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House of Lords

Wednesday, 29th January 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

University Admissions Policy

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What guidance is given to universities on the criteria to be applied in selecting candidates for admission.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, universities are responsible for their own admissions policies. We believe that admission should be on the basis of merit. Universities are already exploring different ways in which to select students who will succeed on a course. We have asked the Higher Education Funding Council, with other higher education organisations, to look at how best practice might be translated into a flexible framework to help to ensure fairness and consistency.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that someone whose son was recently rejected by a Cambridge college was told that the Education Secretary was advising the university that it should favour not only candidates who went to schools with poor academic records but also those whose parents are badly off and uneducated? Can the Minister say whether that reflects Her Majesty's Government's policy?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State does not give advice to individual universities. It is for universities to determine their own admissions policies. In the White Paper, we have put forward proposals to look at the benchmarking exercise run by HEFCE which enables universities to examine how they recruit students of high merit from different backgrounds. I refer the noble Lord to that report.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister said that the Secretary of State did not give directions to individual universities. But the Question concerned whether a general direction had been given.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State does not give general direction. As noble Lords are aware, in the White Paper we looked at how benchmarking is carried out with HEFCE. We also considered the separate issue of introducing a regulator for universities which choose to increase their fees.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, given that at present universities select according to A-level grades, can the

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Minister tell the House what information her department has and how far that is a predictor for success in courses at university?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, some interesting research is currently taking place. Noble Lords may be aware of comments by Mike Tomlinson over the past couple of days about the use of e-portfolios. There is no question but that we want to ensure that students who arrive at university obtain the greatest benefit from that education. We recognise the fundamental importance of A-level grades within that. However, as HEFCE has done, we have also been examining research which demonstrates how university applicants who do not have the highest grades have proved themselves, within the context of their education, to be extremely good candidates. Although it is in its early stages, there is some evidence that those students can do better at university. I believe that for some time a number of universities have been trying to ensure that they follow good practice in finding the best candidates who will prove to be the best graduates. I believe that we can support that.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that British universities have not only been looking at A-levels as markers but at the baccalaureate as well?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I said, universities look at a range of different ways of assessing the best possible students. I do not have information on which universities may be considering the baccalaureate, although I suspect that some will do so.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, how are young students to make sense of the answer that the Minister gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock? How are they to understand what, other than their A-level grades, is to be taken into account? What can young people be advised to do in order to access university? Why should background matter at all when, as the noble Baroness said in her first Answer, access should be on merit?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am sure that we shall debate these issues at greater length than we can do within the Question. I am clear that the Government believe that students should be admitted to university on the basis of merit and that those who access such education should do the best that they can and be the best graduates. Over the years, universities have been concerned that applications should come from young people who are able to access that education; in other words, they want schools to work closely with them so that students apply to the best universities. They also want schools to ensure that young people realise that a university education is for them.

It is crucial that students are accepted on merit. Sixty-eight per cent of students who arrive at university with three grade As at A-level are from the

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state sector. Some universities will take perhaps 50 per cent of those; others will take a higher figure. Universities ask whether that is because some students do not apply to those universities or whether it is for other reasons. All universities want to ensure that they get the best students that they can.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that many of our state schools could do more to raise the aspirations of their best students? Does she also agree that one problem that older universities, in particular, have is that a dearth of applicants come forward for the places? I do not know whether my noble friend saw the article in a popular newspaper last week written by Sir Colin Lucas, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. He described the process that Oxford has gone through in trying to attract fresh applicants. As a result of that, the number of students from state schools has increased by 30 per cent over the past three years. Is that not the way that we should be going?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the work carried out by Sir Colin Lucas is important, as was his article. As I have said before, the 14 to 19 strategy is important. If schools do not assist their young people to aspire to go to university, those young people will find it much more difficult to recognise the value and importance of a university education, especially if they do not have the role model of relatives or friends who have attended university. Universities can play a fundamental part in working with such schools. I pay tribute to Oxford University for the work that it does.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, can the Minister say precisely how the access regulator will go about his or her business in monitoring the admissions process in relation to all kinds of background data?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, consultation will take place in regard to the access regulator. In the coming months my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will issue a consultation paper that will enable debate to take place on the access regulator. When a university wishes to increase its fees, the access regulator will look at the admissions procedures of the university, at the best practice that exists, at what the university does to provide bursaries and other support and at the support that it provides to schools across the country to help them to prepare students for university life. We should recognise the value of that to students.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the social despair among those who were the first from their families to go to university, who enjoyed and benefited from the experience and who now fear that their children will be deprived of such a chance simply on the grounds that their parents benefited from a university education? That seems to them, and to me, to be a curious way of selecting candidates.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there is nothing in our proposals that says that we would wish

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to see a good candidate for university fail to get in. This issue is not about social engineering in any way, shape or form, despite what the media may say. I am sure that noble Lords who have carefully considered our report will recognise that. We shall debate it at length. In this country we have good candidates who do not go to university. We want a well-educated society in which everyone who is capable of enjoying a university education benefits from it.

Statutory Instruments: Select Committee

2.45 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale asked the Leader of the House :

    What progress is being made on the establishment of a Select Committee of the House to report on the policy considerations of statutory instruments.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Liaison Committee is responsible for considering proposals for new committees and for making recommendations to the House. When approving the fifth report of the Procedure Committee the House invited the Liaison Committee to give the idea of a new committee "early and sympathetic consideration". I understand that the Liaison Committee is due to meet on the 17th February to consider that proposal.

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