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Evidence is also emerging that additional factors in the faltering progress include the unregulated nature of bursary schemes and the failure to address the needs of part-time students. The findings of research into universities’ bursary schemes conducted by Professor Claire Callender of Birkbeck university revealed worrying variations in the level of support available to students through bursaries. In essence, Professor Callender found that access to a
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good level of bursary support is dependent on where someone goes to university. The relatively small number of low-income students at Russell group universities had access, on average, to an annual needs-based bursary of £1,791, but the average hardship support for students at the Million+ group of universities, which the majority of students from deprived backgrounds attend, was £680—that is, £1,000 less.

Perhaps more worrying still is the use of bursaries by universities in the two groups. The research revealed that Russell group universities awarded 77 per cent. of all bursaries in 2006-07 on the basis of financial need. In the Million+ group, only 45 per cent. of the recipients were students experiencing financial hardship. In the majority of cases, universities with a higher proportion of poorer students are awarding bursaries for purposes such as marketing, rather than to support students struggling with the increased economic cost of going to university.

Dr. Gibson: I wonder whether my hon. Friend remembers where bursaries came from in the first place, and why they were instituted in the system. I think that some of us probably do and have the scars to prove it. Secondly, does he think that a national bursary is required to sort out some of the problems?

David Taylor: I shall return to that matter. I agree with my hon. Friend’s second point.

Returning to the Russell group, the Higher Education Statistics Agency noted earlier this year that only six of the 20 universities in this institutional clique were reaching the Government’s targets on recruiting students from state schools. The majority of state school pupils are not from poor households, but this type of resistance to change does nothing to dispel concerns over the endurance of elitism and class discrimination at some of our most internationally respected universities. I am not at all surprised to find that the London School of Economics is in the stocks in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough described, because for years it has persistently offered places to well-off foreign students with less good qualifications than home-based students. That is a scandal that ought to be exposed. We have done little about that, as a political class.

Dr. Gibson: What does my hon. Friend think of the LSE governors, who have allowed that to happen?

David Taylor: I sense that my hon. Friend is tempting me down that route. I am not sure that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), is a governor there, but I shall certainly have a discussion with him after this debate.

Another worrying statistic is that only four out of 20 Russell group universities reached the Government’s specific target for accepting students from deprived neighbourhoods. Oxford university is 3 per cent. off its own modest target of 8.7 per cent. This cannot go on.

The Russell group would do well to look at the successful participation policies of the university of Leicester, recently named university of the year by The Times Higher Educational Supplement. I am proud of that university. Its vice-chancellor, Professor Bob Burgess, who came here to talk to county and city Members of
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Parliament a few months ago, has been a major figure in improving the all-round performance of the university of Leicester over the last decade. He has said, rightly,

That university has strengthened its links with state schools and maintained appropriate levels of investment in research and buildings and is listening to the student body.

I visited the university’s computer centre and library not that long ago. It is a fine place. I ought to declare an interest, because my daughter used to work in the library there. All the things that I have mentioned have been key to the success of this most progressive and democratic of east midland universities. Our county and region are well blessed with top universities.

The Times Higher Educational Supplement said that Leicester university is “elite without being elitist.” What a fine, concise phrase that is for improving higher education in our country. The university of Leicester’s performance throws out the argument made by antediluvian academics and their political supporters that accepting the Government’s demand for more students from lower-income backgrounds and state schools would inevitably lower standards.

The comment of Lord Patten of Barnes about the Government treating universities—presumably Newcastle and Oxford, where he is chancellor—like a “social security office” was provocative stuff from a Tory dinosaur, although it is hardly surprising that Oxbridge and some of its cohorts resent state intervention in what they consider their own private affair. But Chris Patten’s sponsored statement was useful in reminding us of the key role that the Office for Fair Access has to play and where it must show its mettle.

Surely, OFFA exists to challenge this type of entrenched prejudice against working-class students, especially as the higher education sector remains 21 per cent. away from the Government’s target for this group. Yet no remedial action has yet been taken by OFFA—when will the Children, Schools and Families Committee say something about OFFA?—against universities failing to fulfil their side of the bargain and more accurately reflect the society we live in and the potential of all our students, regardless of what their parents earn. Perhaps OFFA needs to be more assertive in its discussions with those universities that are seemingly incapable of change, particularly if the Secretary of State’s impressive commitment, which I started my contribution with, to creating a socially just higher education sector is to be fulfilled.

If we are to dissolve the class barriers to full participation in higher education from lower-income families, then all universities must be prepared to forge links across the state school sector and ensure that the privately educated minority—the 7 per cent. who are privately educated and have such disproportionately high access to Oxbridge and Russell group universities—are not over-represented among Russell group universities. It is a disgrace that that situation should have survived almost 12 years of a Labour Government, with another four, five, six or seven years to come, perhaps.

