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5 Nov 2008 : Column 117WH—continued

I want to deal with three detailed points. The Select Committee on Education and Skills considered the widening participation agenda, and we strongly criticised the outdated admissions and application process that was still used in Oxford and Cambridge. However, Cambridge has mended its ways and has now come into the main body of applications for university entrance.
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Let us welcome that good change. Oxford has not done so, and it should. The one thing, in my experience of going into schools, that puts off many of the kids in our schools from applying to Oxford and Cambridge is the different and very distinct application process. They are immediately regarded as a swot sitting in the corner with a special application because they are going to Oxford or Cambridge. Both Oxford and Cambridge should long ago have come into line. Cambridge has and we hope Oxford will.

Also, many of our highly competitive universities put great faith in the interview process. I believe that the interview process is severely lacking with respect to any scientific basis, the way in which interviewers are trained, or not trained, and the passionate faith that is placed in it. When the Select Committee visited the United States the leaders of many Ivy league universities said that they did not believe in interviews. Indeed, the president of Stanford university said that if they wanted more people like them, they would interview. They use five or six criteria to identify the latent talent in applicants. It is right that we want to identify talented young men and women in our country, and to do so correctly, but much of the interviewing process is still lacking. It is hard to persuade the universities that interview that that is not the best way.

We have seen a profound change in outreach programmes in universities, but they are not always led by universities, and I think all of us would agree on the record that the Sutton Trust was a trail-blazer under Sir Peter Lampl. It blazed a trail, and said that if we want kids to go to research-rich universities, which they are terrified to go to because they think they are posh and not for them, we must get them to a summer school. Let them see and experience the university, let them meet some of the students and staff and get through those barriers. It was not the universities that blazed that trail; it was the Sutton Trust.

When one goes round universities now, they often conveniently forget that it was an external stimulus that set them on that path. However, they are doing much better now, and sometimes the Sutton Trust can step back a bit because universities such as the London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge and York now hold summer schools, and are progressively introducing new ways of outreaching to schools. Some have done that by setting up partnerships with academies, which is a progressive measure. I have argued for that in the institution that we discussed earlier, but I have not won the argument yet.

Universities that have gone in for academy partnerships are doing the right thing, but that is not the only way. Many universities now have outreach programmes in schools. They send students and staff into schools, and use their alumni, as happens in the United States, to go into schools from which they do not get students.

The Select Committee went to a number of universities in the United States that have a map of the country, and if they know of a state or part of a state that is underperforming in the number of talented young people applying to that university, they send local alumni to find out why.

There have been some remarkable improvements over the past 10 years—let us not deny that—and not only in terms of the extra money that has gone to universities. I know that some of my Liberal Democrat friends object
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to variable fees, but we have seen enormous enhancement in the quality of higher education because we introduced those fees, most of which have gone into paying university staff better. If we do not have high-class tuition and research, we will not have the world-class universities that we need. We have them now, and the money has, by and large, come from variable fees, which I was in favour of then, and still am.

Paul Holmes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: No, I will not

I know that there was a hiccup with the payment of education maintenance allowances during the summer, because of the partnership with a private company, but they have had a good take-up, and analysis shows that they work and bring more young people from deprived backgrounds into higher education.

Let us not forget that the leaving learning age will rise to 17 and then 18. In our present economy, I would bring that forward by two years, and not wait. Raising the leaving learning age will be a remarkable opportunity to keep kids in education. It is good to have a go at research-rich universities and the Russell group, but if we do not keep kids in school until 18, they will never have a chance to apply to university. We always said in the Select Committee that all the evidence shows that if kids are kept in education from 16 to 18, they have the chance to go on. That is where my priority lies.

Let us not bash the Government for everything. During the past 10 years, resources, motivation and direction have been absolutely right. As with all Governments, they have not got everything right, but that would be perfection in any political system, even that of which Mr. Obama will shortly be President.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. Six minutes remain, and not a second more.

3.24 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I have worked out that I can speak for six minutes, and no longer. I have been following the maths and the time as the number of hon. Members waiting to speak has come down.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who speaks with great experience as a long-standing member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee with a personal interest in the matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on raising the subject in his clear and typical style. This is my first opportunity in a debate to welcome the Minister to his new role, and I do so. I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) arrived—we were briefly worried about him. It is noticeable that one in 30 Liberal Democrat Back Benchers, one in 90 Labour Back Benchers, and zero in however many Conservative Back Benchers, are here and participating.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said that he would like to congratulate the Government, and I thought that he was then going to say that he could not, given the facts and figures. There is something in that, because we have not reached the 50 per cent. target, and we are not heading fast towards 50 per cent. The Minister’s Department will allow expansion by only 10,000 places next year, compared with 20,000 the
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previous year, because of the £200 million black hole. Widening participation and increasing participation are separate agendas, and one hopes that with an increase there is more scope to widen, but that does not necessarily follow. On the widening participation agenda, it is not clear that there are reliable figures showing that the Government have succeeded or can point to universities succeeding. If the Minister gives figures, I shall ask him to source them carefully, whether the baseline was chosen prospectively or is the one that most fits with the latest figures showing an improvement, and what category of lower socio-economic groups he uses, because that seems to vary year by year according to the subject. Widening participation is not just about increasing participation, nor is it just about full-time school leavers. That must be acknowledged. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) talks about other issues, including part-time and mature students who are such an important part of that agenda, as we all recognise.

