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5 Nov 2008 : Column 124WH—continued

Its conclusions are backed up by a recent OECD report that revealed that the link in the UK between higher education participation and parents with a university qualification is one of the strongest in the developed world.

Rab Butler, a great Conservative, once said:

However, despite the fact that more than £2 billion a year has been spent on widening- participation programmes, the participation rate of working-class students has increased by just 1 per cent. since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the improvement rate is declining: in the nine years to 1995, participation by working-class students grew at a faster rate. Astonishingly, for some groups, admissions are in decline. We know that from the latest UCAS figures.

Why is that? I say to the Minister, who has inherited much of the problem rather than created it, that it is because the Government have focused completely wrongly on two things; the admissions process and aspiration. It is a kind of pushmi-pullyu policy. However, the pitiful progress in attracting working-class students into higher education is not the result of a biased university admissions system or simply the result of inadequate aspirations. Let us be clear: there is an assumption abroad that universities are institutionally biased against students from poorer backgrounds. That prejudice was memorably demonstrated in relation to the Laura Spence affair, which we heard about again today, but there is no prima facie evidence of snobbery of that type. If there were, that would be a shocking indictment of our university admissions system. But in truth, fewer young people
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from working-class backgrounds go to university because universities receive far fewer applications from them than from their middle-class contemporaries. Far from proving discrimination, the evidence, such as it is, suggests that applications are treated with admirable fairness.

In two years of access agreements, OFFA has not identified a single breach of those agreements. In 2006, a report for the Higher Education Funding Council based on extensive reviews of the available research found that, if anything, the university admissions system favours applications from working-class candidates. Even the Secretary of State acknowledged that when he said that

On the push side of the policy, the Government have focused on raising aspirations. They have put millions of pounds into the Aimhigher programme, but research suggests that Aimhigher is not effective at targeting the worst-off students. Media analysis of the campaign illustrates the fact that its message is best received not by socio-economic groups D and E, but by group A. Those conclusions were supported by a revealing Government study that found

Surely that forces us to conclude that that is not the right approach. Given that the Government are cutting the funding for Aimhigher, I guess that they are grudgingly coming to the same conclusion.

The worst of their misanalysis found form with the Government’s decision on ELQ—equivalent or lower qualifications. I acknowledge that that did not happen on this Minister’s watch, but it was a decision by the Government of whom he is a part. It is sad to say that under this Government there is no chance for second-chance education. I have referred to 20 per cent., but it is actually nearer one quarter of Open university students in England and Northern Ireland who are losing their funding under the ELQ cuts. The cuts mean that 20 per cent. of all part-time learners will become unfunded from this academic year. We cannot continue to draw deeply on a shrinking pool of the same kind of students to stimulate growth in higher education. We must broaden access, which is why the Conservatives have called for the ELQ cut to be reconsidered as part of the bigger funding review.

We must move away from the idea that we simply have to pull more young people on to traditional university courses. In place of the strategy that deepens access for the few, I want a strategy that genuinely broadens access for the many. To do that, we must tear down the institutional barriers that inhibit imaginative solutions and innovative modes of learning. That means recognising that increasing participation is not just about academic offers made to 18 to 30-year-olds; it is about mature learners and vocational learners, too.

We must revisit the traditional assumptions about the patterns of higher education study. The rhythms and structures of campus culture are often simply unsuited to the needs of the under-represented groups. The ingrained pattern of low participation in some neighbourhoods and among certain social groups requires solutions that are sympathetic to the lives of different learners. Full-time study is difficult for those in work or with families. The
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financial burden of living away from home is heavy for those from low-income groups. We must recognise that different lifestyles necessitate different learning experiences, such as part-time courses, community-based learning, modular study and distance learning. Through changed modes of learning, we can change the chances of thousands of potential students. We can and must build bridges between aspiration, higher education admissions and achievement.

The Dearing review some years ago concluded that much greater flexibility in higher education provision was needed to widen participation, yet the system has not become flexible since then. The number of young first-time entrants to higher education studying part time has remained stubbornly fixed at 6 per cent. for the whole of this decade and we still have problems with modular study. In Britain, if someone leaves a university course early, they are branded a drop-out. In many other countries—notably, America—they are thought to have gained a credit; they have done one, two or however many years of college.

The advice and guidance for young people on higher education opportunities is not adequate. We need to think more seriously about an all-ages careers service that is dedicated to giving the right type of advice and that is focused in towns and cities but also available in schools. As was said earlier, these decisions are usually made by young people. We also need to think about having more HE in FE. FE colleges tend to draw on their local communities, and their cohort is more broadly based. They should be able to offer more higher education courses, yet bureaucratic barriers prevent them from so doing.

