Previous Section Index Home Page

I want to make a point that I hope will elicit a degree of consensus among all three parties here today.
15 Mar 2007 : Column 540
However important the Government’s measures to improve the admissions arrangements to universities and to widen the social base of the students attending universities, the problem is not at the point of entry to the university. As speakers from all parties have said, the problem is to be found earlier in the education system. In my view, it arises at the age of transfer from primary school to secondary school. What distinguishes the British education system from many others in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is the significance that parents attach to the choice of school for their child. Until we can move fairly and quickly to a secondary education system that is more equal, and in which the choice of school has less effect on a child’s eventual achievement, we will never have a fully developed, successful widening participation policy in our universities.

Mr. Boris Johnson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chaytor: No, I am sorry.

If we can develop a more egalitarian, less hierarchical and less elitist secondary school system, it follows as night follows day that more young people will achieve more at 14, 16 and 18 in a way that will provide them with an automatic route into university.

They will not all be studying philosophy, politics and economics or ancient history at Oxbridge, but a range of important subjects. The progression from school to university, however, will become more automatic and inevitable if we lift the level of talent of all our pupils, and if the choice of school has less effect on the eventual outcome.

The 14-to-19 reforms are a hugely important development, which relates directly to the widening of participation in universities. It is regrettable that the Government did not adopt Mike Tomlinson’s report in its totality. I hope, however, that the issue remains on the table for the future. We make a mistake, however, if we believe that the key to the problem is somehow to get parity between the vocational and the academic. As long as the academic subjects lead to the kinds of careers that pay two, three, four or even 10 times as much as those to which the vocational subjects lead, parents and students will never be convinced of parity. The key lies in eliminating the nonsensical concepts of vocational and academic. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the hon. Member for Henley agrees.

Medicine, of course, is the classic example of a vocational subject. For decade after decade, our system has produced people who know every fine detail of the history of the Peloponnesian wars, but who cannot change a plug or switch on the dishwasher. It is critical that rather than trying to get parity between the two concepts, which we will not achieve, we eliminate those concepts and develop a new framework and set of terms of reference to describe the different natures of learning reflected in the practical and the conceptual.

On costs and fees, among the most important steps forward in the past 10 years to a more egalitarian education system were the introduction of tuition fees in universities in 1999, and the extension of those fees by raising the maximum level to £3,000 for 2006. Those were hugely controversial steps. Once the effects have been analysed in four years’ time, when the first cohort
15 Mar 2007 : Column 541
of students will have gone through the new system with a maximum £3,000 fee, I believe that the case will be made for raising the cap. We cannot continue to finance a world-class university system largely on the back of the taxpayer. We need different sources of funding, to which fee income will contribute. I also find it impossible to understand how anyone who believes that it is reasonable to pay a fee for a child’s secondary education should find that the taxpayer should pay the largest part of the fee for that child’s university education. That is completely and utterly illogical. Raising the cap will be an important and high-profile political issue three or four years from now.

Finally, may I make a plea that the Government do it differently next time? We cannot just sit back as we did last time, and subcontract the decision to Sir Ron Dearing or some other expert. We cannot just have an external analysis of the impact of raising fees on the first cohort, and then try to push the change through Parliament. We must prepare the ground and develop a better understanding among Members of the three main parties represented here and among the wider public, parents and students. We should start discussing the arguments for and against raising the cap. We should not leave it to the last minute. We must do the groundwork so that in 2010, when I believe that the case will have been made for raising the cap in a careful and regulated way—and in a way that provides sufficient scholarships and bursaries so that no applicant from a low-income background feels that they cannot go to university—that change will become part of the new consensus in an expanding, thriving and internationally competitive university system.

5.49 pm

Bill Rammell: I think that our debate has been genuinely helpful, informed and instructive. I must say that at the outset I did not expect, at the conclusion, to be urged from the left to lift the cap, and I greatly respect my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for that. I will not alter my opinion that we need to see what happens during the first three years of operation, but my hon. Friend’s speech underlined the fact that there is a redistributive case for the system that we have introduced. I think that that is one of its merits.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) began by saying that we should encourage more young people in lower socio-economic groups to enter higher education. I wish that that could be stated clearly from a Conservative perspective in the columns of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Boris Johnson: It is.

Bill Rammell: Their columns—apart from the hon. Gentleman’s— constantly attack the Government for pursuing exactly that objective, but if we have a cross-party consensus here, that is to be welcomed.

Like many other Members who spoke, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Aimhigher programme and our review of it. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) asked me about the review, which I instigated. I did not do that because I wanted the programme to be cut; I think that it is an excellent programme. However, I also think we should
15 Mar 2007 : Column 542
ensure that it is targeted as effectively as possible. The review has identified the fact that while an immense amount of good work is being done, it is not being targeted as closely as it should be on young people and children in the lower socio-economic groups.

Mr. Johnson: Will the Minister give way?

Bill Rammell: Very briefly.

Mr. Johnson: Can the Minister tell us where he thinks the money is going, and should not be going?

Bill Rammell: My point is that the money is there to target young people from the poorest backgrounds, which is not happening in all circumstances. We need to put that right.

The hon. Gentleman went on to make a number of comments about the fact that the key challenge in providing access to higher education is posed not by the university admission system, but at a much earlier stage. I agreed with that analysis, but I parted company with the hon. Gentleman when he repudiated the real progress made in the last 10 years in driving up attainment in state schools. There has been a step change in performance during that time. However we structure the figures—whether or not we include English or maths—there has been a significant improvement in the performance of state schools, which before 1997 had been flatlining for some time.