Given earlier comments, I want to point out that I do not seek to speak for Oxford university, which is one of the two universities in my constituency, and Oxford university does not speak for me. I know that the chancellor does not speak as a representative of the student view or indeed the academic view at Oxford. I disagree with his view on releasing the cap on tuition fees, and I am happy to put that on the record.

A key issue about access to research-rich universities is that more must be done by everyone to improve the situation. At the point of admission, universities can deal only with people who have applied.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I will give way in a moment.

A lot of work must be done to encourage students to apply, and having a reputation for being posh and being a place where some people may not fit in is not helpful, which is why universities must ensure that that is not their image. They should resist being stereotyped and caricatured unfairly as having that image—that happened in the debate—when we know that it is not so. The key question is, are the success rates for those who apply—that is the second stage—equal? My criticism of Oxford, if there is one, is that sometimes the success rates have not been equal and there has been a higher success rate—generally on the same grades, because straight As are required for anyone thinking of applying—in some years for non-state school students, and that is unacceptable.

I agree that it is wrong that someone from an inner- city comprehensive with an A and two Bs is not seen as having the same level of potential as someone with three As from Eton. There are data to show, as has been cited, that that is so. It is not right that universities that are brave enough to accept that are attacked—Bristol was unfairly attacked—for doing the right thing. It is not a case of positive discrimination; it is ending unfair negative discrimination. Regardless of the independence of universities, the Government should insist that all universities within the scope of the evidence base, which is clear, should insist that the best, bright pupils from state schools, even when their qualifications are not as high as those from independent or grammar schools, should be able to apply and to be considered. The St. George’s evidence is very strong.

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I do not have time to say more, except that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) about the deterrent of the student finance arrangements that the Government have introduced.

3.30 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on initiating the debate. He and I spent about two and a half years on the same Select Committee and I know he is passionately committed to social mobility and to ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to access higher education. Indeed, he and I have similar backgrounds; we are both alumni of Bristol university and come from under-represented white working class families, as he put it. I even had free school meals when I was at school, and it will perhaps not surprise my colleagues to know that an early indication of my capitalist leanings was that I used to sell my dinner tickets to the highest bidder.

In his introductory comments, the hon. Gentleman said that dealing with this issue will take a generational change in social attitudes in some communities. Indeed, in or near our constituencies, all of us no doubt know of some schools that send 100 per cent. of their 18-year-olds to higher education and some schools that year after year send nobody at all. My constituency has one of the highest participation rates in higher education in the country. However, south of the river, Bristol, South—alongside Nottingham, North and Sheffield, Brightside—is one of the three lowest parliamentary seats in the country in terms of levels of participation in higher education.

We are trying to combat generations of under-achievement, poverty of aspiration and other challenging social indicators. Widening participation is a major issue that is largely linked to educational attainment and the potential of someone’s background. The hon. Gentleman has focused on fair access, which is a subset of widening participation; it relates to a small but none the less incredibly significant group of people. We are largely concerned with people who have achieved at school, but who for some reason do not reach the university destination that either reflects the level of their achievement at school or their potential.

The hon. Gentleman focused largely on the Russell Group list of research-intensive universities. In my role, I have several times met the admissions directors of Oxford, Cambridge, my own university of Bristol and some of the other universities in the Russell Group. I know that, as individuals—whether they are the manager or pro-vice chancellor responsible for admissions—they are all committed to ensuring that this problem is addressed with due seriousness. Several examples of good practice already exist in some of these universities—for example, Oxford university has a programme of engagement with teachers in state schools and visits high-performing state schools. That is a good thing to do, but, of course, visiting high-performing state schools that turn out a lot of children who do well at A-level leaves out states schools in which there are perhaps only one or two achievers. They are perhaps the people who are most missing out on fair access.

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David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extremely sad that when schools and universities try to identify latent talent in non-traditional geographical areas and press for admission procedures to be revisited, newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, hyperventilate about social engineering and dumbing down? That contributes nothing to the debate.

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he is exactly right. The vice-chancellor of Bristol university has a fat file full of criticisms from The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the head teachers of several leading private schools. Such criticisms are made every time the university tries to do something in relation to unfair admissions, even though such actions do not in any way dilute the entry standards, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. None the less, attempts to deal with the issue of social context and the potential of applicants opens up the university to unfair criticism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said.