In summary, we need to think seriously about these matters again. That means thinking more imaginatively about modes of study and access points to learning because all should have a chance of glittering prizes, regardless of where they begin.

3.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy) I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate, and once again bringing this important subject to the House. It has been a good debate. I recognise the contributions that were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and by the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes).

Widening participation in higher education is not to be confined to young people. It is highly relevant to the 6 million adults in the population that have level 3 qualifications, which approximates to A level, and level 4 qualifications. However, I shall concentrate this afternoon on young people.

I hope that the House will forgive me for not mentioning the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who I know was upset. I did not sleep because of the events of last night.

Getting young people from a more diverse range of backgrounds into university is something that should matter deeply to everyone. That is because higher education transforms ordinary people’s chances in life. The School
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of Oriental and African Studies transformed my life. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough had his life transformed by his experience at Bristol university.

I was the first in my family to go to university. Many other hon. Members could say the same. Experiences like ours have been replicated thousands of times in families across the country. When I leave the House shortly after this debate, I shall be going to Buckingham palace to be made a Privy Councillor. My mother would never have dreamed, given the cleaning and home-help jobs that she had to do to help her five children get a quality education, that such a thing could have happened. Nor could she have imagined that the networks that university opens up would have brought her son to a place where he could be friends with the next President of the United States of America.

Widening participation is about producing highly-skilled and well-rounded people. It is also about social mobility and social justice, but it is just as much about learning for learning’s sake and the tremendous opportunities that it brings to those who participate.

Mr. Hayes: I can understand the Minister’s excitement and pleasure on being made a Privy Councillor.

Our debate is also about money, is it not? The Government are in a real muddle over maintenance grants. Will the Minister take this opportunity—it matters to students from working-class backgrounds and others—to say how many new students in 2009-10 who would previously have been eligible for help will be worse off as a result of the change? Will it be 50,000, or 80,000? What will be the new taper rate for those maintenance grants?

Mr. Lammy: I shall come to that later.

It is clear that an overwhelming majority of the 500,000 university staff in this country support the great principle first laid down by Lord Robbins—that every young person with the ability and the desire to do so should have the chance to go to university. Admissions officers tell me that they are with us in wanting more gifted young people to apply for their institutions’ courses. They share our frustration that, for the want of the right intervention at the right time, too many still have their educational horizons closed before they leave school.

I acknowledge that universities have taken action over the years to improve the situation, but it has to be sustained. Fifty years ago, one in 20 young people went to university. When I went to university in 1990, it was roughly one in five. Today, it is about one in three. The House will know that the Government remain committed to raising that figure to one in two.

The social mix of students is richer than it once was. In 1997, four in every five young undergraduates came from state schools. By 2006, that had risen to nearly nine out of 10 of a much larger student population. Likewise, in 1997 only 11 per cent. came from low- participation neighbourhoods; by 2005, the figure was 13.5 per cent.

We know that well over half of young people from all social classes want to go to university. That is the
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highest that it has ever been, and the rate of increase in aspiration and ambition has been fastest among the lower socio-economic groups. Since 1997, the Government’s policies have given no fewer than 300,000 more people the chance to go to university. Yet in a sense we have only just made a start.

I shall not dwell on the obstacles that we face in achieving the fairness that we all seek. Hon. Members have mentioned many. Those obstacles have not changed much over the years, although our methods of addressing them have. They include low aspiration. I disagree with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings; I believe that aspiration is essential to this agenda. My experience in working-class estates in constituencies such as mine and in the northern constituencies of my colleagues tells me that aspiration, the change in work and context in those communities, are vital factors in explaining why such young people do not go to university.

Ultimately, the universities themselves are responsible for which students they admit. It is inevitable that much of the onus to expand opportunity should fall on them. Most have responded positively to the challenge, and the Government have supported them in that.

For example, we have extended the Aimhigher programme, which has already done much to encourage young people to see going to university as an option. The programme operates on the principle that showing youngsters one concrete example of the fact that people like them can aspire to go to university is worth a thousand words. That is why we introduced Aimhigher Associates, a scheme to allow 5,500 undergraduates to mentor 21,000 children from the age of 13. That is a significant number. The initiative will be supported by £21 million over the next three years. I believe that it has the capacity fundamentally to change lives.

Mr. Hayes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lammy: It is difficult to give way when less than two minutes remain. I know that we will return to the subject over the weeks and months ahead.