The hon. Gentleman majored on the position in the Russell group of universities. Ten thousand more young people are gaining access to those universities than were doing so in 1997. Is that enough progress? No, we have further progress to make—but I think the figure demonstrates that progress is being made.

We saw a couple of weeks ago how long it takes for a clear commitment on the part of the Conservative party to mellow into an aspiration. I think there was a gap of two minutes between the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to abolishing the Connexions service and his commitment to reforming it. I found that an instructive example of the evolution of Conservative party policy.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about announcements made by the UCAS board about the need to take account of socio-economic and parental backgrounds. I should make it clear that the decision was made by the UCAS board, which includes representatives from universities across the country. It is a positive response to the Schwartz review’s recommendations on an holistic assessment process. The Government did not ask for the decision or intervene in it, but I certainly welcome it. The new arrangement is optional for higher education institutions, which can decide for themselves whether they want to use it, but it could help the difficult process of assessing potential, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North. Universities have been grappling with the issue for some time, and I think we undervalue its importance if we decry it.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), on whom I intervened, began by accusing the Government of outdated dogma. In fact, his comments demonstrated his own outdated analysis of the
15 Mar 2007 : Column 543
Government’s policies and programme. He made one statement that was completely erroneous, and which motivated me to intervene on him. He talked about the targets for higher education institutions in respect of the proportions of students from poorer backgrounds and from state schools accessing them, and he then made the completely unsubstantiated claim that if universities do not meet those targets, they will be financially penalised. That is simply untrue. They are not performance targets, there is no link with funding, and I hope that he will withdraw those comments.

The hon. Gentleman also made some comments about the teaching of modern languages. The most significant change that we can make is the one that this Government are committed to: to ensure that by 2010 every child in every primary school in this country has access to learning a modern foreign language. The key change we are making is to introduce that commitment at primary school level.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about science subjects. After several years in which there was a decline in the number of applications to study the hard science subjects, over the past three years there has been a positive trend in the right direction. In particular, in terms of the applications announced a few weeks ago for next September there have been big increases—of above 10 per cent.—for chemistry, physics, maths and engineering. That is solid progress, and it should be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman also made some very strange remarks about post-qualification applications and claimed that the Government had gone quiet on that issue. He cannot have been in the Chamber when I made a significant point during my opening speech about the importance of post-qualification applications and the fact that although the Government do not control university admissions, we are doing everything in our power to urge universities to move towards having a full system of PQA by 2012. The fact is that more than half of predicted grades are inaccurate, and in terms of both under-prediction and over-prediction—both of which are a cause for concern—students from the lowest socio-economic groups are the most adversely affected. However, it is for the benefit of people from all backgrounds that we need a fairer system of application and admission to university.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made a number of important points, but I think that he under-represented the progress that our universities are making in terms of community outreach and summer schools. Those efforts should be supported.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) made a significant point about the importance of work-based higher education. In respect of the Leitch challenge, 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force are already in work today. We need to ensure that those who are already in work have real opportunities to access higher education. That will be the biggest area of expansion in the system in future.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the burden of debt, and there is an important issue to get across on that: the postgraduate system of debt and repayment
15 Mar 2007 : Column 544
that we have established is debt like no other. It is not like any loan that people can get anywhere on the high street because there is no real rate of interest—people repay only when they are in work and earning more than £15,000, and if after 25 years they have not paid the debt off, it is cancelled. If people could get a loan like that in any building society or bank on the high street, we would not be able to move for people queuing up to get hold of it. We need to do much more to get across the benefits of the new system.

The hon. Gentleman also decried the fact that under the new system there has only been a small increase in the proportion of applications from students from lower socio-economic groups. I do not deny that we need to do more, but, before we introduced the new system, it was alleged that that if we introduced variable fees, applications would plummet, particularly from students from poorer backgrounds. That simply has not happened, and I would like some recognition to be given to that fact.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) made some important points about mentoring, which is a key element of what we are seeking to do. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham talked about the 50 per cent. target, and my hon. Friend rightly said that that is about setting an ambition and an aspiration. I would hazard a guess that that 50 per cent. target probably has the greatest common currency of any public service agreement target among ordinary people in this country. I think that underlines our ambition for the expansion of higher education opportunities, both for the younger population and throughout people’s working lives.

This has been an important debate with a lot of commitment shown. We are making progress, but we undoubtedly have to do more.

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


Television Reception

6 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I wish to present a public petition to the House of Commons, organised by a most excellent campaigner in my constituency, Mrs. Carol Childs. Normally, the Parliament channel would be able to beam my remarks to the petitioners, but as the House will learn, that will not be possible today. There are only 105 signatures on the petition, but those who have signed have lost their television signal. One day they had a television signal and the next day an industrial unit was built behind them and they lost it, although they still have to pay their licence fee.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Fire Appliances (Cheadle)

6.1 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): My first petition relates to the question of the fire station and engine in Cheadle in my constituency. It is supported by no fewer than 1,897 signatures and it states:

To lie upon the Table.

Post Office Closures

6.2 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): My second petition relates to the proposed or feared closure of post offices in the rural area of my constituency and is supported by more than 1,000 signatories. One is a lady aged 101 whose father was the village postmaster. It states:

To lie upon the Table.

Next Section Index Home Page