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Oxford And Cambridge College Fees

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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11 am

A story runs that only in Oxford would one hear a snatched conversation between two people walking down the street, in which one is saying to the other, "And ninthly." The House will be pleased to know that, although I have a number of points to make, I shall not tax its patience or my numeracy by matching that caricature.

I should begin by making clear what I shall not be speaking about. I shall not be claiming that Oxford and Cambridge are the only two excellent universities. Indeed, I would mention that, in many of our leading universities, departments across a range of subjects rival and even exceed the quality found in Oxford and Cambridge. I hope that Members will not spend time this morning arguing that point, which I think has already been conceded.

This debate allows discussion on how we can improve access to excellence in teaching and research. It does not concern privilege or elitism in any sense other than we would wish to help to produce an academic elite just as we would artistic, cultural and sporting innovators and leaders. There is no reason why the term "elite" should be one of abuse, providing that there are opportunities for all members of society with the right gifts and talents to access the means by which they may excel.

Will the hon. Gentleman spell out to the Government the limited range of practical steps for many colleges if the fee that the Government pay is abolished or substantially reduced and if they are not allowed to resume the charging of private fees? As he will point out, such options are stark. Colleges could close, they could scale down their activities to the level that their endowment and university-derived income provides, or they could substantially increase the number of full fee-paying overseas students. Does he agree that the Government would be well advised to cut out egalitarian dogma and focus on practical implications?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Although I shall not necessarily imply that I believe that that is what the Government are doing, I shall turn to some of the options for universities if they are faced with a cut in income of any kind, specifically the potential cut in college-fee income. Access is at the heart of the debate, and I shall return to it later.

The current review is being conducted because the Dearing report said that any funding differentials between different educational establishments should be reviewed with a view to maintaining higher levels of investment only if there is an improved difference in provision and if the state, through the Department for Education and Employment, decides that it is a good use of resources. The review is therefore welcome because it is an opportunity for Oxford and Cambridge universities to justify their additional funding.

It is right, as Lord Plant said last week in another place, that any differential funding by the state be the subject of proper scrutiny. It must be publicly justified and periodically reviewed. The review provides an opportunity to show value for money and to re-energise universities' efforts to expand access.

We must remember that the Government and parliamentarians share an interest in ensuring that nothing said here will deter state-school applicants of appropriate merit from applying to Oxford and Cambridge universities. There is a great problem with image; it is an outdated one which portrays them as caricatures and as stereotypes in the media. We must ensure that any comments that we make today can be used by people who wish to see the excellence offered at Oxford and Cambridge and other universities open to state-school applicants.

Today's debate, and the review which prompted my request for House of Commons' time to discuss it, provides a valuable opportunity to debunk the Oxbridge myths. I was educated in a Liverpool state school and trained in medicine at Oxford university so that I could go on to a career in public service—the health service initially. I am therefore anxious to eliminate the myth of Brideshead-style privilege. Broadening access and encouraging the most able from all backgrounds to apply and undergo the, albeit rigorous, selection procedures is a job for the two universities, in co-operation with the Government.

Some people will always be attracted to Oxbridge for what we might call the wrong reasons, but I am concerned with the substance rather than the fluff of what it produces. We must deprecate the fact that the press do not publish pictures of people in formal academic dress at other universities which have the same or similar ceremonies to those at Oxford and Cambridge and approximately the same number of annual occasions. I want to move away from the associated image of gilded youth and dreaming spires.

The Government are right to be taking advice and seeking information from various sources, including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which has been asked to give a view. We should, however, remember that the funding council has a relatively narrow remit to look only at funding issues, and then only within its terms of operation, which is generally to even out funding. The Government must not allow any reduction in funding to be implemented without proper consideration of Oxbridge's place and role in what the Prime Minister likes to call "the big picture".

Our secondary education system is severely damaged. The state sector achieves relatively poor results compared with private and grammar schools. People have made great play of the apparent wider access to universities in former days, but that was of course before the huge expansion in private secondary school education over past decades, when grammar schools moved into the private sector.

We have also seen a huge expansion in the number of assisted places. The figures that Oxbridge collects—the only universities to publish them—will include people who, in the 1960s, would have attended state grammar schools and who come from all backgrounds, especially lower socio-economic groups. We must remember that, until recently, such people did not progress through assisted places.

Problems with access—the ratio of state to privately educated students at Oxford and Cambridge is approximately 50:50—together with the British tendency to associate the word "elite" with class privilege, has skewed our perceptions of excellence in higher education. The French have no problem with the concept of an elite, and pour far more money than we do into students who attend the top higher education institutions—the grandes ecoles. Since the French have a totally egalitarian state secondary school system that works, their elite is meritocratic. We need to move more quickly toward that ideal, as I am sure the Government would agree, by broadening access to the best institutions and not by homogenising or levelling down.

The Government have spoken of their commitment to excellence in, for example, their intention to create centres of excellence and special training facilities for tomorrow's sporting heroes. I hope that they can work with Oxford and Cambridge to ensure that those two training grounds for exceptional academic ability continue to lead the world and draw on all British talents.

Oxford and Cambridge are world-class institutions, in the top 10 on any measure of merit, and unique in Europe for being able to compete with and match the standards of the great American universities in both teaching and research across a broad subject range. Alone in Europe, Oxford and Cambridge can compete with Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Chicago and California. Penicillin was discovered in an Oxford laboratory and DNA in a Cambridge physics department. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is present, and look forward to her contribution to the debate.

Through their work, the universities indirectly contribute to the standing of this country in arts and science, and of course to the work of other universities in cross-fertilisation of ideas and personnel. Of the university professors listed in "Who's Who", a majority have been through Oxford or Cambridge—especially for an early part of their research career.

The extra college fee income must be seen to be used to maintain quality, not for other purposes. That extra fee income is used by Oxford and Cambridge to provide a unique teaching system and extensive research capabilities, all in the context of a collegiate structure.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extra resources would be more acceptable if the price extracted for them was wider availability for ordinary bright children to go to Oxford and Cambridge?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which I shall deal with later. It is at the nub of the argument. The fee will not be perceived as value for money unless it is used to provide wider access to Oxford and Cambridge for all socio-economic groups than applies at present. The funding is used to deliver excellence and quality in the collegiate system. I do not claim that one-to-one tutorials are the norm or the only way of teaching, but the collegiate structure and the community of learning make those places different and contribute to the excellence that is provided.

