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Higher Education

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

I am pleased to have this opportunity today for what I hope will be an informed debate about widening participation in higher education, which is rightly at the centre of the Government’s efforts to expand opportunities and life chances. As Members of Parliament, many of us will have direct experience of going to university, either as students ourselves or by having a graduate in the family. Many, like me, will be first in our families to have gone to university. I grew up in a council house and went to a comprehensive school. Without having gone to university, my life would certainly not have developed in the way that it has. I certainly do not believe that I would be standing here today as Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning.

The Government are strongly committed to ensuring that every student across all the socio-economic groups who wants a university place, and has the necessary talent and commitment, can get one, so that regardless of their background or financial position, they too can experience the challenges and benefits of study in higher education. We strongly believe that that objective is critical to the continued economic success and social well-being of this country. However, that opinion is not universally accepted. We sometimes delude ourselves into believing that we have achieved a consensus on the issue in this country.

I fear that there is still a strong body of opinion, which is most notably featured in the pages of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, that continues to argue against increased and widened participation in higher education. The opposition centres on the view that if more people are going to university, that, in some sense, devalues the degrees that are awarded. People say that quality will decline and that the Government will be interfering in admissions and fair access, and that, as a result, people from higher income groups or independent schools will miss out. I wholly reject the view that to validate one’s educational success, one has to see others fail. Frankly, such a view has held this country back for far too long.

Educational success should not be restricted to the privileged few. Increasing access to, and widening participation in, higher education is not in any sense about denying people from higher socio-economic groups or independent schools the chance to progress. It is, however, about helping everyone, whatever their background and circumstances, who wants an independent future through higher education to fulfil their potential.

I am sure that we all agree that we do not want to restrict access to further and higher education. However, does the Minister agree that one of the dangers of the way in which the Government are pursuing their policy is that they are giving the impression that the only way in which to succeed in further or higher education is to go to university? It is important to talk about a broad range of educational options that might be suitable for some, but not others.

I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman. It is not the Government’s policy to present university as the only route to educational success. One of the Government’s achievements over the past 10 years of which I am most proud is the tripling of the number of apprentices in this country. However, it is exceedingly difficult to get journalists and the national media interested in that issue. We need more people to be educated at all levels, and that certainly includes apprentices and people going through school, further education and, indeed, university.

We must be clear that ensuring that people have such an opportunity is an economic and social necessity. Failure in our education system, whether through illiteracy, high drop-out rates or an unskilled work force, breeds wider failure in our society and economy. In many senses, this is a fundamental economic imperative. I strongly believe that being a global economic leader demands a skilled and educated work force who have not only the right skills, knowledge and experience, but the ability to update them in the face of phenomenally rapid change. That change is very significant.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in acknowledging the great work that the Open university in my constituency has done for the past 30 years or so. Given that many people are considering part-time higher education, what does he propose to do to ensure that there is a level playing field for those in part-time and full-time higher education?

I am certainly happy to celebrate the achievements of the Open university, which was one of the finest creations of the previous Labour Government. The Open university was among the bodies that strongly welcomed the 27 per cent. increase in the part-time student grant that I announced last year. Indeed, the significant increase in the access to learning funds from some £3 million to £12 million has been a really important step forward that we should celebrate. The increase gives the Open university, Birkbeck and other institutions a real opportunity to thrive.

I was talking about the rapid rate of change. There is research showing that of the 12 million jobs that were expected to become vacant in this country between 2004 and 2014, 6 million would be in occupations that were most likely to employ graduates. Employers value graduate skills immensely. Over the course of a working life, a graduate, on average, earns over £100,000 more, net of tax, than someone with just two A-levels. The latest Universities UK report on the economic benefits of a degree confirms that graduates, on average, earn more, and are more likely to be in a job, than people without degrees. It also shows that higher education is likely—we should promote this very strongly—to be the best investment that a student will ever make. In addition, the report confirms that the graduate earnings premium is holding up well.

How does that £100,000 premium, which is an average, compare with the figure that was cited in the last Parliament—before I was a Member of the House—when the Bill that became the Higher Education Act 2004 was being considered? I think that the figure cited in 2004 was about four times that amount. Does the Minister think that if the research that is available now had been available then, the top-up fees Bill would have gone through?

If the hon. Gentleman had done his research a bit better, he would be aware that the £400,000 figure was the difference in earnings between a person with a degree and someone with no qualifications. The figure that I am citing is the difference in earnings between someone with a degree and a person with just two A-levels. The figures are not comparable. The body of evidence suggests that the graduate earnings premium has not declined as we have expanded participation in higher education.

One aspect of what the Minister just said was puzzling. According to Universities UK, nearly everyone with two A-levels or better goes on to higher education. The figure that he cites must therefore be calculated from a low statistical base.

That demonstrates that a little research can go an awfully long way towards misleading people. It is not the case that virtually everyone with two A-levels goes on to university. The figure that I am citing is robust. There is a sustainable graduate earnings premium. If hon. Members wish to try to decry that notion, they are doing a disservice not only to their argument, but to the young people throughout the country whom we need to inspire to participate in higher education.