Bristol university does a lot to attract children from a wide social pool to go to university—for example, ChemLabS is a programme that not only encourages young people to take an interest in science, but to go to Bristol university, although many of the people who take part in that programme actually apply to other universities. The programme is a success in its own right, but that does not necessarily mean that Bristol gets the full credit for it. Leeds university has a similar aspiration and now has an inter-disciplinary science foundation year to ensure that children who perhaps have not got the right mix of A-levels to do a science course at a Russell Group university are given a grounding in science and maths.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I join my hon. Friend in commending Leeds university’s science access programme, which is proving successful. Equally, on the other side of the coin, as it is one of the Russell Group of universities, earlier this year, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute estimated that fees could rise to up to £7,000 a year. Does he agree that it is absurd to suggest that that will not have an effect on widening participation and encouraging people from less well-off backgrounds?

Stephen Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to the issue of the fee cap, but I certainly agree with his point. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned that in relation to many Russell Group universities, we must essentially deal with the problem of comparing people who do not apply in the first place with those who do apply and often have three As. It is hard for the universities to discriminate between such applicants. Incidentally, the introduction of the A* grade is likely to make that problem even worse for admissions tutors.

Perhaps the Minister could respond to this specific point. On the issues surrounding the applications procedures, to which the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred, when Professor Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel university he produced a report that recommended we should shift to a system of post-qualification applications, so that the A-level or diploma results of young people are known. We would then
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know exactly who has good qualifications and would be able to match those people up with the research-intensive universities. What progress do the Government expect to make in switching from our existing examinations timetable to a system of post-qualification applications? Considering when that timetable was devised, it is now out of date.

The advice that young people receive early in their school career is essential. We must ensure that the independent advice that young people receive in schools is aspirational and that it challenges their stereotypical feelings or their parents’ feelings about the backgrounds from which they come. We must ensure they receive accurate advice about the subject choices they need to make, so they do not have the bitterly disappointing discovery at age 17 that the choices they have made do not enable them to apply to some of the top universities in the country.

Many issues are outside the immediate control of the universities and need to be addressed by policy makers. Debt alleviation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), is certainly something that will concern many students from poor backgrounds. That is particularly the case for those who wish to take courses that are perceived to be expensive or that might take a long time to complete—for example, medicine. In its 2007 student survey, the British Medical Association said that graduates in medicine currently leave the system with at least £20,000 of debt. If the fee cap that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) mentioned is lifted in the future, which is an expectation widely held in the sector, medicine is likely to become an incredibly expensive degree. That means the social profile of those studying medicine will become even more skewed. There should be a level playing field for students who study in different modes—particularly for those who choose to study part-time, in relation to which the current funding system is prejudicial.

Why is this issue so important? I was curious to note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough did not stress that not having fair access creates a barrier to social mobility in this country. Depending on which study one reads, we are either the worst or the second worst socially mobile country in the OECD.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the Sutton Trust several times. Sutton Trust reports, which I read with avid interest as well, have shown that 81 per cent. of the judiciary went to Oxford or Cambridge. Most of the leading members of the British media went to Oxford or Cambridge. Most heads of charities and, indeed, a significant proportion of parliamentarians—our colleagues—went to Oxford or Cambridge. The Sutton Trust produced a report in September 2006 on the educational background of the House of Commons. It found that 28 per cent. of MPs went to Oxford and 34 per cent. went to an independent school; 59 per cent. of the Conservatives went to an independent school. I heard today the Leader of the Opposition trying to associate himself with change and with a young person who has just been elected in the western world. If he thinks that an example of change is yet another old Etonian being elected to govern this country, he does not understand the meaning of change or social mobility.

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3.40 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) by reminding him that I was the first in my family ever to go to university, that I went to a state school and that I do not enjoy the privileged background that he claims is commonly enjoyed by Conservatives.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he shares my passionate support for the principles outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who obtained this Adjournment debate and has usefully brought these matters to the attention of the Chamber.

Participation in higher education has a vital role to play in expanding opportunity and building a socially mobile, cohesive and just society. I know that the Minister shares those ambitions, but the uncomfortable truth is that rather than increasing opportunity across society, the expansion in university education in the past 30 years has served to cement social division. Opportunity for some has not meant opportunity for all, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made clear. In 2005, the Sutton Trust found that people born in 1970 were less likely to have moved between social classes than those born in the year of my birth, 1958—it is hard to believe that I am 50, but I am. Behind that change has been a rise in educational inequality. Young people from the poorest income groups increased their graduation rate by just 3 per cent. between 1981 and the late 1990s. That compares with the rise of 26 per cent. for those from the richest 20 per cent. of families.

This week, a Cabinet Office report stated:

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