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Higher Education

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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I have today published our document Widening Participation in Higher Education, which sets out our plans to safeguard access and widen participation in Higher Education, giving more help and opportunities to all our people to achieve of their best.We face an historic problem in our society: the under-achievement of many people who come from less advantaged backgrounds. In 2000, just 18 per cent. of young people from the lower three socio-economic groups were benefiting from Higher Education, compared with 48 per cent. of young people from the higher three socio-economic groups.Education must be a force for opportunity and social justice. Whilst meeting the challenge of expanding Higher Education, we need to ensure fair access and equality of opportunity for all those who have the potential to benefit from it, irrespective of their background, schooling or income. Universities have a crucial role to play in this task. They need to identify, encourage, admit and support to graduation all those who have the potential to succeed.The evidence set out in Widening Participation in Higher Education suggests that the principal barriers to access to Higher Education are attainment, aspiration and application.We are tackling the attainment gap with a range of initiatives, from the very earliest years onwards, to improve standards and widen opportunities. The Sure Start programme aims to improve the health and well-being of families and children in deprived areas from the very beginning. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies have led to significant advances in achievement for all groups at primary school level since 1997 but more so for children from disadvantaged homes. Our planned 14–19 reforms will improve standards and choices, and our Success for All programme is reforming Further Education by raising standards of teaching and learning.We are already working to raise aspirations through the successful Aimhigher programme. Many universities are also taking imaginative actions to ensure that more people with real talent apply to university. However, of those students who obtain A level passes corresponding to 30 UCAS points, those from the three higher socio-economic groups are significantly more likely to apply for places at the longest established universities than those from the lower groups. Therefore, universities and colleges could do more to raise aspirations and encourage a broader range of applications.Although application rates differ by social class between different types of universities, acceptance rates from those applying are much closer. Admissions to universities are a matter for universities themselves and generally they operate in a way that is fair. Admissions should always be on merit—irrespective of class, background or school attended—based on an applicant's achievements and potential. A-levels are the single most important way for assessing merit but universities are increasingly using a range of other ways to help them make admissions decisions. The Government has asked Professor Stephen Schwartz, Vice Chancellor of Brunei University to lead a team to identify good practice in admissions. We expect one of the results of this work to be a statement of principles about admissions which we hope all universities will adopt. Universities wanting to charge a higher variable tuition fee will wish to demonstrate to the Office for Fair Access that they subscribe to these principles.There are also concerns that the proposed introduction of variable tuition fees poses a risk to widening access. The Government plans to take a range of measures to address this, including the re-introduction of a maintenance grant and abolishing up-front tuition fees. Nevertheless, it is also important that universities which wish to increase their fees play their full part in preserving and widening access.For that reason, the Government proposes to legislate when Parliamentary time is available to require institutions wishing to increase their fees in excess of the standard fee (currently £1,100) for any of their courses to draw up an access agreement. Agreements will fall to be approved by a new Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which will be separate from but supported by HEFCE. OFFA will operate within a legal and policy framework established by the Government but will exercise its independent judgement in applying this framework. I will send the head of OFFA an initial letter, together with revisions from time to time, setting out OFFA's statutory duties and how they are to be met.The access agreement will cover a five-year period and will set out the fee levels the institution wishes to levy (up to a maximum of £3,000 from 2006); the bursaries and other financial support available; the outreach work to be undertaken by the institution with schools and colleges to help raise the level of attainment, aspirations and applications; and the institution's own milestones for assessing progress in widening participation. An Individual university's admissions policies and procedures will be outside the remit of the access agreement and OFFA. OFFA will monitor implementation of the access agreements and make an annual report to Parliament.There will be no targets or quotas set by the Government. We are working to ensure that everyone who has the ability to participate in Higher Education does so, if we are to expand to meet our future economic needs without sacrificing quality.There will be a period for comment until 2 June 2003.Copies of the document will be placed in the Library and will be available in the Vote and Printed Papers Office.