I could take the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough as an example. The university of Huddersfield’s Barnsley centre is directly opposite the further education college. The university authorities have not waited for the people of Barnsley to come to them; since 2005, they have brought a range of higher education opportunities to their doorstep.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the performance of the more selective universities. They, too, are now making progress. However, I acknowledge that to date it has been slower than the average for the whole sector. I am sure that members of the more selective universities will reflect on some of the statements made in the House this afternoon.

Notwithstanding the changes to student grants that we announced last week, I can tell the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that average household income is just under £40,000. That is why we guarantee that a grant will be available to those households, and that people will be supported. We have made a real improvement.

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Graveyards and Burial Grounds

4 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Good afternoon Mr. Cook. I shall start by quoting from “SAIFinsight”, the voice of independent funeral planners. Page 20 of today’s issue contains advice about how to give a good eulogy. My speech should be seen as a eulogy to the Minister, whose appropriate and detailed response will, I am confident, transform the situation regarding health and safety in burial grounds and graveyards across the country. I hope that she will do that to a time scale. Page 21 of the magazine notes its new publication, “A Not So Jolly Christmas”, and gives advice on how to cope with bereavement at Christmas. That provides an appropriate time scale for action—which I am sure the Minister has considered—in which to reach local authorities and other burial authorities. Hopefully, when families make a Christmas visit to the grave of their loved ones, they will not be confronted with the indignity that huge numbers of my constituents have faced in recent years.

I said huge numbers. There are 859 families in my constituency who have contacted me because their loved one’s grave has been staked by an over-zealous burial authority. Those 859 families are in one constituency. I have researched the subject and have discussed it at length on a number of occasions with the kind assistance of the Minister, her advisers, officials and the Health and Safety Executive. I have also taken the precaution of finding out about health and safety myself. I am the only trained topple-tester of memorials in Parliament and one of only a few in the country. Therefore, I can categorically say that of those 859 staked graves, the vast majority—upwards of 90 per cent. if not 95 per cent.—are not unsafe at all but are perfectly safe. Those that I have tested would demonstrate that.

What is going wrong? It is not the Health and Safety Executive. In 2007, a written answer stated:

The problem is that some local authorities and others have not been listening. Instead of thinking pragmatically and understanding health and safety and the concept of risk assessment, local authorities have brought in private contractors and paid them a sort of piece rate, creating a perverse incentive for the contractor to stake or lay down the gravestones, deeming them to be unsafe whether they are or not.

A fascinating comparator is the Church of England. That has as many burial grounds as local authorities but it gives responsibility for them to church wardens. Those people are volunteers—unpaid but highly professional. They are people about whom the words “common sense” and “appropriateness” immediately spring to mind in all their dealings and voluntary work. In my constituency and across the country, church wardens assess the risk of burial grounds by using common sense. Therefore, when I asked the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon.Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) a question in Parliament on 5 June 2007, he was able to say that there have been
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no complaints about the policy and approach of the Church of England for the last 20 years. None. That compares with 859 complaints in my constituency alone.

Church insurers say that the number of insurance claims they receive from the whole country—on any issue, not only successful claims—averages fewer than two per year. There is a small issue to address about health and safety, as there is throughout society, but it is not a big issue. As I researched the issue, I was amazed. I thought that only Bassetlaw council had decided, in its infinite madness, to stake all the gravestones. In fact, I found that it is happening all over the country—in Staffordshire, Sussex, from Herne bay to Whitley bay, Stoke, south London, Plymouth and in Blackburn with Darwen borough council. They once said that there were 4,000 holes in Blackburn—now it is more like 4,000 stakes.

Janet Anderson: (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue—he has done us all a great service. He is right. Darwen council, which covers part of my constituency, has not displayed common sense. One of my constituents told me that

That was in September 2007. Darwen council has now learned its lesson. It tells me that when it topple-tests further graves, it will use in-house people whom it has trained, and it will pay the costs of reinstatement. I thank my hon. Friend for forcing Blackburn and Darwen council to do that.

John Mann: I salute the wise burghers of Blackburn. I hope that my own council will take note of their prompt and wise action and will repeat it immediately following the debate. Let me quote from one of the people who go around staking the gravestones in my area, Mr. Jack Sills:

That is what is going on; the private contractor who profits from the staking is overstating the case. Of course there have been occasional deaths, but there were none between 2004 and 2008 since I started campaigning on this issue.

It gets worse. A statement from the Crewkerne and west Crewkerne joint burial committee reads:

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