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On sixth form and post-sixth form places, we may need to look at support for part-time students. Science teaching and the need to produce more science graduates has been mentioned this afternoon. I have a science learning centre in my constituency, and it is excellent. It is giving wonderful support to teachers, and we need to consider how to roll out that model. I
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am absolutely certain that a science learning centre and the support that it gives to teachers means that there are more young people taking science-based subjects at A-level and going on to study science-based subjects through higher education. Can attention in the 14-to-19 curriculum be given not only to vocational subjects, but to encouraging young people to take their education on to further education and foundation degrees?

I will finish there, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak.

5.21 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. We all agree that, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) has outlined, the issue that we are discussing this afternoon is very important.

To be fair, the Government have committed enormous resources and effort to trying to widen participation and improve fair access to higher education; they have spent some £350 million of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash on that in recent times. I criticise them not for their commitment but for their use of outdated dogma, and to some extent for their incompetence. The Government suffer from the same problems that afflict many in the education establishment.

I have looked at a number of briefings for this debate from organisations ranging from the National Union of Students to the Association of Colleges, many of which make the same basic error. They seem to believe that the Government can do everything—that the Government can intervene and change the world to create a perfect model of society. I suggest that the lesson of the past 10 years is the opposite of that: we need less interference in order to achieve more success. The old saying “Less is more” is relevant in this particular case.

Part of the problem is that the Government have approached increasing participation from the bottom socio-economic groups from the wrong end. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has said, much of the problem in getting a wider section of social groups into higher education lies in primary and secondary schools and the social problems in the areas surrounding those schools. As several hon. Members have said, there is a poverty of aspiration in many parts of the country today, and far too many parents have a poverty of aspiration for their children. We can set as many artificial and socially engineered targets as we like, but if we do not tackle that poverty of aspiration, improvements will be difficult to achieve and maintain. Our schools, both primary and secondary, do not currently provide a significant ladder of opportunity for social classes 4 to 7 as measured by UCAS.

Despite all the initiatives and money spent, the overall additional participation of the bottom social classes is only 1.8 per cent. since 2002, and just over 3 per cent. since 1997, according to the Library. That is not a significant return on the huge investment that has been made, and it is despite the bigger numbers going into higher education since the mid-1990s. From 1994 to 2005, the number of home students accepted at universities through UCAS rose from 251,000 to
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360,000—an increase of about 30 per cent. I congratulate the Government on making funds available for that and on making further funds available for an increase of another 50,000 over the next couple of years.

The good news is that more young people go into higher education and will continue to do so, but the bad news is that they do not come from an increasingly wide socio-economic group, despite all the Government’s top-down schemes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, the latest wheeze is to record whether applicants’ parents went to university so that admissions tutors can make judgments as to which candidates deserve to go to their universities. Our great academic institutions are being encouraged to pick students not on merit but on the basis of what their fathers did decades before. After last week’s debate, some will appreciate the irony of this Government’s establishing a new hereditary principle. Universities are being penalised for not hitting arbitrary targets for the number of poor students they should be taking; several have had funds cut as a result. That kind of social engineering attacks the problem from completely the wrong end, and does nothing to resolve the issues.

One thing that the Government may have got right, although it is still too early to tell for certain, is top-up fees. The figures suggest that after last year’s dip, this year’s applications have climbed by about 7 per cent. That is good, but as we have heard, the NUS and others, including the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), suggest that it may be related to the demographic bulge.

Stephen Williams: Partly.

Mr. Wilson: Well, we will see about that. The NUS also makes a significant point about the 42 per cent. of higher education students who are part-time, about whose socio-economic class we do not have much information. For poorer students, there is something to be said for an annual grant of £2,700 plus a university bursary and interest-free loans that do not have to be paid back until they start earning. That may incentivise some poorer students to go to university; it certainly should not disincentivise them, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman suggested, particularly as fees are not paid up front. What I find less convincing, and less attractive, about that model is its effect on those who fall just above the qualification level. As always, students and parents who are just above the qualification level for such grants and bursaries face the biggest barriers to entry.