Dearing specified that there should be diversity in Britain's higher education. Oxbridge offers unique features that must not be sacrificed on the altar of a fallacious definition of equality. The Dearing report says:
"We do not believe that students in the future will see themselves simply as customers of higher education but as members of a learning community."
Oxbridge has cross-subject communities. That experience should be held up as an ideal. Those who sit on the Labour Benches in another place have said that, from teaching in other universities and consulting universities abroad, they have found that Oxford and Cambridge are a model on which many institutions abroad base their teaching methods.

College-based university life provides unique opportunities to interface between disciplines, which leads to unusual and exceptional achievements. The discovery of DNA was a biology problem solved in the physics department at Cambridge. If Britain loses a precious asset such as Cambridge science—there is great fear and danger that, should the fee be reduced—Microsoft's recent valuable inward investment package may not be repeated. Indeed, the standing of British universities may never recover.

It is not strictly correct to say that the argument is about undergraduate teaching alone. Lord Plant, from the Labour Benches in another place, has said that research in Oxford and Cambridge is embedded in a collegiate structure which is bound to be more expensive and will not survive if college fees disappear. Colleges fund research fellowships, junior research fellowships, graduate studentships and graduate scholarships from their income.

The college system is not the only way to achieve that or a template that all must follow, but where it exists there are additional benefits that compensate for additional costs. The Oxford and Cambridge college system is a fact of life that cannot be uninvented, even if it is a model that other universities would prefer not to, or could not afford to, follow.

The £35 million that goes to Oxbridge in college fees gives good value for money, helping to maintain those pre-eminent institutions and their teaching and research strengths. The money does not come from the HEFCE pool, so it is not taken directly from other universities. It is a separate item in the budget of the Department for Education and Employment, used to compensate local education authorities for paying the fees that students used to pay. The HEFCE general budget gets a clawback.

There is a danger that, if the fee were reduced, the Government would not automatically allocate the money to other universities without taking a decision to do so. While I join the Government in lamenting the drop in unit resource in universities over the years and I recognise that there is chronic underfunding in the higher education system, I do not think that they would argue that such a simplistic measure would solve all the problems facing higher education.

It is sad that so much is said about funding that is deleterious, looking at what some colleges have and saying that they should not have it simply because other universities do not. Some have said in another place that it would be no bad thing if Oxford and Cambridge colleges were to close. Such comments are unwelcome in this debate.

Academic salaries in Oxford are as low as those anywhere else in the sector. Without the senior lecturer grade that exists in other universities, many age equivalents are less well remunerated. It is sad that hon. Members may have to be reminded that college members pay from their salary for any wine that is supposedly consumed in large quantities in the colleges. I hope that we shall hear no more such nonsense and stereotypes.

There is no pot of gold on which colleges can draw to keep afloat. They cannot compensate for the withdrawal of college fees by selling their assets, as recent press coverage has suggested. Some colleges have valuable assets, but every penny earned from those assets, endowments and funds is spent on teaching research and the upkeep of libraries, laboratories and college buildings, often of great heritage value.

Christ Church in Oxford is not poor, but it funds, among other things, 16 junior research fellowships and looks after the 12th-century cathedral for the city and the nation with part of its income. The Cambridge equivalent is the King's college chapel.

Those who suggest that such colleges should sell what they have fail to distinguish between capital and revenue. By the standards of American universities, which have far larger endowments, Oxbridge is positively reckless in taking earnings of 4.6 per cent. from its investments and assets to complement the funding that it receives from the public purse. What is more, the decision in the July Budget to abolish tax relief from dividends will reduce income by about 10 per cent. I make no comment about the appropriateness of that decision.

If assets are sold, there will not be the income to match—indeed, more than match—the public subsidy. The situation is a superb example of a public-private partnership. The colleges, which are private institutions, more than match, for the same purposes, the funding provided by the state in the college fee.

In arguing for the preservation of the elitism of Oxbridge, I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that we should improve access by developing an egalitarian state school system. Is he advocating the abolition of the public school system?

I am asking that we improve standards in the state sector—a policy that I believe the Government to be committed to. We have supported moving the subsidy previously used for assisted places to the state sector. That will allow higher quality from the state sector. The current lack of applications from good state sector candidates, for reasons that I have already mentioned, is the biggest problem in our attempts to ensure a better ratio of state to private and overseas students.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the crux of the issue? Unless targets for admissions from the state sector are set for Oxford and Cambridge, it is unlikely that anything will change. Does he agree that part of the package to justify the extra £35 million must be positive steps on that and agreed targets to redress the balance?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the universities welcome the Government's initiative in seeking the review. Many proposals have been put forward to expand further the work done on access from the state sector to those two universities.

That is all well and good, but will the hon. Gentleman remind the House that a substantial proportion of A-levels go to pupils from independent schools? As long as Oxford and Cambridge are seeking to attract the brightest and ablest students, which must be part of their mission, it is inevitable that they will choose from the pool of people with A-levels. Regrettably, the performance of the state sector is such that a high proportion of A-levels go to children from independent schools.

I am afraid that I must disagree. There are clever people in all sectors of education, but we do not get a sufficient number of applications from the state sector. A-level results are not necessarily the best way of judging whether people are bright.

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that Oxbridge merely accepts the students who are best prepared, not necessarily the brightest students; and that that is why so many of them are from the public school sector?

Yes, but recent changes in Oxbridge admission procedures have attempted to tackle that. Certainly Oxford—and I think Cambridge too—interviews far more people for each place than does any other university, so as to ensure that what appears on paper, perhaps reflecting good preparation, does not disguise people's ability or rule out those with great potential from the state sector. Often ability will emerge better in an interview—but more remains to be done.

Removing college fees will inevitably damage access, either because colleges will have to reintroduce charges to the student that are no longer made up for by LEAs, or because colleges will have to put up room and board costs, or because they will have to admit a greater number of paying—and hence wealthier—overseas students. The universities do not want to start charging students fees which the Government currently pay, but that is the next alternative open to them as independent institutions.

If the Government want to prevent the Oxbridge colleges from taking this step under the duress of the removal of the fee money by the DFEE, that will involve complex and time-consuming hybrid legislation. As the Bishop of Oxford said in another place, it would be sad if, as a result of Government legislation, Oxford and Cambridge became a club for the relatively well-off, with all that that would imply for future jobs and careers and the accentuation of a worse kind of elitism.

