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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, which is one of the most important that we could have. He has mentioned the importance of the EMA in getting youngsters from deprived backgrounds to go down the
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higher education route. Is he aware that the EMA helpline, which helps such students and their parents to get that funding and encourages them into education, is not working at the moment? I have tabled a parliamentary question about that today. Does he think that the Minister ought to look into that?

Jeff Ennis: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we are to reach the students whom we want to reach and get them to apply for EMA, it is important that the lines of communication are open. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

The difficulties that we have in the Barnsleys and Doncasters of this world have been recognised by local education authorities through enhanced education provision. In Barnsley, over the next five or six years we will close every one of the 14 secondary schools, amalgamate them and reopen nine advanced learning centres that will provide educational opportunities from 8 am to 10 pm, not just to students of school age, but to the community as a whole. That is Barnsley’s radical way of tackling this problem, and it should be applauded for that. It is receiving £150 million from the Government to achieve that grand master plan over the next five or six years, but, more importantly, the council is speaking with its wallet and is providing an equivalent £150 million of funding out of its own coffers to achieve that plan.

Let me mention what is going on in Doncaster, which I also represent. I have only two secondary school pyramids in my area, one of which, Ridgewood school in Scawsby, is one of the few engineering specialist schools in the country. More than 20 engineering companies were willing to sponsor its specialist status because of Doncaster’s long and proud engineering history. For example, the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard were built there. The other secondary school campus that I represent is Mexborough. We are currently finishing a brand new Mexborough comprehensive school building, which should be completed just after Christmas. That shows that the Government and local authorities are working hand in hand to try to change the life chances of people in deprived communities such as those whom I represent.

There are two main reasons why I have been trying to secure this debate for the past six months. First, I tabled a parliamentary question in the spring about the notional benchmarks for widening participation that universities should have set themselves. In April, I received a response to my question asking the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The statistics are quite alarming. In the last full year for which statistics on the Russell group are available, of the 20-odd so-called elite universities in the country, only three met their targets on widening participation. They set those targets for themselves, so the targets were not given to them by the Government. First, let me give a roll of honour to the best universities. The best was the university of Glasgow, which set itself a benchmark of 11.5 per cent. and achieved 16.7 per cent. The university of Liverpool had a benchmark of 12.2 per cent. and achieved 13.6 per cent., and the university of Sheffield, which is in my neck of the woods, set itself a benchmark of 10.5 per cent. and achieved 11.1 per cent.

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I am sorry to say that a number of universities were well below the target figures that they set. The worst example was the London School of Economics, which set itself a target of 10.2 per cent. and achieved only 4.3 per cent. The second-worst performer was the university of Southampton, which had a target of 11.6 per cent. but achieved only 5.6 per cent. The university of Bristol, at which I got my degree, set a benchmark of 10 per cent. and achieved 5.2 per cent., and the university of Oxford had a benchmark of 8.8 per cent., but achieved only 4.6 per cent. Lastly, the university of Cambridge had a target of 8.9 per cent. and achieved only 5.3 per cent.

That is the scale of the problem that we face. Oxbridge still takes one third of all its students from the so-called 300 schools—the top 200 private schools and the top 100 state schools in the country. That shows that some of our top universities need to do much more to widen participation in their institutions.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Those are enticing figures, but is my hon. Friend able to break them down by subject—for example, medical studies? Would the situation be even worse in that case? He has mentioned that engineering was doing well in one place, so has he done the figures on that?

Jeff Ennis: I thank my hon. Friend for raising an interesting point. I do not have those statistics with me, but one example that I shall come to later is bucking the trend to which he has referred. One of the best practice models that I will mention is a medical school that is achieving some fantastic results, but I take his point.

On Oxbridge, there was an interesting article in The Independent entitled “Oxbridge ‘miss targets’ for state school pupils”. It stated:

whatever that means—

I am sure that we all recall the case of Laura Spence, who was given a prediction that she would get five A grades at A-level in 2000 and was refused by Magdalen college, Oxford. Our current Prime Minister made a big point out of that at the time, and rightly so.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I seek my hon. Friend’s assurance, which I am sure that he will give, that he is arguing not for a reduction of standards for children from lower social and economic backgrounds but for fair treatment for those with equal qualifications. May I remind him that Laura Spence got her doctorate from Cambridge university last week?

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Jeff Ennis: I rest my case on that point. That shows how wrong Oxford university was. I am asking for a system that is fair to everyone. If my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, is telling me that a student who achieves an A* in history at Eton has a qualification equivalent to a student who gets an A* in history in a challenging school, I have some dispute with him.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am listening carefully as the hon. Gentleman develops his argument. I hope that he will accept that the Laura Spence example is not a good one. All the medical student applicants to that college had predictions of the same grades as her, and it took in state school pupils who had had greater disadvantage but who perhaps did not have her publicist. Indeed, a report of the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made that clear, and I urge the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) to consider it. I shall return on another occasion to applications and success rates, which are critical to his argument about Oxbridge.

Jeff Ennis: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and defends his local university well. The fact of the matter is that all universities need to do more to widen their participation, and some need to do more than others.