There is an international dimension to the debate. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development show that there is a clear relationship between the number of graduates in the economy and increasing rates of growth in gross domestic product. Emerging economies such as India and China are developing large reserves of talent with people who are highly skilled and ready to reap the rewards of globalisation. Countries such as China and India are certainly not having navel-gazing debates about whether to expand higher education; they are just doing it. That should give us a strong pointer in the right direction. Unless we face up to the challenges that arise from the changes that are taking place around the world, and do more to educate people right through the system to higher levels, we will be blown away by the global competition.

Given the challenges that we face, what have we actually done? Increasing and widening participation in higher education is a good social policy and an invaluable economic policy. To make it a reality in this country, the Government have rightly focused on attainment, aspirations, applications, admissions and affordability, which involves delivering high-quality education to enable people to gain higher education entry qualifications; increasing people’s knowledge and understanding of higher education so that they see it as a possible and realistic option; encouraging young people to apply to the institution and course that best suits their potential and ambitions; ensuring that higher education institutions are fair, transparent and professional in the way in which they make their admissions decisions; and addressing perceived financial barriers that might deter young people from poorer backgrounds from going to university or college, or delay their going there. Through pursuing those changes, we have made a real difference.

In 1997, less than 82 per cent. of young UK higher education entrants came from state schools. Some 12 per cent. of higher education entrants came from neighbourhoods that were known to have a low proportion of young people in higher education. By 2004, the number of young UK higher education entrants from state schools had risen to nearly 87 per cent., with almost 14 per cent. of higher education entrants coming from neighbourhoods with little participation in higher education. We have certainly got more to do, but I believe that we are moving in the right direction. Overall, the number of UK students in higher education, as measured by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, has risen from 1.8 million in 1997-98 to 2.2 million in 2005-06. For those undergraduate students for whom HESA has social class data, the proportion from lower socio-economic groups has risen from 30.8 per cent. to 31.5 per cent. since 2002-03.

I have listened to the figures with interest, and particularly to those for before 2004, but according to the Government’s own figures, only a fifth of those going on to higher education are from the lowest socio-economic groups. We have not yet felt the full impact of top-up fees; when will the Minister publish those figures, broken down by demographic group, and what will he do to get more than a fifth of those from the lowest socio-economic groups into higher education?

I believe that I am right in saying that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service published the breakdown by socio-economic group when it announced the January admission figures in February, but I certainly agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says. We have made progress in widening the participation of people from lower socio-economic groups in higher education, but I am the first to admit that we have a great deal more to do. The system that we have put in place really does help young people from such backgrounds to move forward, but we need to do a great deal more genuinely to encourage them.

On that point, does my hon. Friend know whether UCAS still levies a charge for providing the information that it compiles to local Aimhigher partnerships? If it does, does he not think that that is unacceptable, and that the information should be made available, as of right, to the Aimhigher partnerships?

I am genuinely not aware of the detail on that issue, because UCAS is separate from the Government, but I will look into the matter. On the face of it, I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s point; the data ought to be available as widely as possible, and should particularly be available to Aimhigher partnerships.

My hon. Friend is right to say that a general breakdown of data has been provided, but there has been no disaggregation of the data by university. One of the main arguments put forward by those of us who opposed variable tuition fees concerned the possible deterrent effect on people from poorer backgrounds, and we were also concerned that they might consider choosing cheaper universities. We need that data, and I would be grateful if the Minister published it. We have had only two years’ worth of data, in which the figures were up and down. May I just quote Ivor Crewe, who was one of the main supporters of tuition fees—

Order. This is not Question Time; this is a debate, and the Minister must be given a chance to respond to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly).

If I may, I shall respond to the point that has been raised, and then I will happily take other interventions. One of the benefits and challenges of our higher education system is the fact that the Government are not directly responsible for the compilation of all statistics. A number of issues are dealt with by UCAS. I do not believe that the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) is borne out by the evidence that I have seen, but I agree that thus far, nationally, the evidence on the proportion of people from lower socio-economic groups going to university under the new system is encouraging. However, we need to see that information on a university-by-university basis as quickly as possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was merely trying to help my hon. Friend the Minister to answer an earlier intervention. On the breakdown of the figures, we really should make it plain to those who opposed top-up fees and variable fees that applications are up by 6.7 per cent. in England, but down in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. That is a success story, but some on the Liberal Democrat Benches will still not even talk about those facts.

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. He anticipates what I shall say towards the end of my speech—I always thinks that it helps to leave the best news until last. I will come back to that issue, but he is fundamentally right.

The Minister faces many challenges in Harlow in Essex. This year, there was a rise of 5 per cent. in the number of applications to Essex university, but Professor Ivor Crewe has said:

“We may be getting a slightly different social composition with fewer students from working-class backgrounds”.

The rise is fuelled by greater numbers of middle-class applicants.

I genuinely do not believe that there is national evidence that backs up my hon. Friend’s claim, but I agree that we need to see a breakdown of the figures, university by university, as quickly as possible. On the general trend in applications, the point that he tries to make is not borne out by the evidence. If we look at the first year of the operation of the new fee system, we see that there was some variation, both upwards and downwards, but it was difficult to detect a pattern in the kinds of institutions affected, and in what was taking place. We need more information, and we need to get it as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. When he gets to the end of his speech, will he take into account the fact that far more children—almost 18,000 more—were born in 1988-89 than in 1986-87? If we compare the figures for those two years, taking that into account, the picture is not quite as rosy as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) suggests.

Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, he too anticipates a point that I was going to make later on. Desperate people searching around for a fig leaf to justify their continued opposition to fees have come up with that argument, but if we consider the applications for 2007-08, we see that the increase in the age cohort was about 0.8 per cent., but there was a 7.1 per cent. increase in student applications in England.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is right, and the upward trend in applications is moving significantly ahead of the demographics.

On that point, and to put in context the Liberal Democrats’ attempts to undermine the progress that has been made, is it not the case that the figures that we are talking about relate only to full-time undergraduates, who account for about 55 per cent. of all university undergraduate admissions? To see the complete picture, we need to consider what is happening elsewhere, where there has been an amazing expansion in part-time education. Part-time undergraduate applications represent about 45 per cent. of all university undergraduate applications.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and one of the frustrations in this debate, when variable fees—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is turning away from the microphone, and I have already been told that he is going off-sound, which I am sure is not what he wants.

I am off-sound rather than off-message, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My apologies for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) makes a pertinent point, because one of the frustrations in the debate about variable fees and their introduction concerns the obsession of the opponents of variable fees with focusing on full-time students instead of on the many thousands of other students who are rightly accessing higher education.

On attainment, despite claims in the media that it is now easier for a person to get the qualifications that they need to go into higher education, the demands of studying and of achieving those qualifications are as high as they have ever been. The gap in attainment between higher and lower social classes goes some way to explaining the relative success that they have in getting to university. Our significant investment in schools since 1997 has helped to raise standards overall. The attainment gap, at age 16, between higher and lower social classes at level 2 is narrowing, and that is welcome, but it is still the case that only about a quarter of lower-social-class 18-year-olds achieve two or more A-levels, compared with around half of those from higher social classes. That is one of the most worrying and troublesome challenges that we face.

The research shows that in the 1990s, children with parents whose incomes were in the highest 20 per cent. were about five times more likely to acquire a degree by the age of 23 than children with parents whose incomes were in the lowest 20 per cent. That is simply unacceptable, and we are determined to address the problem. Evidence shows that if someone makes a decision to stay on at school or college at 16, they are much more likely to stay in education after 18.

The choice of too many 16-year-olds not to stay in education is the biggest barrier that we have to overcome. Through the development of diplomas, ongoing investment in personalised learning in schools and colleges and, crucially, initiatives such as education maintenance allowances, we are making progress. EMAs have contributed to an increase in participation in post-16 education that we expect to feed through to higher education. The proportion of 16-year-olds in the first post-compulsory year of full-time education at the end of 2005 is estimated to be 76.5 per cent.—the highest ever rate and an increase of 2.7 percentage points since the end of 2004. It is the biggest step change in participation in full-time education at 16 since 1993.

I now turn to aspirations, which are the most important challenge that we face. Significant investment in the Aimhigher programme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned, and other interventions are raising the aspirations of more young people with the ability and talent to enter higher education. Through a range of activities, such as university visits, master classes, mentoring and summer schools, we aim to show students from disadvantaged backgrounds what study at a higher level involves so that they can experience the realities, challenges and joys of being a higher education student. We welcome the fact that early evaluation of Aimhigher shows that its participants have more positive intentions towards higher education than non-participants. Furthermore, national data indicate that the gap between higher and lower social classes at age 16 intending to go on to higher education narrowed by almost 5 per cent. between 2001 and 2003. I strongly believe that the Aimhigher programme helps to show students from disadvantaged backgrounds that they, too, can strive for entry to universities with the most demanding admission requirements.

That work is critical. Evidence suggests that even when their qualification levels are similar, people from lower social classes are slightly less likely than people from higher social classes to apply for higher education—and if they do, they are less likely to apply to the institutions and courses with the most demanding entry qualifications. That is a challenge for all of us, and for the way in which we advance the debate.

In north Staffordshire we are slowly cracking the 16-plus argument, but the key issue is making sure that students aged 17-plus complete their courses. A policy in the White Paper package aimed at widening participation proposed that every district should have a choice adviser, who would advise students on which universities to choose, given the myriad fees and bursaries available. What happened to choice advisers, and will my hon. Friend point me to my local one in Newcastle-under-Lyme, because as far as I am aware, we do not have one?

A range of advice and assistance is available to young people locally, and I will ensure that I send my hon. Friend the details of what is available in his constituency. We must constantly review the advice and guidance given to young people to ensure that all the available opportunities are highlighted and signposted.

The Sutton Trust is doing excellent work, often in conjunction with the Government, which can contribute to the improvement of the advice and guidance given to young people and mature students locally.

We have heard a great deal about social class, but we have yet to hear anything about what the Government are doing to help to widen access for disabled students.

There is significant expenditure under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Acts to ensure that all university premises are genuinely open. There are specific funding programmes, too, to enable more disabled students to attend university. Many people from different backgrounds have benefited from further and higher education who would not have done so 10, 20 or 30 years ago, and we must promote their involvement.

I should like to say a few words about the university application process.

Before the Minister moves on to another “A”, it would be bizarre if he did not comment on asset sales. There was a story in the Financial Times this morning about the securitisation of the loan book. Is the Minister aware of that, and was his Department consulted? I should like to know whether the story is true, and whether the Government will get a better deal on the sale of the loan book this time than they did in 1997.

I have learned in politics and in government never to comment on stories about what may or may not, or might possibly in some circumstances, happen in the Budget, and I will not break that rule today.