Of course Oxbridge has always charged college fees. Until 1962, scholarship students there had their fees paid by the state, but all others paid the extra money. But then legislation passed on the costs to the LEAs for all UK undergraduates. The LEAs were then able to recoup the costs from the Treasury. If the Government remove funding for the college fee system, the colleges will have to find students who can afford to pay the fees themselves, and that in turn will further damage access. Indeed, the effect would be the very opposite of what the proposal is intended to achieve.

Does my hon. Friend share my great concern that, if the Government persist with their wrong-headed decision to introduce tuition fees, not only will such fees increase across the board in time but differentials will open up between various places of learning? In the end, Oxbridge and the medical and veterinary colleges will be completely out of reach of ordinary people and will turn into truly elite institutions—

Order. May I remind the House yet again that this is a very short debate? A number of those who have intervened are also, I believe, seeking to catch my eye later; they should hear in mind that their interventions take time away from their own speeches.

There is certainly great concern that up-front fees—or up-front debts—may deter people from higher education and from taking less well remunerated jobs in the public sector. The Government are grappling with such difficulties, but I will not dwell on the subject today. Suffice it to say that we all deprecate additional up-front fees, even with means testing administered by colleges, as the worst of all worlds.

Critics of Oxbridge call for modernisation. There is a great deal of room for improvement in the crucial area of access; but people must realise that removing the college fee would achieve the opposite of what they want. If colleges cannot charge their students for the fee, the first ones to go bankrupt or to go private will be the newer, poorer colleges, many of which are women's colleges—the only remaining state women's colleges in Britain. Surely the continuation of such arrangements would be in line with the spirit of Dearing, which requires the fostering of diversity.

The women's colleges and the more recently founded colleges do not possess land or inherited wealth, and have far smaller endowments and fewer assets. A good example would be Somerville college in Oxford, where the college fee money provides one third of the college's total income. It is spent entirely on academic stipends.

Removing some or all of the fee will have serious consequences for jobs and the local economies of both cities, with redundancies and associated costs in academic, administration and ancillary posts. Such action would contribute to the brain drain. Talented British academics would leave for postings overseas, especially in the USA. The loss of the fee would also undermine the general economic health of the two cities. Oxford University employs 10,500 people, of whom 3,000 are college non-academic staff. That is to say nothing of those employed by the companies and institutions that flock to these cities to be close to the universities.

Colleges maintain their historic buildings and collections without heritage grants. The Bodleian library has just had its application for a restoration project rejected by those who make the decisions on lottery awards. This investment by the universities in heritage feeds into the lucrative year-round tourist trade, which also generates jobs. In this sense Oxford and Cambridge are industrial cities whose main industry is education, based in and around the universities. Damaging those universities would threaten the economic well-being of a large part of the population.

The Liberal Democrats will support Government moves to provide high-quality mass education and to support our existing centres of excellence, with open admission procedures based on merit and talent. I hope that some of my arguments this morning, especially those about the need to improve broad access, have demonstrated the place held by Oxford and Cambridge in this vision. I further hope that Members who enjoyed and benefited from an Oxbridge education after leaving state schools, as I did, will not adopt a drawbridge mentality. We must be keen to maximise opportunity for those who come after us; we must retain the college fee coupled with a requirement to improve access and to show value for money.

I close with a statement by Lord Winston, who said that he joined the Labour party because he believed in a fair society, but, he said, a fair society does not mean that people are equal in every respect. We are talking about truly outstanding institutions which are models of university education not merely in this country but throughout the world. Academic institutions throughout Britain are extremely fragile. We might damage something which in turn could damage our national economy.

These universities are brand leaders in British higher education. If they fall, the reputation of British higher education will be damaged. I hope that the Minister's response today will be as constructive as the spirit in which I have attempted to deal with these difficult issues.

11.26 am

I thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for raising this issue and congratulate him on gaining the time in which to do so.

I am proud to represent a university that has contributed so much success to academic endeavour and excellence. Most of us are proud to live in a country that can still achieve world firsts—a country renowned for its contributions to science and technology as well as the arts and humanities. We should celebrate our nation's success: it increases our self-confidence and self-esteem, and it leads us to greater achievements in the future.

One thinks of some of the people who studied at Cambridge—Isaac Newton, Watson and Crick, Rutherford and J. J. Thompson. They all achieved their remarkable success at Cambridge university. Cambridge has also shaped the arts and humanities by giving us people such as F. R. Leavis, Rupert Brooke, Ted Hughes, Maynard Keynes, Wittgenstein, Joan Robinson and Ian McKellen.

The briefing prepared by Cambridge for Members of Parliament stated that Cambridge had won 68 Nobel prizes, but since that briefing was prepared Cambridge has won another one for molecular biology. That is surely a record to be proud of.

Oxbridge's contribution to our economy is difficult to assess, although needless to say it is pervasive. Among its better known graduates are the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, many Members of Parliament, including me, captains of industry, senior civil servants, professional people, actors, journalists and many others—all of them sport a Cambridge or Oxford MA after their names.

The contribution to the local economy is much easier to measure. About 30,000 people are employed in 1,000 technology-based firms in and around Cambridge, in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). Most of those companies say that the university is one of the main reasons for locating in the area or that it is the basis for their existence.

A wide range of expertise is represented, from telecommunications, in firms such as lonica and Cambridge Cable; biotechnology, in firms such as Amgen, Cantab Pharmaceuticals and Peptide Therapeutics; information services, in firms such as Analysis and UUnet; computer hardware and software, in firms such as Olivetti and Xemplar, and now Microsoft, and industrial consultancy, in firms such as Cambridge Consultants and Scientific Generics. Those firms are known not just nationally but internationally as excellent in their fields.

Those companies also generate huge revenues for the Exchequer. One argument that I have heard made is that the college fee should be increased because the payback on the investment is so enormous that it justifies the initial investment. I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that we should do nothing that will damage the excellence of those institutions and the national benefits which accrue from them.

That is not to argue for the status quo. It is right that Oxbridge colleges should account for the ways in which their public subsidies are spent and justify them. When every other item of expenditure is being closely examined, it would be wrong to regard Oxbridge as untouchable. Few would argue that the system could not be more efficient or effective. We have a new Government who value achievement and who set out a clear agenda for higher education in their pre-election document, "Lifelong Learning". Equal access to higher education is an important principle, on which the Labour party fought the election and which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the population.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that at the moment the system is not egalitarian. More than half the students at Oxbridge are recruited from the independent sector, which represents only 9 per cent. of the school population. For those who wish to preserve the excellence which is Oxbridge, that makes the college fee hard to defend. It means that the subsidy goes to those who have been best prepared rather than those who are the brightest and have the most ability. Although many state schools prepare students well for higher education, after 18 years of Tory mismanagement of our education system, many do not.