The second reason why I wanted to secure this debate was to shine a light on best practice models. That returns me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). Models of best practice have involved adopting what has come to be known as positive action in widening participation. There are examples of positive action in a lot of universities, including a number of Russell group universities, among them colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge.

I wish to go into a little detail about what I regard as the best example of positive action at any university in this country: St. George’s medical school, which is part of the university of London. It is best described in another article from The Independent, dated 25 February this year and entitled, “Students from poorer backgrounds ‘catch up’ at university”. It reads:

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The article cites the case study of a student named Mojisola Giwa, who was originally from Nigeria. It reads:

That is the type of scheme to which I am referring.

Bob Spink: Rather than refer to that as “positive discrimination”, which is a pejorative term in a way, why do we not call it “looking for potential”? We have to acknowledge that kids can be tutored to get high grades in certain exams if there is enough money and time to throw at them, but some kids do not have that opportunity. Let us call it “looking for potential” rather than “positive discrimination”.

Jeff Ennis: The hon. Gentleman once again makes a common-sense point. I did not refer to it as positive discrimination; it was referred to as such as in the newspaper article. I call it “positive action”, which I think is along the lines that he suggests. The Minister might want to come in on this point at the end of the debate, but I think that it is illegal to have positive discrimination measures in such a matter. The hon. Gentleman will not hear me refer to it as positive discrimination.

The more detailed findings of the St. George’s project will be published shortly, and I recommend them as suitable bedtime reading for heads of widening participation and student recruitment at all universities. It is no wonder that this June, the St. George’s medical school project won the London education partnership award for professional contribution to higher education progression, and in October won the City of London special dragon award for social inclusion and received a special commendation in the Times Higher Educationaward for widening participation. This month, it is one of the three finalists in TheGuardian public service award for innovation and progress in diversity and equality.

A National Audit Office report that came out in June confirms the point that I am trying to make about widening participation:

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I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, (Mr. Sheerman) who is the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, agrees with that point, which resonates with some of his Committee’s reports. The report continues:

I am running short of time, but I would like to make the following brief points. I would like the Minister to touch on three matters when he sums up. First, I would like to tease out his impression of the difference that the Office for Fair Access is making in the widening participation debate. I know from my spies in the higher education sector that sometimes it is perceived as too close to, or too cosy with, some of the universities. I would like his views on that.

Secondly, I know that it is too early to talk about the success of foundation degrees in widening participation. I will put my cards on the table and admit that I am a big supporter of them. I think that they will be a winner in the long run, but I would like the Minister’s view.

The third point is on the Open university, which has the proudest tradition of widening participation of any university, not just in the UK but in the world. In the briefing note that the OU provided to Members for this debate, it made a couple of key points to which I would like the Minister to respond:

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his exciting peroration, he will know that the Government’s policy on equivalent or lower qualifications will mean that about 20 per cent. of OU students will lose their funding. That will not simply leave things as they are but will make them worse. If the hon. Gentleman would challenge the Minister on that, he might get a reply as a result.

Jeff Ennis: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is another important issue on which I would like the Minister to respond.

I have focused primarily on the key role that all universities need to play in widening participation in this country. I have deliberately not touched on the other important issue—student finance and debt. It is worthy of a debate in itself, and I am sure that other hon. Members will include it in their contribution this afternoon.

As I said earlier, several best practice models, centred mainly around positive action, are employed by universities. They should become the norm rather than the exception. We still have schools in this country that have never sent a student to either Oxford or Cambridge, which cannot be right. We have all heard the expressions “failing schools” and “coasting schools”. I am afraid that at
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present, as far as widening participation is concerned, we have several coasting universities. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we have several failing universities that are not fully playing their part in tapping the untold intelligence and talent of our young people. I hope that today’s debate will stimulate a response from all universities on this important matter.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. As you all know, I have to start the first of the three winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm in order to enable us to finish by 4 pm. Five Members have indicated that they wish to contribute. I hope that they will all take account of time in making their contribution and also in accepting and responding to interventions.

2.56 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Government’s target of a 50 per cent. participation rate from lower-income groups is, as the National Union of Students has described it, bold and progressive. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills was keen to make explicit the Government’s understanding of the importance of widening participation in higher education when he said on 8 April:

Hear, hear to that.

Yet the stark fact is that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds make up around one half of the population of England but represent just 29 per cent of young, full-time, first-time entrants to higher education. As the National Audit Office pointed out in June, lack of participation is most acute among men and women from white working-class communities, which is the most under-represented group. That is the community in which I grew up. Such inequality cannot be allowed to persist.

The NAO also reported that the participation rate for men is currently 10 per cent. below that for women, and that social class remains a key determinant of higher education participation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) said. I am unsure whether the Office for Fair Access can intervene on gender participation issues, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s guidance on that.

On finance, we know that debt aversion is a prominent factor in poorer students’ decisions not to apply to university. Indeed, my own experience of attending university as a mature student highlights the well-established nature of that socio-economic trend over many decades, and it is my belief that the Government’s policies on variable top-up fees and the student grant may be barriers to increasing the number of poorer students going to university.

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