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OFFA has a crucial role to play in successfully regulating admissions practices and policies and now is the time for it to get its teeth out of whichever box they have been stored in, put them in and show some teeth to the universities that are represented by some of the hon. Members here in this Chamber.

3.5 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate. He and I share a background; we were teachers before being elected and we spent quite some years together on the Education Committee, as was, pursuing our interest in education. We have a lot of views in common on this issue.

As hon. Members’ contributions so far have indicated, a wide range of issues can be looked at in respect of widening participation in higher education. I wholeheartedly support the Government’s ambition, mentioned at the start of this debate, of having 50 per cent. of school leavers going to university. I was surprised, when that idea was first put forward, by the number of people who criticised it and opposed it as being totally unrealistic and undesirable, given that Scotland is already way past that target. Scotland has always valued education and succeeds at it to a far greater extent than England.

When Select Committee members went to California some years ago to look at higher education and further education, we talked to its equivalent of the chamber of commerce. The employers there were not echoing the voices in this country that said, “Fifty per cent. is far too much.” They said, “Here in California, the fourth largest economy in the world in its own right—if it were a separate country—we have 60 per cent. with degrees and it is not enough; we need more.” They were certainly signed up to the idea that access to higher education and expanding it is essential to the success of any modern economy in a globalised world.

I shall mention briefly the education maintenance allowance, which has already been touched on. That is a good initiative that has proved successful, but this year it has been a shambles that is still staggering on. A number of my constituents—including another one in the past week—have approached me because they have not received their EMAs, have not been able to get registered, despite making two or three attempts, or have registered but have not got the money. We hear all sorts of figures on how many people across the country are suffering, ranging from 50,000 to 300,000, but we do not know the real figure. What is the company doing about that, and what penalties will be imposed for this absolute shambles, which is destroying a good scheme? I have heard anecdotal evidence, as I said in the Children, Schools and Families Committee recently, of students from poor family backgrounds in Chesterfield staying on but dropping out within the first two months because that essential money was not there to support them.

Outreach work in schools is essential to encourage pupils considering staying on for post-16 studies and then going on to university, which has been touched on by hon. Members. The Sutton Trust, in research looking at pupils who started secondary school in 1997, found that young people who are eligible for free school meals are 19 per cent. less likely to go to university than those who were not on free school meals. Looking more
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closely, it found that if pupils on free school meals—the indicator of poverty—could be persuaded to stay on post-16, they were just as likely, after that, to go to university as people from more affluent backgrounds. The problem was getting them to stay on in the first place to clear that hurdle. EMAs were a great step in helping to achieve that, which is why this year’s shambles must be dealt with and resolved—it has not been resolved yet—and why there must not be a repeat of that in future.

Schools today play a much greater, and better, part in trying to overcome problems in respect of home background and role models. When I was a school pupil in the late 1960s and early ’70s, coming off a council estate in Sheffield, I knew absolutely nobody among my family, neighbours and friends’ parents who was a role model as a manager of a business, an accountant, a lawyer, a civil servant, a doctor, or a professional of any kind; I had never met any such person. It was only through school that that started to happen. Speaking as someone who was a secondary school teacher for 22 years before being elected, schools today are much more proactive and capable in what they are doing to raise that awareness among pupils and raise the aspirations of people who come from backgrounds where there are no such role models. All the excellent work that a lot of universities are doing in outreach work with local schools in their areas is starting to produce dividends, but it is a long, slow process.

After someone has got through all those hurdles, stayed on post-16 and applied to university, the problem arises, which has already been touched on, of gaining access to university. The Sutton Trust did another piece of research on admissions from 2002 to 2006, and it bluntly stated that state school pupils are losing out compared with those from private schools. The trust found that the number of pupils who went to Oxbridge universities from the top 30 comprehensives in the country was a third of what would be expected based on their A-level results and ability. The number from the top 30 private schools was more than expected. There is a clear and massive imbalance, based on the sort of school candidates go to, in intake to top universities, which is, of course, a category that extends way beyond Oxbridge. I am a proud graduate of York university, which has been rated seventh in the country for two years running now. We should not always be thinking of Oxbridge when we talk about the top universities.

The imbalance is clear. There is a barrier of some sort in the process that prevents bright children who go to state schools—93 per cent. of the school population—from gaining their due access to the highest-performing universities. We need to look at that issue carefully; we have still not resolved it, and we have already heard the comments about Oftoff, as it has been unkindly nicknamed, and whether it is achieving its purpose.