I shall deal now with applications. I welcome UCAS’s changes to the higher education application process to improve it for everyone trying to get into higher education. I remain strongly committed to a system of post-qualification application. Such a system would help to ensure that students are better matched to their courses, and reduce the potential for students to drop out. Fifty per cent. of predicted grades are inaccurate, and they are most inaccurate for students from lower socio-economic groups; we need to be clear that that is unacceptable. Whatever a student’s background, that level of inaccuracy is a cause for concern. I acknowledge that change cannot happen overnight. Our target is 2012, but the HE sector is already developing early reforms that will improve the HE application process for all students.

Is the Minister saying categorically that a fully developed post-qualification application system will be in place by 2012? Can he say a little more about the interim steps that are being taken to achieve that?

The Government are not responsible for the HE applications process. Nevertheless, the Department, the Secretary of State and I have driven the debate and are strongly urging universities to sign up to a pathway leading towards post-qualification applications. We had a constructive working party chaired by Sir Alan Wilson, the former director general for higher education at the Department. We achieved a consensus among all the representative bodies in higher education, which sets out a clear timetable for progress on this important issue. It is a two-stage process of reform.

There is the end date objective of 2012 for a full PQA system, and there are significant reforms in 2008-09, such as students being given the access profile course by course, institution by institution, a reduction in the number of applications that each student makes from six to five, to ensure that students can make more informed choices, and the opportunity by 2008-09 for a student who does better than their predicted grades to re-apply once they have gained those grades to a course or institution that better suits their needs or interests. These are important changes, which we should strongly encourage universities to take forward.

Five years ago the Select Committee made a strong recommendation about post-qualification access and about the nonsense of Oxford and Cambridge having an entirely different date, time and structure for their admissions process. The debate is about broadening access. When will the Government push Oxford and Cambridge into a sensible admissions policy that is the same as any other university’s?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have ongoing discussions with all institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge. One of the changes included in the 2008-09 reforms is the concept of a gathered field before the evaluation of applications takes place. Although that will not move the Oxford and Cambridge application date, it should ensure that all applications are dealt with on their merits. That will help to improve the admissions process for those two institutions and many others.

Although we have always said, rightly, that admissions are the responsibility of universities, we do have an interest in these policies and practices. I was encouraged by the findings of our independent review of admissions led by Steven Schwartz. The review showed that, overall, admissions are fair, but that more could be done to demonstrate professionalism and transparency. With universities and colleges, we continue to take action in this area.

On affordability, a matter that was raised earlier by Liberal Democrat Members, it is important to say clearly that all the evidence suggests that the critics of the new system of higher education are being proved emphatically wrong. The UCAS figures released earlier this month show a significant rise in applications from students in England. Applications have risen from 271,700 in 2006 to 291,000 this year, which is a very encouraging rise of 7.1 per cent. Among those providing social class data, applications from the lower socio-economic groups have increased from 30.9 per cent. to 31.3 per cent. Although it is true that the rise in applications will have been affected by demographic trends, that explains only a small part of the increase. The population in England is rising, and applications are rising even more strongly. The increase is well in excess of this year’s 0.8 per cent. population growth among 18 to 20-year-olds.

Before the Minister draws too many firm conclusions from the socio-economic data derived from the UCAS collation of statistics, will he concede that the biggest group in the data is unknowns, because students do not have to tell UCAS which social group they come from? How can we be so certain that the proportion from lower socio-economic groups is going up?

I concede that one cannot be absolutely certain. We seek to ensure in the best way possible that we get as much information as possible on the backgrounds of students who are applying to university, and UCAS is looking at that. If we are having an adversarial trading of blows on this issue, I know whose position I would much rather be in: I would rather defend the changes which we have made and which the hon. Gentleman opposed. One of the reasons why I am confident that we are protecting access for those from poorer backgrounds is that the new system of student financial support is genuinely progressive and genuinely fairer. Student grants have been reintroduced, and we have ensured that students do not start to repay until they are in work and earning more than £15,000 a year, which is effectively a postgraduate system of repayment that rightly ensures that the greatest resources go to those who are most in need.

The Minister is right; the robust argument that we had on these Benches during the changes meant that the student support and bursaries were much improved to sweeten the pill. I would be delighted to be proved wrong about participation by people from poorer backgrounds, but the evidence from overseas shows that when fees are raised all the other moves tend to be neutered, so the overall result is neutral. Does the Minister agree that there is a world of difference between having a cap at £3,000 and giving in to the blandishments of some universities to raise the cap and to introduce a system similar to that used in the United States? I hope that he will resist any such blandishments.

I disagree with my hon. Friend about the evidence from overseas. This debate raged long and hard during our proceedings on the Higher Education Act 2004. In some countries where higher fees have been introduced, there has been an increase in applications. On his core point about what we will do about the cap after 2009, we have made it clear that we will not move until we have seen the first full three years of operation of the new system. There will then be an independent commission. I say, both to those who advocate lifting the gap and to those who say that we should scrap fees now, that both those approaches are premature, because we need to see the full operation of the first three years of the new system.

The role of the Office for Fair Access has been significant in helping to smooth the passage of the new system. The introduction of access agreements through which universities can commit publicly to what they will offer students from poorer backgrounds out of the additional income generated from fees has been an important step forward. In the Higher Education Act 2004, we legislated to ensure that a university must have an access agreement approved by OFFA if it wishes to charge more than the basic fee. The introduction of variable fees was an incredibly difficult decision to take, but the Government had the courage to take it, and as I have said, we are being proved right.