On student funding, I am prepared to listen carefully to any further evidence-based plans from the Government, as I think that they are going in the right direction. However, within the overall context of widening participation, policy mistakes are limiting access for poorer socio-economic groups. Let me demonstrate that with a couple of examples of how the schools system, as run from the centre, has militated against the success of the Department’s own purported aim of improving fair access.

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Two years ago the Government stopped languages being a compulsory subject when they dropped them from the core curriculum at key stage 4. Surprise, surprise—the numbers taking languages slumped. In 2004, 80 per cent. took one language or more at GCSE; now only half that number do. With fewer and fewer young people taking the subject to GCSE and then on to A-level, many universities struggle to recruit students. Consequently, languages are becoming elitist because only middle-class students study them at top universities. While the number of comprehensive schools teaching languages falls, grammar schools, specialist schools and independent schools forge ahead with them. Students from those schools go on to the Russell group of universities. However, further down the pecking order, 16 universities no longer offer a degree in the four major languages of French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Many schools in the state sector no longer teach single science subjects. The flow of students studying pure science at university has become a trickle. That has caused approximately 80 departments to close in recent years, including the physics department at Reading university, in my constituency.

The changes in language and science teaching in schools have had a direct negative impact on the number of young people from specific social groups who can participate in important academic subjects. The chances of those who have not had a middle-class upbringing being able to study a pure science or a language at university are increasingly slim.

Bill Rammell: With all due respect, this speech is one of the most poorly researched that I have heard—and I do not say that gratuitously. The hon. Gentleman has made a statement about the closure of university science departments. Will he give us the figures for the number of students who study science? If he can do that, he will paint a different picture.

Mr. Wilson: I will not give specific numbers, but I am talking about pure science subjects, not the combined science subjects to which the Minister is referring.

Mr. Boris Johnson: My hon. Friend is a man who knows about this subject. Pure science subjects such as physics have experienced a sad decline in numbers of students, and 30 per cent. of physics departments have closed in the past eight years. The Minister is right to say that the number of those studying forensic science and combined science subjects is increasing, but if he examines what is happening to chemistry and physics, he will realise that there is serious cause for concern. My hon. Friend is right to make that point.

Mr. Wilson: I mentioned lack of competence in some subjects, and I should like to give an example of that. Have the changes to post-qualification access—PQA—been shelved? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us later. It is a system whereby students apply to university after they receive their A-level results.

In September 2005, the Department published consultation proposals from a group chaired by Sir Alan Wilson about the implementation of PQA. The Department based the case for change on the fact that 45 per cent. of predicted A-level grades are accurate.
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The group highlighted the fact that predicted grades were most inaccurate for students

The Department said that, “crucially”, students with underestimated grades did

In other words, students from lower socio-economic groups were disadvantaged by the current system.

However, Geoff Hayward, who produced a report for UCAS, said:

Dr. Hayward’s report shows that predicted grades are indeed less accurate for students from lower socio-economic groups, who are more likely to have their grades exaggerated. However, the discrepancy is largely explained by the accuracy of the different grade predictions. A grades are much more reliably predicted than others, and a strong correlation remains between socio-economic background and achievement at A-level. The report states:

The fact that fewer than half of all grade predictions are accurate matters only if it affects admissions. The report finds little evidence that it does. It found “only weak and negative evidence” of over-prediction increasing applicants’ chances of success. Some commentators observed that the idea that the whole system might change to benefit specific sorts of applicant, however deserving, was asking for trouble. Why change the whole system when the evidence suggests that offers are not affected by slight inaccuracies in predicted grades?

After a major push for a move to PQA in 2005, the Government seem to have gone very quiet. Have they realised their mistake and buried the issue? Perhaps the Minister will explain in his summing up what is happening, but there is a bigger issue. If PQA is not a magic-bullet answer to improving fair access to higher education, what are the Government going to do to improve the chances of bright and able pupils from poor backgrounds to access top universities? Preferably, they will not offer socially engineered schemes—but I look forward to the Minister’s response.

5.35 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on securing the debate. First, may I say that 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a debate on this topic in Government time? That in itself is a tribute to the efforts of the Minister and his predecessors on widening participation. I congratulate the Government on their unswerving pursuit of the objectives of increasing fair access and widening participation. I want to put on record my support for almost every individual policy that they have implemented over the last 10 years, which has made this achievement possible.