Another piece of research, by Professor Geoff Whitty of the Institute of Education at the university of London, has made the same point. He pointed out, on the basis of his research, that private school pupils gain more places at elite universities despite the fact that they get only slightly better A-level grades—the difference is typically about half a grade. He said that they were significantly more likely than their state school peers to get into leading institutions such as Oxbridge universities and the Russell group. Professor Whitty said that that
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meant that universities such as Bristol, which have experimented with considering students’ potential as well as their raw A-level results, were right to do so, and that universities should be encouraged to do that more widely.

Logic and common sense tells us that ability is not fixed at 18. At what point is it fixed? Certainly not then. I know from having been a head of sixth-form for 12 years, and from my own children, one of whom is now at university, that beyond the age of 18 people still develop an awful lot. It is obviously foolish to say that there can be no improvement beyond the A-level score that someone attains at 18. In a private school with half the class size and more teacher attention, and in a boarding school with a captive, spoon-fed audience, pupils may already have reached, or gone beyond, their potential with their A-level grades. As Professor Whitty points out from his detailed research, comprehensive schools, by contrast, must educate children of all abilities in larger class sizes, so pupils with given A-level grades are doing better, given their environment, than a private school pupil with the same A-level grade. There is a strong case for making allowances for that.

My final point—it has been suggested that someone might take it up, and I shall do so briefly, although we have rehearsed it exhaustively before—relates to tuition fees and student finance. As I have said many times, I cannot comprehend the logic that says the way to improve access and to encourage children from poor backgrounds, who traditionally do not go to university, is to lumber them with a huge amount of student debt through tuition fees. I cannot see a shred of logic in that approach. We shall come back to that argument a lot in the next couple of years, because we are about to conduct a review.

The £1,000 fee went up to £3,000, and it is going to go somewhere else. The Russell group universities propose tuition fees of £7,000, £9,000 or £14,000—or, as Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford university, has proposed, mortgage-level tuition fees. That will certainly stop children from non-traditional and poorer backgrounds even remotely considering choosing universities according to their ability, as opposed to their ability to pay.

When the new Labour Government introduced tuition fees, having said in the 1997 general election that they had no plans to do so, they largely based their proposal on an experiment in Australia. The Select Committee went to Australia and was told in Canberra, 10 years after the introduction of tuition fees, that there had been no problems at all for people from poorer backgrounds. When we went to Sydney and talked to the opposition party—which, ironically, was the party that had, in government, introduced the measure—we were told that the Government seemed to have forgotten all the research that they had been hiding, which had been drawn out only by freedom of information requests. That research showed that there had been problems and that children and students from poorer backgrounds now go much more often into shorter, cheaper degrees, which in turn get them into less well-paid graduate occupations. They cannot afford the mounting tuition fees under the system. Women, of course, who take career breaks because of children or who often make career choices that take them into less well-paid graduate professions, are the ones who have been hit hardest by the burden of student debt.

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None of that should be a surprise. It is exactly what we would expect in England, and it is exactly what is happening in England. It is still not too late, when we think about Chris Patten’s mortgage-level tuition fees, to think again and return to a system of education paid for by the taxpayer and paid back by appropriate levels of taxation, with graduates contributing more either because they earn more or through a graduate tax of some kind. However, that is a debate to return to in more detail later.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are 15 minutes remaining and only two hon. Members bidding now. I call Barry Sheerman.

3.15 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be brief. Of the nine hon. Members participating in the debate, seven have served on a Committee that I chair—even the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods)—so proceedings are a little interbred. However, it is a very good debate. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) was able to get the debate. It surprised me, because he cannot be on my Select Committee any more because he is now the deputy to the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber. I am amazed that he cannot continue as a good member of my Committee, but he can function as a Back Bencher and obtain debates in Westminster Hall. I am sad that holders of such posts can no longer participate in Select Committees—and of course they are unpaid. However, it is a pleasure to follow the argument that my hon. Friend put.

I think that my hon. Friend was a little tough about the Russell group, and some of the comments about it have been a little excessive; let me put the record straight. I would not demur from the overall argument. I attended the London School of Economics for both my degrees, and am one of its governors; but I am not a majority on the governing body and some of the situations that arise there are not ones that I welcome. However, it is a large governing body. I remind the House that we have independent universities in this country. They are not creatures of the state but independent institutions, and long may they be so. We want them to do all sorts of things, and jump through hoops, but at the very heart of the quality of the higher education in our democracy is their independence.

Paul Holmes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: Not for the moment.

With independence comes the fact that we cannot—and thank goodness we cannot—tell the universities what to do on a daily or weekly basis. There are problems; I hear the arguments, which are well made.

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