hon. Friends have said, part-time students and mature students are entering higher education in larger numbers; you will know something about that, Madam Deputy Speaker. People are deciding to enter higher education later, which is a success story. We want people with potential to be able to go into higher education, if it is right for them. It is not right for everyone.

We do not have a system in our universities that identifies potential as well as that in the United States—I am sorry to return to that example. When I have talked to the presidents of universities in the
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United States, they say, “We don’t interview. If we wanted more people like us, we would interview.” Many people in this country are hooked up to the view that interviews are the best way to identify talent. We restrict the scope of people who enter higher education by using interviews. Some universities do not interview, but the research-rich universities tend to interview.

In the United States most universities use five different criteria on which to judge a student, including written work, standard assessment tests and recommendations from teachers. Those five criteria are used to judge not only examination passes and grades, but whether students have the potential to benefit from the institution. That goes to the heart of today’s debate. If we are going to do something radical about getting into higher education all the talents who could be there, we must change how we assess potential at every level of our education system.

4.4 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I enjoyed the long speech by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), and I enjoyed some of the interventions even more. One of the other jobs that I do for my party in this House is to sit on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, and yesterday we visited the Natural History museum together to see the outreach work that it does in education. We did not see any Liberal Democrat creatures among the specimens there, nor Etonian creatures for that matter.

When the Minister opened our debate, he rightly referred to the economic reasons why we need to get more people educated to level 4 or degree standard. The Leitch report, which has not been mentioned by name so far, has the rather challenging target of increasing from 29 per cent. to 40 per cent. the number of people in our work force who are educated to degree level. The stark statistic in the report, though, is that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force have already left formal education. That suggests that the people who will need to go into higher education in order to achieve that target by 2020 are the people who are currently in work, which suggests in turn that an even greater proportion of people than now will be studying for degrees part-time. Moreover, a greater contribution will probably be made by the further education college sector, which already contributes about 14 per cent. of the people who study for degrees. Those are some of the topics that we have not heard a great deal about this afternoon.

We are here to discuss widening participation in higher education, which is about much more than simply increasing the stock of the population—the human capital—with a degree. Throughout the past few decades, because a greater proportion of the population have gone into higher education—we hear about fiscal drag; perhaps this is educational drag—people from all classes have participated more. None the less, there are still some alarming gaps, which means that we do not have a broad mix of social classes within higher education. For instance, over the past 15 years the proportion of people with unskilled or manual worker parents who go on into higher
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education has increased from 11 per cent. to 19 per cent., whereas the proportion of children who have parents with non-manual or professional occupations has increased from 35 per cent. to 50 per cent. The social groups at either end of the social spectrum, as measured by the Office for National Statistics, have increased their participation in higher education, but nevertheless the gap has widened. If we go back 40 years, the proportion of students from the lowest socio-economic group of all has barely changed—it has increased, but the increase has not been dramatic—whereas the highest socio-economic group of students with professionally qualified parents who have been to university themselves has a participation rate in higher education of more than 80 per cent. That implies that we have reached saturation point in that social group.

There are other differences in society. Nobody has referred to the gender difference that is opening up in higher education. For some years, the Government’s favourite measurement of initial participation rates in higher education, for which they have the target of 50 per cent.—although they do not talk about it much any more—has been stuck at about 42 per cent. However, that is an average, and underneath that average we find that the participation rate is 37 per cent. for male students and 47 per cent. for girls—a 10 per cent. gap that is widening with each year that passes. That trend continues in the most recent UCAS application statistics, which the Minister is fond of quoting. There are 221,000 applications from women and 174,000 applications from young men.

As many hon. Members have acknowledged, a large part of the explanation for that difference lies further back in the education system: it reflects attainment at school, not just the higher education process itself. In future, the gap between girls and boys may actually have some beneficial aspects in society. The salary premium has been mentioned a couple of times. At the moment, male graduates tend to get the higher salary premium because of the kind of professions that males and females have traditionally gone into. Perhaps the widening gender gap means that women will start to dominate in some of the higher-earning professions such as medicine, law and accountancy. That might be a good spin-off benefit.

The ethnic gap has not been mentioned. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on 13 March, the Minister gave the latest available statistics, which show that only 305 students who identify themselves as black African, black British or black Afro-Caribbean, and only 300 who identify themselves as being of Bangladeshi origin, went to Russell group universities. That is a pitifully small number, which does not get the attention that it deserves.

Geographical variations have also emerged from the underlying trends. My constituency, along with others such as Sheffield, Hallam, is in the top category for participation in higher education. However, Bristol, South—which the Paymaster General represents, just over the river from my constituency—and Nottingham, South are the bottom two parliamentary constituencies for participation in higher education. In one city, which is one of the most prosperous cities in Europe, and the most prosperous in this country after London and
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Edinburgh according to some measurements, there are stark differences in educational attainment and participation in higher education.

Dr. Francis: I am listening attentively to the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I agree with the thrust of it. Will he comment on the extent to which Bristol university has extended access to students from St. Paul’s, which I believe is the ward to which he refers, and contrast that with the work of London Guildhall university, which has a remarkable record of widening participation for ethnic minority communities?

Stephen Williams: If the hon. Gentleman is patient, he will find that I shall deal with fair access to particular institutions, and the point that he makes, shortly.

Mr. Rob Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although the Government have made some progress with black African ethnic minorities, the representation of Asian Indians in higher education institutions has gone backwards? How does he explain the disparity between the wide range of ethnic minority children and white children that appears to exist at universities?

Stephen Williams: I thank my Select Committee colleague for his intervention. It is perhaps for the Minister rather than me to explain matters on behalf of the Government. However, even within the white group to which he refers, there are enormous variations between social classes. It is a flaw in the statistics that they do not reflect that. The participation rates of white boys from council estates in higher education are probably even lower than those of students who identify themselves as being from the different ethnic groups that we discussed.