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In contrast, during that time I cannot remember—until today—a single statement or policy put forward by the Opposition that has advanced this cause. In fact, the Opposition have voted against virtually every Budget that provided the money to make progress possible.

Mr. Boris Johnson rose—

Mr. Chaytor: I am afraid that I will not give way, as time is so short.

Mr. Johnson: I gave way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Chaytor: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way earlier, and I had more than my fair share of interventions—but let us see how the next 10 minutes go.

In the 15 years before 1997—before I was elected to the House—I had some involvement in this field of activity, and I cannot remember a single act by the then Conservative Government that advanced the cause of widening participation— [Interruption.] Although the numbers of students in our universities increased during that time, that was entirely due to two factors. The first was the gradual extension of comprehensive education during the 1970s and 1980s, which led to more children and young people achieving the necessary qualifications to enable them to stay on, to study their A-levels and continue on to university. The second factor was the two recessions in the early 1980s and early 1990s, engineered by the Conservative Government, that raised unemployment and led many adults to seek places at university because they could not find a job in the labour market. That was the reality.

It is precisely because of that reality that I particularly welcome the new rhetoric put forward by the official Opposition. [Interruption.] There now appears to be at least a consensus of rhetoric about the importance of widening participation—if not a consensus about the policies needed to address the issue. [Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Johnson: Talk about a badly researched speech! I really think that the hon. Gentleman should reflect the role of the Conservative Government and the Conservative Education Secretary in hugely expanding the university sector by allowing the creation of a huge number of new universities.

Mr. Chaytor: That is not a picture that I recognise. What I do recognise is the fact that the previous Government put a cap on the number of places in universities. Since that time, of course, Conservative Front and Back Benchers have continued to argue that there are too many students of the wrong type going to university. Throughout this whole period, I have asked a number of Conservative MPs which of their children they are prepared to tell that they are the wrong kind of kid to go to university—and not one of them has been able to answer that question.

Until we see some sort of conversion halfway along the road to Damascus, which is where the Opposition currently are, and until we see them adopting and supporting the sort of sensible policies that this Government have put in place, we cannot accept that their position has much credibility. Indeed, during the whole 35 minutes of the opening speech by the
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Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson)—he was actually winding us up the whole time, which I thought was a subtle achievement—only one new policy was put forward. That was a tweaking of the arrangements for performance tables—a weighting of achievements in science subjects—which as far as I could see would simply increase the differential between schools that already had a large number of students pursuing and achieving in pure science subjects and schools that did not. That would have been a regressive step.

I support the various measures that the Government have taken and I pay tribute to the universities that have taken this matter seriously. In the opening speech from the official Opposition, I was struck by the way in which the hon. Member for Henley praised Bristol university in one breath and, in the next, condemned the measures that it had used to improve its rates of participation.

I also want to pay tribute to the work of the many Aimhigher partnerships operating throughout England and Wales. Although it is sometimes difficult to assess the direct effect of much of this work, I hope that the Aimhigher project will still continue after the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, because it involves long-term investment for long-term achievements. I particularly want to pay tribute to the active work of the Aimhigher partnerships in Greater Manchester, which covers my constituency.

We need to get away from a total obsession with getting a wider group of students into our elite universities. Widening the social base of those universities is crucial—my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, outlined the nature of this problem, and some of the solutions, extremely effectively—but widening participation is not only about Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and one or two of the London universities. It is about the whole range of universities, and we need to look at the whole of the British university system rather than focusing on the elite research universities.

If we want to make progress with our leading research universities, we have to move to the post-qualification admissions system. That crucial measure will help us to implement a fairer system. We must also do more work on making more information on students’ backgrounds available to admissions tutors. In the various discussions that I have had on this subject with Opposition Members in the past 10 years, I cannot remember a single occasion on which they did not introduce the concept of social engineering. That is an important concept, because we have had a thousand years of social engineering that has led to the kind of class-based inequalities of access to university that we now suffer from. The job of the university admissions tutor is to identify potential. To pretend that that can be done without judging the achievement of the student in the context of the school that they went to and the family that they came from is naive and dishonest. I therefore fully support moves to make such information available to admissions tutors.

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