Do not Oxford and Cambridge go to a great deal of trouble in their interview process to discover not just the academic qualifications of individual candidates, but their inherent intelligence? Do they not bend over backwards in that endeavour?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is implying that, because the admission of students from the independent sector is more than 50 per cent. at Oxford and Cambridge, it means that students who go to the state sector are less intelligent than those who go to the independent sector, but that argument does not hold up. Oxbridge cannot make up for the defects of our state school system, but it can suit well those bright students who have underdeveloped potential. Some colleges in Cambridge have led the way—Churchill, Fitzwilliam and King's, which now admit 75 per cent. of their intake from the state sector. Those are examples which can be copied and from which we can learn.

I want to quote the example of one of my constituents who went to Cambridge from a less than privileged background. He described to me how he had been admitted to Fitzwilliam college with qualifications gained through part-time study at a technical college some 30 years ago. That was obviously an enlightened admissions tutor. He had qualifications well below the average standard of undergraduate entry. Through the efforts of his college supervisor, he quickly made up lost ground and went on to play a major role in the development of the scanning electron microscope.

Such instruments are now to be found in research laboratories throughout the world and have helped to create hundreds of thousands of jobs at Leo Electron Optics, formerly Leica, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In addition, he started a small science park company. That shows that there has been a worthwhile return on the investment in his education, which has created so many jobs and has been of so much value to the country.

It has been said that Oxford and Cambridge do try to admit students from the state sector, but they should try harder. I was pleased to see Cambridge university's recent statement on the steps that it is taking to do just that. The recently announced target of 65 per cent. of students from the state sector is not just empty rhetoric. The proposals include a high-powered task force and a public relations campaign to encourage more clever students in state schools to consider applying; the group to encourage ethnic minority applicants will also continue, and the internal admissions procedure will be simplified and sharpened.

While I am on the subject, I want to say a little more about the excellent initiative—the target schools scheme—which I think operates in Oxford and Cambridge. It is run in Cambridge by the Cambridge university students' union. The reason I am so knowledgeable about it is that one of the people who ran the scheme, Alex King, is my researcher in the House this year. He and a number of other people organised the scheme successfully in Cambridge. Each school with a sixth form and each sixth-form college receives a 16-page prospectus aimed at state schools, and the offer of a visit from a student to encourage others to apply.

I was alarmed that last year the student union had to dip into its own resources to find £350 for a computer disk with updated information on the names of schools, head teachers and so on. I should be glad if my hon. Friend the Minister would investigate whether such information could be provided free in future by the Department for Education and Employment. It is a worthwhile cause, and students should not have to dip into their own pockets to pay for it.

I understand that there are plans to strengthen the target schools scheme and I heartily applaud those efforts. We should heartily approve of students who are prepared to give up their own time and resources in order to participate.

I am interested in many of the hon. Lady's remarks, but is not one of the barriers to greater access the gold standard of A-levels? Does she agree that, until we have a different qualification structure for 14 to 19-year-olds which is more egalitarian, we will never achieve the sort of targets that she and I, and my hon. Friends, would like to see?

There is a case for widening the qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. That is something that the Labour party has been in favour of in the past. There is a misconception in many universities, and probably in Oxbridge as well, about other qualifications, such as vocational qualifications, and their intellectual value as a preparation for a degree.

In addition to all the steps that I have mentioned, Cambridge is developing further its provision for mature students. It is extending a scheme for undergraduates with low financial resources, appointing an access officer and an access task force and it is making access and admissions information available on the university website and colleges are making direct contact with teachers in more state secondary schools. A great deal is being done and I look forward to seeing the success of that in the months and years to come.

The Government are keen to promote lifelong learning, something of which I wholeheartedly approve. It is perhaps less well known that Cambridge university was a pioneer of adult and continuing education in the last century. That has continued through to this day. Currently, 15,000 students benefit from the adult programmes at Cambridge university. Professional and vocational development programmes are offered to a wide range of practitioners, including doctors, teachers and the police.

I want to touch briefly on the recently published college accounts, about which there has been a great deal in some of the Sunday papers, which show that a few colleges are particularly wealthy. Trinity is one of those that has managed its assets well, and it now has an income of around £19 million a year. It has been argued that, if redistributed, the Trinity income alone could make up the loss of the college fee. However, it is worth asking where Trinity's funds currently go and what areas would lose out if they were to be redistributed.

In addition to undergraduates, Trinity, in common with all the other colleges, has a high proportion of postgraduates and research fellows, who are funded from the college's private endowments. Trinity college also makes funds available for research—for instance, at the Newton Mathematical Institute, which scored a magnificent success when a young researcher, Andrew Wiles, discovered the proof for Fermat's last theorem. That problem had confounded mathematicians all over the world for 300 years. We should all take delight in such success, celebrate it and try to ensure that it continues.

I would guess that in the Chamber today are sceptics who believe that the £35 million could be better spent elsewhere, and I do not doubt that there is room for change. Corresponding changes in the government and structure of the university could create a better institution than the one we have at present. It does not seem sensible that the colleges and the university are funded separately from the public purse. A funding system whereby the money went directly to the university to be distributed to the colleges would lead to more efficient management of the system.

I urge the university to listen to student pleas for a more centralised welfare system. The stresses on students in a demanding hothouse atmosphere are excessive and cause great suffering. It is time to take a more professional approach than that offered by an untrained academic acting as a tutor. I know that colleges subscribe to the university counselling service, but that is available only when students are already experiencing serious problems. Young people who are living away from home, often for the first time, require advice and guidance from professionals; they should not have to rely solely on someone who will write their references at the end of their course. Pooling resources to provide a comprehensive student welfare service, as exists in many other universities, would be beneficial.

There are those of us who regard the current review as being as much an opportunity as a threat. A review of the system will lead to improvements, regardless of the outcome of the funding review, but we should consider what would be the outcome if the college fee were to be removed completely.

Colleges would certainly react by taking in more foreign students, who would pay the sort of fees currently charged by universities in the United States. That would have knock-on effects in terms of limiting opportunities for home-grown students. Colleges might also be tempted to increase their income by charging top-up fees to home students. I am heartened by the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that he would make great efforts to prevent universities and colleges from adopting that course. It would be difficult to prevent them from doing so, because they are private institutions, but no doubt ways will be found.