In my constituency, eight wards have higher education participation rates that exceed 43 per cent., which is the highest figure that is given in the Higher Education Funding Council’s statistics. However, nine wards in Bristol, South have participation rates of below 16 per cent. In Bristol, North-West, Southmead ward has a participation rate of less than 10 per cent. Westbury on Trym, which is next door, but happens, by a quirk of the boundary, to be in my constituency, has a participation rate that exceeds 60 per cent. I shall not breach the rule about props, but simply mention that the cover of HEFCE’s compendium of statistics, which I am holding, displays a map of the Bristol wards.

There are similar pockets elsewhere. Not many representatives of rural constituencies are currently in the Chamber, but participation rates are unacceptably low in parts of Cornwall, Devon and other rural seats.

What are the barriers to people accessing higher education? As has already been said, solving the problem lies not only with higher education institutions but with attainment in school or college. Of course, the staying-on rates at 16 or 17 are also important.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, while there is an economic dimension in respect of the relationship between socially deprived areas and the staying-on rates, another problem is the lack of role models—perhaps people who have themselves been to
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university—in those communities to help raise the aspirations of youngsters to go to university?

Stephen Williams: Yes, I agree absolutely. I intend to say more about that later.

The 2003 review by Steven Schwartz showed that of the top three Office for National Statistics social groups, 47 per cent. get the requisite A-levels to go on into higher education, compared with 23 per cent.—less than half—of classes 4, 5, 6 and 7. A large part of the problem could be dealt with, I believe, by the reform of the curriculum. Some points were raised about that in Education and Skills questions this morning. The reason why people are not achieving more at 16 or are not motivated to stay on beyond 16 probably lies in the school curriculum itself. Although we have a statutory school leaving age of 16, I think that many people in our communities leave school mentally at 14 or even younger. That is the big challenge for the Minister and his ministerial colleagues—to make sure that the 14-to-19 diplomas start to arrest that alarming situation.

The Minister initially disputed the fact—though not when it was repeated—that 90 per cent. of people, from whatever social class, who get their A-levels go on to higher education. The big problem is therefore young people not reaching the standard of qualifications that they need. School reform is clearly outside the scope of this particular debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, but there are things that universities and higher education colleges can do about the problem. The Government’s programme has a role to play, but universities can do more through their outreach work.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), I take part in the Royal Society MP-scientist shadowing programme, which I find extremely worth while. Last year, the chemist who was shadowing me—I was shadowing her on that particular occasion—helped me to find out much more about Bristol university’s outreach work in Bristol schools and further afield in rural parts of Gloucestershire. It does much to enthuse children about the excitement of science—chemistry in that case—and to encourage schoolteachers into the university department to upgrade their skills and take them back into the classroom. Those teachers then help to get some of their children interested in what higher education has to offer them.

I hope to speak in another Adjournment debate next Tuesday on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and perhaps that debate will provide an opportunity to enthuse people from different racial groups about history and their past. They might like to do what I did and go on to study history at university.

There are many things that universities can do in their work with schools, but the hon. Members for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) are right that there are aspirational barriers as well as problems with attainment levels in schools. We have a part to play in trying to tackle them. When it comes to our parliamentary role in visiting schools, I think that I can trump the hon. Member for Huddersfield today, because I visited a school before I came here on Monday morning, and on Friday I will visit two primary schools and a secondary school as well. Like the hon. Gentleman, I try to do that as often
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as I can. We can find out far more about what is going on in our schools by visiting them than we can even by attending Select Committee hearings.

Another barrier to participation in higher education is undoubtedly the burden of debt, exacerbated by fees and the different financial arrangements that students now face. The Minister has been crowing, as we all expected, about the latest UCAS statistics, and that has been echoed by some, though not all, of his hon. Friends. The figures show that UK applications have gone up from about 371,000 to about 395,000—an overall increase of 23,624, to be precise. The point has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that the number of 17 and 18-year-olds who could have applied has gone up by 30,000.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Will the hon. Gentleman distance his party from some of the remarks that were made before the last election about tuition fees discouraging students from applying to go to university? We now have evidence that that is not the case. Will he also accept responsibility for discouraging some young people from low-income backgrounds in my constituency from going to university, because his party’s representation of tuition fees made no mention of the reintroduction of bursaries and grants?

Stephen Williams: No, I will not accept responsibility for that. In every speech that I made in the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns, whether I was talking to schoolchildren or to people in student unions who had already gone to university, I was careful to make the point that if they had the educational attainment and the ambition to go to university, they should not let the prospect of debt put them off, because university would transform their lives. I am sure that all my fellow Liberal Democrat candidates would have said the same thing. I was actually trying to do some of the Government’s work for them, and I continue to do it. However, that does not mean that we can disregard the fact that debt will be perceived by some students as a barrier to their going into higher education, and that it might well skew their occupational choices thereafter.

I was talking about the Minister crowing about the UCAS statistics on the increase in one year. To do so seems rather perverse, however, given that, underneath that statistic, there has also been an increase in the number of teenagers who are eligible to apply to university. We can get lots of good news out of the way in one go this afternoon, because the number of teenagers who are eligible to apply to go to university will increase every year between now and 2011. I am sure that the Minister will therefore have lots of good news for us in the future.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I do not think that it is perverse to celebrate the fact that a higher number of students are leaving school more qualified to go to university. The hon. Gentleman said earlier that we had effectively reached saturation point among the better-off going to university. Clearly, the level of payment that people in the better-off groups are making is not affecting their entry into higher education. Is he arguing that the better-off should be paying more, to subsidise the least well-off?

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