I welcome the fact that the Conservative party has shifted its ground on that issue. If I look long and hard, even some Liberal Democrats appear to be shifting their ground—[Interruption.] Maybe not the ones who are present today. In my experience, different groups of Liberal Democrats come up with different conclusions. Nevertheless, the pamphlet that was produced before Christmas by the Lib Dem think-tank, which fundamentally endorsed the Government’s approach on a post-graduation repayment system, was very significant.

The time has come for those who criticised the concept of OFFA and the bursaries regime in 2004 to move on from that position. OFFA has been an important success. All the institutions that have chosen to set fees above the basic level have successfully completed an access agreement. I take this opportunity to pay the fullest of tributes to Martin Harris and his team for the outcome that they have secured and for how they have gone about it. As a result, access agreements are in place and forecast to deliver in excess of £300 million per year in bursaries to students. I have no doubt that the right to additional fee income for universities must go hand in hand with a social and moral responsibility to students from less advantaged backgrounds. Universities have demonstrated their genuine commitment to that principle through the extent and generosity of the bursary schemes and additional outreach commitments in their access agreements.

At this juncture, I should refer to the concerns that have been raised about a potential underspend on bursaries in some universities. I have been monitoring that situation very closely. The overall scale of underspend has been exaggerated in some reports. In several universities, including a significant number in the Russell group, the projections are that there will be no underspend at all. Forecasts of spend inevitably carry with them some uncertainty, especially in the first year of an entirely new bursary scheme, and some universities set a high figure for reasons of prudent financial management. I am not in the business of unfairly or unjustly criticising people. OFFA will monitor expenditure and performance annually, and we will have a full picture of year 1 after the relevant monitoring information has been collected this summer.

At the same time, universities should be doing all they can to ensure that students get the support to which they are entitled. In recent weeks, several vice-chancellors have explicitly said to me that they intend to invest any underspend in their original bursary estimates on other measures to improve social inclusion. One of them told me:

“The money for bursaries is ‘budgeted out’. If it cannot be spent on bursaries, then it will go to support other widening participation projects.”

That is heartening. I would urge all universities forecasting a genuine underspend on bursaries to take that approach.

Before we leave the question of bursaries and fees, we must recognise that we are still talking about full-time undergraduates. In the context of widening participation, part-time students are likely to provide the greatest number of new students. Will my hon. Friend say a few words about improving financial support for part-time students? I know that he has agonised about the complexity of this. What is his latest thinking?

My hon. Friend hits on a key point. The 27 per cent. increase in the part-time student grant that we announced last year was a very significant step forward. However, there remains a challenge. If we simply replicated the full-time system of student financial support for part-timers, there would be an immense amount of dead weight. We need to encourage employers to invest more in the higher education of the people who work for them. Bearing in mind—I am quoting these figures from memory—that 35 to 40 per cent. of part-timers receive a financial contribution from their employer, I do not see why the state should automatically step in through a replication of the full-time student support package in order to absolve the employer of that responsibility. We must ensure that we keep these issues under review to ensure that the part-time student package is as flexible and attractive as possible.

I recognise what my hon. Friend is saying as regards the contribution of employers, but would he acknowledge that many potential part-time students are not in employment? Some are carers, for example. How would he address that question?

Order. May I remind the Minister about speaking into the microphone? Those taking notes may experience difficulty in hearing his contribution.

My sincere apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The point about carers is important. One of the changes that we recently announced—an additional bursary for those leaving care—is an important step forward. The specific point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) made is one of the reasons why we need to keep such issues under review. I am not committing to anything today, but it is important that the system is as flexible as possible.

As I said, I urge all universities that forecast a genuine underspend on bursaries to take the approach that I described earlier. It is right in principle, consistent with universities’ social obligations, and important for the credibility of the new fees regime. That is why I am pleased that the Russell group and the 1994 group of universities are making clear their support for that principle today. I am also glad that the National Union of Students has given its support.

Malcolm X said:

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

If we want a work force that can compete with the best in the world, adapt flexibly to the challenges of the global marketplace and deliver high productivity, we must ensure that more people have the higher-level skills needed to achieve that. In my view, that will involve a big future expansion in work-based, flexible higher education.

If we want a society that is fair and tolerant, where everyone has an equal chance to succeed and fulfil their potential and dreams, we must ensure that everyone with the talent and ability to benefit—whatever their background, class or bank balance—can pursue higher education. The Government will continue to take the actions necessary to bring about the fundamental changes required to widen participation, increase access and overcome the obstacles that continue to prevent too many bright people from disadvantaged backgrounds from entering higher education. The future success of our country depends on it.

I am grateful to the Minister for his kind remarks about my party’s position on some aspects of higher education. Of course, we agree with many things that he said and I admire him for the sincerity with which he speaks about widening participation.

I do not want the occasion to be entirely glutinous and consensual, but I wish to congratulate British universities on their achievements. They are not only huge money-spinners for the British economy, generating £45 billion according to Universities UK, but the chief motors of social mobility and the chief emancipators of women in the past 100 years. In spite of all the social and political obligations that we politicians place on them, and all the hectoring that we give them about widening participation, they remain places of light, learning and scholarship.