The consequence of such actions would not be that desired by many of my colleagues. The university would become more exclusive: there would be no incentive for colleges to take more students from poorer backgrounds and the recent gains in the percentage of state-school pupils admitted would be reversed. Oxbridge would, once again, become the exclusive home of privilege and wealth. I want everyone to be able to gain from the excellence available at Oxbridge. Bright students everywhere should be able compete for places without the fear that Oxbridge is not for them or that there is a bar to their entry. That is what the colleges want, too, and I hope that the Government will help them to achieve their aim.

11.43 am

I am especially pleased to be called in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who made several remarks with which I agree, so I shall not delay the House by repeating them. I am grateful, as are we all, to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for having sought this timely and important debate.

As Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire, I represent two Cambridge colleges—the lesser part of Cambridge university, but the part containing the Institute of Molecular Biology; I am happy to say that, just a few weeks ago, my constituency acquired another Nobel prize winner.

I am not a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge, although some say I would have benefited from being so. Nevertheless, that does not disqualify me from saying that I entirely concur with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that we are not talking about two centres of excellence to the exclusion of other universities. There is much excellence to be found in Britain's higher education sector, and to say that Oxford and Cambridge occupy a special position is not to denigrate the achievements of other universities.

Oxford and Cambridge occupy a special position not only in our own education system but in the world education structure. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was right to say that they are unique within Europe and that they have a capacity to compete directly with the major United States universities. If the higher education structure in this country did not exist, the United States universities would acquire an international monopoly as centres of excellence. That would be a monopoly to be strongly deplored.

I shall restrict myself to making one or two points. First, much of the debate has been about access and admissions to Oxford and Cambridge. The hon. Member for Cambridge amply testified to Cambridge university's intention to increase further the number of students taken from state schools.

I declare an interest in that I was educated at Oxford. I am sorry that there is such a strong Oxbridge flavour to the debate this morning and I hope that hon. Members representing other parts of the country will be called to contribute later. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, when I was at Oxford in the 1960s, the ratio was about 50 per cent. private school students: 50 per cent. state system students, and that that has not changed at all over the past 30 years? The promises we keep hearing from Oxbridge ring hollow.

The speech of the hon. Member for Cambridge gave ample testimony to the great efforts made by Oxford and Cambridge in that respect. The figures tend to mislead.

My hon. Friend makes the point about A-levels: in so far as A-levels are a measure, it is clear that Oxford and Cambridge are being presented with many highly successful A-level students from the independent sector, but they are not restricting their efforts to attracting such students. Through the target schools scheme, many colleges are making every effort to interview applicants from the state sector in a way that identifies potential rather than simply assessing performance at A-level.

Is my hon. Friend aware that a significant proportion of Oxbridge students from independent schools went to those schools via the assisted places scheme, a fact which distorts the comparison? In addition, a number of schools that were in the state sector 30 years ago have since moved into the private sector.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not wish to debate the assisted places scheme again, but its existence has meant that the proportion of students coming to Oxford and Cambridge from the independent sector is by no means an expression of elitism, since such students may well have come from low-income households and used the assisted places route to secondary education.

I run the risk of falling into the trap against which I wish to argue, which is construing the review as being essentially about access and admissions. It is not. The review is fundamentally about value for money and the use of the resources deployed through the collegiate system in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to achieve excellence. If, as I hope, access is improved and admissions from state schools are increased, students will not wish to be admitted to a university whose standards have not been maintained and whose methods of teaching are no longer those that once sustained those standards on an international scale.

We have to look at the use of money and resources, and on that point the arguments are clear. We are talking about one third of 1 per cent. of total expenditure on higher education—perhaps one thousandth part of spending on education in this country, but it is a one thousandth part that has a powerful influence throughout the system. Excellence breeds excellence, not only within higher education, but within the education system as a whole. The collegiate system is not simply about tutorial groups and teaching: it is integral to the research output of Oxford and Cambridge.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made it clear that 70 per cent. of United Kingdom university professors pass through Oxford or Cambridge at some time during their academic career, so there is a spread of that excellence throughout the education system. The idea that we can have some sort of Marmite strategy and take the—

Can the hon. Gentleman give me an example of a piece of excellent research that developed solely because of the collegiate system, as opposed to research such as that on DNA, which was developed in a Medical Research Council laboratory that just happened to be sited in Cambridge?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not attempt to give examples. I am aware that, in Cambridge generally, the ability within the multi-faculty universities and the collegiate system to relate one discipline to another has led to a cross-fertilisation of great importance.

My hon. Friend might like to refer the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) to Trinity College, Cambridge. Over 100 years of the Nobel prize, that one college has won more prizes than France.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are many examples of excellence within both universities. As I have said, I am not denying the presence of excellence in other universities. There are universities where two thirds to three quarters of research departments are achieving five-star ranking. There is no lack of excellence in other universities, but we must recognize—it is a matter of perception as well as reality—that, throughout the world, there is a recognition of what Oxford and Cambridge are achieving.

We need to look at the two Dearing criteria. I am sure that hon. Members understand and accept the need for a review of the college fees system and I am sure that the two criteria of good value for money and good use of resources are perfectly acceptable. On those two criteria there will be no difficulty sustaining the college fees system, because it does represent good value for money and is a good use of resources.

It is good for the universities in terms of what they achieve with the students who attend them. It is good for the higher education system because Oxford and Cambridge are feeding excellence and success elsewhere within higher education. It is a good use of resources in terms of our economic benefit. The hon. Member for Cambridge accurately referred to the impact on local economies, but we could look at the impact on the United Kingdom economy as a whole.

I used to be a recruiter of graduates in a highly competitive environment. I was only too well aware of the aptitude and skills of those Oxford and Cambridge graduates. I am sure that that was due in no small part to the fact that they were not just graduates in a particular discipline, but had an awareness of other disciplines through the collegiate system. The combination of a residential collegiate system and a tutorial system is important, and it has had substantial benefits in our higher education system. It is important to sustain it.

11.52 am

I am not a representative of either an Oxford or a Cambridge constituency, but I have an interest in the debate because I am a governor of the London School of Economics and I have a daughter at Jesus College, Cambridge and a daughter who has attended Pembroke College.