I hope that I express common ground with the hon. Gentleman, to whom I shall give way, when I say that universities’ primary purpose is to achieve an intellectual transformation and—who knows?—an emotional and spiritual transformation, too.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also include a good standard of teaching. Before he gets carried away in congratulating universities, does he believe that they have invested enough of the extra income from top-up fees in rewarding lecturers a little better?

It was perverse of the lecturers to oppose top-up fees and then go on strike for a larger share of the proceeds from them. It ill behoves lecturers and the hon. Gentleman to be grudging about the extra income—perhaps not as much as we would like—that has flowed to the academic community and also gone towards the bursaries that are so essential to the needs-blind admission that we all support in higher education.

Is not it a fact that we know our friends when there is a common and shared purpose and times are rough and tough? Where was the hon. Gentleman’s party when we were fighting for variable fees? Indeed, where were the Liberal Democrats? Is the hon. Gentleman today apologising for the position that the Conservative Opposition took in those tough times?

I almost find myself apologising to almost everybody. If it pleases the hon. Gentleman to have an apology from me, I have absolutely no compunction about issuing one. All I would say is that the record will reveal that I did not, for one reason or another, contrive to vote with my party on that particular issue—one of the many reasons why I got into trouble—but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Unlike the creatures on the Liberal Democrat Benches, my party has changed. The Minister has hinted that there are signs of a thaw in the Liberal Democrat position, and it would be a good thing if representatives of the species other than the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) came to the House today and ventilated the change of heart that we are starting to see.

The Liberal Democrat position is being exposed by the statistics as against the interests of the universities and against the interests of students—we should look at the figures from Scotland, as the Minister said—as well as regressive and socially unjust. I do not say that the UCAS figures are definitive—of course not—but if they are correct in so far as they relate to lower socio-economic groups, they are, as the Minister rightly said, very encouraging. There is a great deal more to be done, as he conceded, and the Government have been open in their confession of failure to attract candidates from lower socio-economic groups. We are not doing well enough yet in convincing people of natural ability from poorer backgrounds that university might be the place for them.

The brutal reality—here I shall become more controversial—is that not enough of them are getting good grades in the demanding subjects that universities often require for entry.

In 2004, only 28 per cent. of those from socio-economic groups 4 to 7 went to university and only 13.1 per cent.—more or less the same statistic that the Minister mentioned— from Labour party’s traditional neighbourhoods. It would be quite wrong to blame the vice-chancellors, students or lecturers for those dismal figures, because all three are making huge efforts. Anyone familiar with today’s students or who looks at their CVs knows how much time ambitious students at least seem to spend—and who knows, they probably do spend—working with schools in deprived areas to encourage kids to think of themselves as potential university material. That happens to an extent that would have been unimaginable 20 or 25 years ago, or however long it was since I was at university. That is a wonderful thing for students to be doing, it will reap huge dividends over time and it is the way to go. That is why we completely support the objectives of the Aimhigher programme, though I note that the Minister has ordered a review of it and that it is to be cut by £19 million in 2007-08, so I would be grateful if he would explain the consequences of that cut for the objectives that we all share.

As I mentioned previously, north Staffordshire has one of the lowest participation rates in the country. The crucial stage is 17-plus—getting people to complete their courses and then go on to higher education. What would the hon. Gentleman’s party do in particular to improve the careers advice service?

One thing worth considering is getting rid of the Connexions service. The general problem that the hon. Gentleman raises is at the heart of the whole widening participation agenda. At every stage from 16 on, we are trying to remedy defects and divisions in our education system that appeared much earlier on. That is the key point that I want to make today.

Too often, there is a direct read-across from economic or social disadvantage to academic disadvantage. Let us consider two small kids of 22 months—one from a low socio-economic background and one from a well-off background. Let us suppose that at 22 months the kid from the poor background does well in a test and the one from the well-off background does relatively badly. By the age of six, their positions will have been reversed, and the gap will never again be closed.

That raises deep and difficult philosophical questions. What do we mean by raw intelligence? What is the role of the Government in winnowing out and encouraging raw intelligence? Is it randomly distributed throughout the population? It would be crazy to discriminate against parents who read to their children and who make an effort to turn the television off and take away the PlayStation in order to improve literacy. We also have to recognise, however, that the system is simply not working for poorer brighter kids.

By the age of 16, almost half of those qualifying for free school meals in 2005 failed to get a single A* to C-grade GCSE. Only 19.8 per cent. received five or more A* to C-grade GCSEs including maths and English. In recent years, the gap in attainment between the free-school-meals lot and the non-free-school-meals lot appears to be widening. Those people do not go on to do A-levels, and the consequence is that there are very few candidates in that socio-economic group with the requisite A-level qualifications to get into university. There were about 850 in that group, all told, who got three grade As at A-level. It is no wonder that it is so hard for the universities, which are keen to meet these political objectives, to show that they are widening access and participation, when they are all chasing the same small number of candidates from those groups.

During the debate on top-up fees, I met the then Secretary of State to discuss the effectiveness of the Connexions service. The hon. Gentleman has just said that he would get rid of it, but we would then have nothing. What would he replace it with?

I am sorry, the hon. Gentleman must have misunderstood me. It is our purpose to reform the Connexions service, not to get rid of it. I am grateful to him for allowing me to clarify that point.

We were talking about the gap in attainment between free-school-meal kids and non-free-school-meal kids, and what worries me is that the position is even worse when we look at their respective performances in the kind of subjects that universities traditionally value. I tend to get into even more hot water than usual when I talk about this, because I use the term “crunchy subjects”. That is not popular with the educational establishment—it does not seem to be popular with anybody—but I continue to use it. It seems to be an article of faith that all academic subjects are equally academically challenging, but I am not sure that that is entirely true—[Interruption.] Perhaps I have support from the Liberal Benches on that. I do! I am very glad to see it.

I shall defend my position on this by making reference to a study by Durham university which looks at the rates of progression from an A grade at GCSE to an A grade at A-level. I hope that we are in agreement across the House that it is palpably easier to progress from an A at GCSE to an A at A-level in some subjects than in others. Are we agreed on that? Thank you. In so far as there are crunchy subjects—I think that it is agreed that there are—the worry is that they are being increasingly ghettoised in the independent sector and in the top performing state schools.

Before we leave the subject of differential attainment between children of different social backgrounds, may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the amazing insights that he is bringing to the debate have been common knowledge on this side of the House for many years? Not only that, but it has been an article of faith for us that something needs to be done about it. Is the logic of his new insight into these matters that he now completely accepts the kind of intervention that our Government have brought in since 1997 in early years and primary education, and in raising achievement in secondary schools? Does he think that anything done by the Government since 1997 has not been designed to contribute to closing that attainment gap?

Of course, the Opposition support anything that can be done to improve children’s performance in the early years, but I am afraid that recent statistics do not bear out the hon. Gentleman’s confidence in the Government’s record. I am glad that he says that my analysis is common ground—

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to complete my point.

In 2004, an increasing divergence was seen between the maintained sector and the independent sector in the crunchy subjects. No amount of extolling what the Chancellor has done can massage that away. Let me give the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) the figures. If he looks at the 2004 A-level statistics, he will see exactly what I mean, and the Labour Government cannot escape responsibility for the problem. In 2004, there was an increase in some of the easier subjects—I am glad that he accepts that analysis—with art up 11 per cent., communications and media studies up 22.9 per cent., design and technology up 23 per cent. and business studies up 13.4 per cent.

I do not wish to deprecate those subjects—I greatly admire the teachers of those subjects, and they are in many ways wonderful qualifications to attain. In parallel, however, some of what the hon. Member for Bury, North and I would agree to be the hardest A-level subjects have declined in the maintained sector. Let me give him the figures. Chemistry was down 2.4 per cent.; physics was down 9.1 per cent.; maths was down 10.4 per cent.; French, which the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning studied at university—I cannot remember whether he is the hon. or right hon. Gentleman, but he jolly well ought to be right hon.—was down by 16.7 per cent, in spite of his efforts; and German was down 24.9 per cent.

Those statistics are not under dispute. What is under dispute is the way in which the hon. Gentleman, to get himself off the hook, is trying to conflate two separate issues: the differential levels of achievement by social class over time, which have been reduced since 1997 because of the Government’s efforts, and the distribution of high-ability pupils between the state and private sector.

My point is a simple one. In trying to widen participation, which we all want to do, we must ensure that the crunchy, difficult subjects, which the hon. Gentleman and I agree are particularly valued by universities, are popular and well studied throughout our school system.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman the figures for the independent sector. As in the maintained sector, the number of A-level candidates has increased, by 11 per cent. The key point, however, is that entries have also increased for the crunchy subjects. In 2004, chemistry was up 8.6 per cent.; physics, which, if he remembers, was down 9.1 per cent. in the maintained sector, was up 6.5 per cent.; maths was up 8.5 per cent.; and modern languages, which saw such dismaying declines in the maintained sector, were up 5.5 per cent. overall. That translates directly into university admissions.

I am not entirely sure where the hon. Gentleman’s argument is going. I think we all recognise the need for more young people to study science subjects at A-level and at university, but is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should not encourage students to study other subjects that he listed, such as design and technology or media studies? In the north-east, we need students with such qualifications so that they can help to develop our creative industries.

Of course we need students to study those subjects as well. I am merely trying to account for the problems involved in persuading universities to admit candidates from a wide range of social backgrounds at a time when the difficult subjects required by the admission procedures of many universities are not being studied sufficiently in the maintained sector.

In 1995, 15 per cent. of first-year chemistry students came from the independent sector; in 2004, the proportion had risen to 18.5 per cent. In 1995, 26 per cent. of new modern languages students came from the independent sector; in 2004, under the present Government’s watch, the figure was up to 30 per cent. Alas, the trend is all the more pronounced at the so-called top universities. I know that we are not allowed to use that phrase, and the Minister carefully avoided it, but as usual I have introduced an unthinkable phrase into our discourse. In 2004, 48 per cent. of the French department at Bristol university came from the independent sector. I do not believe that that is the university’s fault: as any Labour Member with an ounce of fairness would agree, it makes huge efforts to widen participation. I believe that it is the fault of the school system.

The hon. Gentleman is defending the status quo. He is repeating a set of statistics with which everyone is familiar. What conclusion does he draw, and how does this relate to differential levels of achievement in the early years?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish my argument, he will understand. The problem is that we cannot widen participation in the universities by concentrating on the universities alone, at a time when the performance gap in the schools sector continues to become wider and wider.