There needs to be a breath of fresh air in a debate that recognises that there is a real crisis in higher education. That crisis has been caused by chronic underfunding over 18 years under the previous Government. Pay in the higher education sector is appalling. I do not believe the argument about the brain drain, but I do believe that some people with excellent qualifications do not want to stay on in higher education because they can slip into the City or into occupations that pay two or three times more than professorial salaries within just a short time.

There is a crisis with our elite institutions. I believe that we will always have elite institutions in higher education and that we must have world-class institutions. However, I do not think that Oxford and Cambridge are quite as good as they think they are. If they measure themselves against the best in the United States, they will see that they have been falling behind for a long time. They need to buck up their ideas about how they organise themselves and how they attract high-quality researchers and students. They need to do that using all the talents in our country.

As I said, 1 am a governor of the LSE. We have real problems there. As a result of the cuts over the past 18 years, more than 50 per cent. of our students now come from overseas. More people come to the LSE from the public school sector than many Oxford and Cambridge colleges. That is happening increasingly in a group of elite universities and colleges across the country. It is a real crisis. We must decide that we need to have some world-class institutions and then provide the funds for them.

The hon. Gentleman has had his chance.

I am willing to see extra resources flowing to Oxford and Cambridge if we get something for it. I do not believe that, over the years that they have had that extra funding, we have seen enough of an effort to change the way in which they recruit talented students. I have been talking to some of the people involved in recruitment in the colleges. They were talking about the 50:50 split which, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) said, has not changed for a long time.

The recruiters would say that we should look more closely at what parts of the state sector the students come from; it is not the average comprehensive such as those in my constituency but an exclusive group of schools in the state sector. I believe that, because of the cosy arrangements that Oxford and Cambridge colleges have with specific schools in both the state and the private sector, many talented young people are losing out. Many of them are just as able as those already at Oxford or Cambridge.

We talk about public schools having good results, but I am afraid that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) has lost the argument here. I often agree with the hon. Gentleman about education, but he is losing it on this one. An examination of where the children are coming from reveals that talented children are not getting sufficient opportunities. We need to spread their abilities. Rather than stimulating talent, enterprise and so on, I believe that Oxford and Cambridge are stifling them. They stifle the talent of people coming from other institutions. We need to open up Oxford and Cambridge and the other universities to talent. That is a real challenge.

We must make sure that we fund higher education properly and that we have a proper strategy. I do not think that that is contained in Dearing. The House must debate this issue far more widely otherwise our higher education institutions—Oxford, Cambridge, the LSE and many others—will have a dismal future. I am sure that our Government and our Minister will have some of the answers today.

11.57 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on calling for the debate. I remind the House that it is specifically about whether Oxbridge meets the requirements under the definition of approved difference for a relatively modest sum of £35 million of additional funding.

I have talked to many of my contacts in America, India and Europe and they ask whether this country has gone mad. They cannot understand the wish to attack our two leading academic institutions. We have heard evidence from many hon. Members of the contribution made by those universities, which includes 69 Nobel prizes. I would have thought that Microsoft arriving at Cambridge is just the latest recognition of what has been achieved. We know what the economic impact is, and the tourist impact.

We are talking about two traditional institutions of excellence. To threaten them with severe damage and the eventual prospect of going independent for the sake of £35 million would be an act of levelling madness.

In the case of Cambridge, it is argued that the colleges have their own endowment income. What would be the impact of the proposed reduction in college funding? Of a total endowment income of about £65 million, one third relates to one college, Trinity; another third relates to five colleges only; and the final third covers a spread of 23 colleges. Those 23 colleges could not exist, as they are without the college funding that they receive.

Colleges exist, first, to provide tutorial instruction. Their second great asset is that they provide homes and finance for research fellows. If the £35 million is lost, there may be some scope for sharing funding, but 23 Cambridge colleges—the overwhelming majority—will be forced to change their arrangements.

Unless this country becomes Stalinist, it will not be possible for the Government to prevent the universities from rendering additional charges. I am advised that the European courts would take the view that the Government would not be permitted to restrict them under European Union law.

By contemplating a reduction in funding, we have foolishly raised the possibility of Oxford and Cambridge considering going independent. Those universities have been Labour supporters; now they feel that they have been stabbed in the back. They have attempted to broaden admissions—

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there should be no review of the college fee?

The colleges' income can certainly be reviewed, but in terms of hard finance, the sum of £1,700 per pupil is required by the collegiate system to function as it does at present. At Cambridge—and the situation is not much different at Oxford—23 colleges would have to change their structure enormously if that source of income were lost.

I do not believe that the Government, who have presented themselves to the nation as sensible, moderate and reasonable, seriously wish to destroy the academic excellence of Oxford and Cambridge, which is the envy of the world, and is a great maker of our relationships and contacts and a generator of business around the world—there are, for example, 3,000 Indian members of Cambridge throughout the world.

I do not believe that the Government want to propel those two institutions down a path that may mean that they ultimately become entirely independent, like Harvard. It would be an act of madness, and undesirable. For the reasons outlined by other hon. Members, I am sure that the Government will change their mind. Under the approved difference definition, there is no reason for restricting the level of finance at those institutions.

12.3 pm

I came to the debate merely to listen, and totally unprepared to make a contribution, but I feel that there must be a balance in the debate on behalf of the scores of other universities, one of which I worked at. I must declare an interest. I was not educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. My degrees were obtained from the university of Hull, but I have worked in a collegiate university, Durham, so I know something about the collegiate system; I have examined and lectured at both Oxford and Cambridge, and visited many other universities throughout the country in my career in the university system.

When Oxbridge is under attack—boy, how it can react, and throughout the entire establishment. It plants people in the very House that makes all the important decisions. That is what the debate has been about this morning.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) seems to be confused about the difference between excellence and privilege. I challenged him to tell me whether, in arguing for an egalitarian state system, he could identify with the abolition of the public school system, but all that he could talk about was assisted places. In entering this debate on the record, he has been fighting to protect the privilege of two outstanding universities.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to answer that. Does he agree that it is not the fault of Oxford and Cambridge that we have had a Conservative Government underfunding higher education for 18 years, damaging the state secondary sector for 18 years and bringing about a situation where a greater proportion of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge come from the private sector, which has been expanded? That is not the fault of Oxford and Cambridge. I invite the hon. Gentleman to agree with me that efforts must be made to improve access, but that must be done through putting resources into the state sector, and scrapping assisted places, so that applicants come through the state sector. I agree with him on that.

Yes, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but there are other ways of improving access to those two universities. Protecting the public school system is not the way to do it. As has been said, the public school system is well prepared to get its pupils into both those universities. Some schools in the state sector have learnt how to do it, but the vast majority of schools in the state sector are not prepared, as those institutions have been prepared in the past, to get their pupils into the Oxbridge system.

It is amazing to hear the Conservatives arguing for the continuation of the privileges of the Oxbridge system. I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the previous Government did more damage to the university system than any preceding Government could even have contemplated doing.

For 33 years I have been teaching at the university of Salford. In the early 1980s we received a letter in July of a given year announcing a 46 per cent. cut in the funding of Salford university, which was doing excellent work in science and technology. That cut was for a single year. The cuts that Oxford and Cambridge experienced in that year were trivial by comparison, and I mean trivial. The effects of cuts in the funding of Oxford and Cambridge and the other elite universities have been trivial by comparison with the effects of the cuts imposed on universities such as Aston, Bradford, Salford and scores of others.

I accept that the previous Government damaged the university system immensely. The present Government will find it extremely difficult to get back to where we were in 1979, when those cuts started.

I refer to the teaching at Oxford and Cambridge through the collegiate system and the excellent tutorial system. I know what goes on in those tutorials: small groups of students—five or six—face to face with an excellent teacher is an excellent method for the transfer of knowledge.

I remind the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that in some universities now, tutorials have disappeared entirely from the university system. At the university of Salford, we adopted a similar system, where we had face-to-face contact with five or six students, and we transferred our knowledge in the same excellent manner. However, when I left the university of Salford to join the House of Commons on 1 May, we were trying to conduct tutorials—I did not regard them as tutorials any longer—with groups of students as large as 15.

If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon wants to argue for the continuation of protected privilege for those two universities, I want him to tell us how the Government should be reversing the situation that has arisen in the other universities. I cannot agree that such privileges should be protected when the system has become so bad for the vast majority of other universities. I am arguing for the hundreds of thousands of students who are suffering as a result. In other words, I am trying to strike a balance.

It was a great mistake for the previous Government to convert all the polytechnics into universities in one fell swoop. I say that as someone who used to be on the staff of a college of advanced technology at Salford, which had to fight to become a university. It was necessary to prove excellence in all subjects that were taught at what was the college. I accept that some of the polytechnics were worthy of university status, but some were not.

Against the background of decisions taken by the previous Government, we are in danger of creating an ivy league of universities, of which Oxford and Cambridge would obviously be members. There must be the same provision throughout the university sector and we must seek to achieve generally what Oxford and Cambridge have tried to achieve in the absence of privilege and other knock-on effects,

Academic salaries are low compared with professional salaries elsewhere. When I became a Member of this place my salary increased by more than £10,000. Before coming here I was a reader in chemistry at Salford university. That must be wrong. In my view, the two professions are comparable. After all, I have done both jobs. Academic salaries are low, and I blame the previous Government for that.

I remind the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that to continue the privileged teaching methods of Oxford and Cambridge, the college fellowships pay those who conduct the tutorial teaching systems extra money. That privilege—let us underline "privilege" —is not available to academic staff in most other British universities. I must accuse the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon of trying to protect privilege and not excellence.

The hon. Gentleman made the claim that penicillin was a discovery of Oxford university. I accept that Florey and Chain developed penicillin at Oxford university and that

their contribution was excellent. However, Alexander Fleming saw the effects of penicillum notatum on bacilli and made the observation in London in a dingy basement laboratory. If it had not been for that observation in London, Oxford would not have been able to develop penicillin.

12.12 pm

Like the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I came into the Chamber to listen. The hon. Gentleman spoke, however, and he went on about privilege. I was at Oxford university, and some may say that I was very privileged. When I was there the number of students coming up year on year from state schools was rising. What has stopped that happening? The answer is the argument that is now being advanced against Oxbridge, and that is an attack on excellence. In the 1960s and 1970s there was an attack on excellent grammar schools. I accept that some comprehensive schools are first-class but it should never have been a matter of also trying to ensure that grammar schools enjoyed no privilege—the "let's get rid of them" approach.

At that time hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, including some on the Front Benches, had been to grammar schools. They are now prepared to deny good-quality education to children for reasons of ideology.

Oxford and Cambridge are not basic bastions of privilege. Indeed, they are often bastions of left-wing thought. Many of those who taught me would disagree with me fundamentally on many issues. I say to all those who seek to bring down Oxford and Cambridge for ideological reasons that they should remember that both are excellent institutions of world renown. Other universities should be brought up to their standards. Let us do that, rather than levelling Oxford and Cambridge.

12.14 pm

I shall try to address my remarks to the subject of the debate, although the debate has ranged more widely. The House may have an opportunity to discuss admission policies on another occasion.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the funding of Oxbridge because, since the general election, the Government have unveiled policies that threaten the nature of grant-maintained schools, grammar schools and Church schools. Their policy towards Oxford and Cambridge represents yet another attack on centres of excellence.

The Government have been divided on this issue and the Prime Minister has intervened to ameliorate the more harmful aspects of the Department for Education and Employment's policy. The right hon. Gentleman has now been forced to slap down the Department's proposals for Oxbridge funding.

The Minister now has an opportunity to clarify the policy that has been batted across the net in the Chamber and by Government spokesmen outside this House, including Baroness Blackstone, the Minister with responsibility for higher education. We know that she is the driving force behind the destructive policy that we are discussing, which has created great uncertainty at Oxford and Cambridge.

The word "egalitarian" has been knocked about the Chamber a good deal today. That being so, I draw attention to an article in last night's edition of the Evening Standard by my former colleague George Walden. The headline reads:
"Old egalitarians never die, they simply wreck our schools."
They are now out to wreck our excellent universities as well.

In the time that is available to me, I want to outline the background, which will explain why the matter before us is of such concern and why there is such uncertainty. The Dearing report suggested that the Government should reassess the payment of college fees at Oxford and Cambridge. Recommendation 74 said:
"variations in the level of public funding for teaching"
were legitimate only if
"there is an approved difference in the provision"
of teaching and
"society, through the Secretary of State or his or her agent,"
decides, after examination of the evidence
"that in relation to other funding needs in higher education, it represents a good use of resources."
In August 1997, the Department wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to examine the issue of funding at Oxford and Cambridge and especially the tutorial system. The Government especially asked the council to consider, when reaching its conclusions, the remarks made in the Dearing report and its new funding method for teaching, which is grounded on the principle of a set price for each of the four broad subject areas. Since then the HEFCE has been discussing the matter with Oxford and Cambridge and their colleges and we expect advice to come forward shortly.

The Government's initial position was, it appeared, to withdraw entirely the £35 million that supports the college-based tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

Who said that?

I am going through the chronology for the Minister. I hope that he will clarify the matter.

According to newspaper reports, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the Minister, Baroness Blackstone and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were keen to redistribute the £35 million. It was clear from comments made by the Chancellor at the Labour party conference that he believed that Oxford and Cambridge received the money simply to pander to an elite. The indication given at the conference was that the money would be withdrawn.

A Minister was reported in the Financial Times on 23 October—perhaps it was the Under-Secretary; he might like to say whether it was—as saying:
"with the entire sector facing a squeeze, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend a system which gives extra money to the rich."
That theme was taken up by Labour Members this morning. It is clear that a theme ran through the Government's initial response to the Dearing report—to remove the £35 million subsidy from Oxford and Cambridge. Since then, the Prime Minister has received representations from, among others, Lord Eatwell of Queen's college, Cambridge, Baroness Perry, head of Cambridge's Lucy Cavendish college, Lord Plant, master of St. Catherine's college, Oxford, and Eric Anderson, former headmaster of Eton and now master of Lincoln college, Oxford. Mr. Anderson taught the Prime Minister at Fettes—the fee-paying school that is known as Scotland's Eton, for those interested in elitism.

It is important that the Minister clarifies the matter, because the Government's initial reaction is a compromise. The HEFCE is planning to make changes. It will be helpful if the Minister will guarantee that whatever compromise the Government come to following the Prime Minister's lobbying, representations made by the colleges will be taken into account.

I want to emphasise the value for money and the positive outcomes of the present arrangement. I hope that the compromise will take account of them. Oxford and Cambridge are world renowned centres of academic research, graduates coming out of them secure employment within six months and undergraduates have only a 2.6 per cent. fall-out rate compared with the national average of some 8 per cent. That excellence is a tribute to Oxford and Cambridge. Moreover, it costs half as much to educate a graduate at Oxford and Cambridge as it does at some of the ivy league universities in the United States, such as Stanford and Harvard. Oxford and Cambridge are good value for money.

The future of Oxford and Cambridge universities hangs in the balance. I hope that the Minister will reassure them and us that centres of excellence, not just in this country but worldwide, such as at Oxford and Cambridge will be retained and that no dogma or elitism will see their stature diminished, as the Government have sought to do in other areas of education.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

I thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for raising this issue at a time when there is great interest in it.

I was very sorry to hear the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) refer to an article, which appeared last night, written by a former hon. Member—George Walden. It was possibly the most spiteful, personal attack on my noble Friend the Minister of State that I have ever read. I know that, as she comes from an education background, the hon. Lady is aware, as we all are, of the need to review every part of education funding. No part of the review should be sacrosanct. We should be able to review the funding that goes to every university. I shall try to set out just how we intend to do it.

I am intrigued to hear that we have already decided that we are to manipulate the HEFCE's review, because I have not seen that report. It has not yet arrived on our desks. We asked for the report precisely because we wanted a good, objective assessment of the situation at the moment.

Many other people would like to review the situation as well. One thinks, for example, of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. I wonder how the Oxford colleges would feel if they had him breathing down their necks wanting to find out just how each pound is spent. Many agencies that are hard pressed for money are examined under that microscope. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that there are no rules of engagement. The colleges would have a very tough time justifying how the money is spent.

No. The hon. Gentleman—much as I appreciate his contributions—has spoken enough.

We asked for help from the HEFCE because we believe that it is vital that we get expert help and that we try to understand how Oxford and Cambridge relate to every other university and higher education institution in the country. We are aware of the standard of excellence that comes out of Oxford and Cambridge. I would be the last person in the world to be any part of a new regime or system that threatened or reduced standards of excellence. If somebody were to ask, "What about the 69 Nobel prizes?" I would say, yes, it would be very hard to reinvent the system that has won this country 69 Nobel prizes, but I would like a lot more Nobel prizes to be won by other universities as well.

Nobody should go away from the Chamber thinking that Oxford and Cambridge are the only centres of excellence. There are very many others and there are universities that are improving at a tremendous rate.

Exactly.

We are talking to Oxford and Cambridge. I met the vice-chancellors last week. We are talking to everybody involved. I am fully aware of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). They must be made aware that, although we cannot influence any university's policy on student admissions, we are watching very carefully to ensure that the static intake of the past 30 years starts to improve. I do not believe that children who are at state schools are intrinsically any less intelligent than children who are at independent schools. On the contrary, all children have enormous potential and we need to do a great deal to start tapping it. I welcome any debate on the review for Oxford and Cambridge. That is why I am so grateful that we are having this debate.

Today, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, we are looking specifically at one issue—college fees. I assure the House that we will consider the matter objectively. We will do nothing to endanger the standards of excellence at Oxford or Cambridge.

Will the Minister give me an undertaking that he will write to me setting out the legal basis of the threats to legislate against the charging of private fees by private institutions? In particular will he take into account European law and the relevant European convention?

When I understand the significance of that question, I shall certainly consider whether to respond. If it is academic-speak for whether we are in favour of top-up fees, let me tell the hon. Gentleman right now that we are not. If there are problems with a percentage of bright young people going from state schools to Oxford and Cambridge when top-up fees are introduced, it will be a long time before the Government allow that to happen.

No, I shall not give way again. The hon. Gentleman has intervened many times. I shall look carefully at the legal basis and try to reassure him, if that is possible.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton challenged the Government on the basis of press reports. I hope that she will acknowledge that that is not the best source of information and accept my undertaking here and now that we are not in the business of dumbing down or egalitarian dogma. It is a long time since I have been accused of dogma—

Since 1968, probably.

We have no intention of indulging in dogma. Suggesting that we do is a cheap crack. The Government realise that the country's future lies in our having the best educated, best trained work force in the world. If we do not have it, we will not be able to compete in an increasingly global economy. We are determined to ensure that we have such a work force, and Oxford and Cambridge will play their part in that, as will all the other universities and an area of education about which there is often a deafening silence in this place, especially from Conservative Members—further education.

We will ensure that we see the role of Oxford and Cambridge within that wider context. If we manage to do that, we will go some way towards turning the rhetoric in which so many of us believe-lifelong learning, creating a learning society—into a reality.

We will take note of what has been said today. This has been a very useful debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. We have all benefited from it.