While I am on the subject, let me say that I think it quite wrong of the Government to seek—as they have today, apparently—to politicise university admission procedures by the incredible expedient of forcing students to give details of what their parents do, the race to which they belong, and whether their parents obtained a university degree. In my experience, universities are not interested in the background of parents; they are interested in the potential and the academic ability of students. I think that it would be disastrous for every university admissions procedure to become a nightmarish discussion about nature versus nurture. I believe that students have a right to withhold that information, and should be judged on their educational performance and potential alone.

The hon. Gentleman keeps asking me where my argument is going. If he will allow me to make some progress with it, I shall be happy to enlighten him. The school system and the imbalance of the progression and uptake of the crunchy subjects are at least partly responsible for the difficulties that we are discussing.

I cannot resist pointing out that during an earlier discourse, the hon. Gentleman strongly agreed with me that one of the virtues of the new system was that there had been not a fall but an increase in the proportion of students from the lower socio-economic backgrounds. How can we obtain that information unless UCAS asks for it on the application form?

I think the Minister knows the answer to that. Indeed, I think he was about to give it to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). It is perfectly all right, in general, for UCAS to have the information so that we, as a society, can know what kind of people are going to university and can study social progress. What is not right is for university admissions tutors and academics to feel the pressure and oppression of such data, and to be constantly dragged into discussions about the background and parentage of individual candidates when they are seeking to make a judgment about their academic potential. That is wrong, and I hope that the Minister will give students the option to withhold that information.

I can give the hon. Gentleman some support—although, as a Cambridge academic, I might have to declare an interest to do so. The request for information about parental background was removed from the Cambridge application form because it was thought that applicants might think that it might prejudice their application and that it would have an adverse effect on access.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for injecting some common sense from the Liberal Democrat Benches—on this occasion, at least. I hope that the Minister will take account of what he is being told because his position on the matter under discussion is mistaken.

The imbalance in respect of the uptake of difficult subjects is producing perverse incentives. Let me give an example. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) talked about the need to encourage people to study science subjects, and we are all keen to keep our science departments open, but there is a paradox involved in that. If a university admits a good science candidate, the chances are—statistically, this is very likely—that they will come from a relatively well-off background and from a relatively successful school. Therefore, the university might achieve the objectives of admitting a good science candidate and of expanding science education in this country, but it will not achieve the objective of widening participation.

As I—and the Minister, too—never tire of saying, in terms of science, success is followed by success. Let me give a statistic that the Minister should have used when addressing the Liberal Democrats: engineering graduates enjoy an earnings increase of £243,730 as opposed to an increase of only £34,494 for those, like the Minister and me, who were so unwise as to study an arts degree. That point is a great advertisement for science, and it should be used more widely by all Members to evangelise on the benefits of the study of science at university.

However—to return to my core point—the tragedy is that we deprive our children of a realistic choice of what to study much too early in the system; that happens not at university, but much earlier. As well as taking steps such as recruiting more science teachers and making science more interesting, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that we should take a harder look at the effects of the league table system, and particularly the extent to which the tables build in disincentives to study what I call the crunchy subjects. As my hon. Friend suggested, it would be a sensible reform if we were to give a special weighting in school performance assessment and league tables to such difficult subjects—which are the subjects that universities look at in particular in deciding on admissions. That is the key to what I, the Minister and everybody else wants to achieve, which is to expand the classic route to university.

I want to return to the crunchy issue of Connexions. The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the importance of good career advice for acquiring information, confidence and aspiration, and he has made it clear that he would not get rid of such advice, but that he would reform it. Lest Members think that he might be making policy on the hoof, will he tell us what is the key reform that he would implement in respect of Connexions?

It is particularly important that students have better advice on the right mixture of GCSEs necessary to gain admission to the place they want to go, but we will not solve the problem we are discussing by addressing the careers advice system alone. We must make sure that all children in all schools have equal access to the vital utensils that they will need to get to higher education. The hon. Gentleman trivialises the matter by endlessly banging on about Connexions.

Let me turn to a point that has been repeatedly made: everyone involved in universities who is listening to this debate and my speech—and everyone else who is listening—would say that we are missing out addressing a huge chunk of matters relating to how we could widen access to higher education. The hon. Member for Bury, North made just that point a moment ago. We should not think of higher education as an 18-24 issue or even as an 18-30 issue. We have to encourage all sorts of groups to think of themselves as university material at all kinds of ages.

We should also be expanding part-time study and it is interesting to hear the focus on that point in the Chamber today. We are clearly all getting pressure from constituents to expand part-time provision and find an imaginative way—I am sure that the Government can think of one—to ensure that part-time students have the same access to financial help as full-time students. That would be very expensive, and I am not making any spending pledge, because I would be immediately jugulated. I am conscious that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) is in his place and watching me very carefully, but it would be good if we could consider the issue. I heard what the Minister said about not wanting to drive out business funding, and the point about dead weight is well taken, but there has to be some way to help part-time students.

It is sad that one sector that has declined under this Government is the adult and community learning sector. The Minister shakes his head and I hesitate to disagree with him, but the numbers for that sector are down on 1997.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman is being extremely entertaining, but he has been speaking for nearly half an hour. Could he just get on with the argument, because we are waiting for it? We have heard a lot of waffle, but what is the Conservative party’s view on how to broaden access?

That is very disobliging of the hon. Gentleman, who was being kind to me earlier. I have already made it clear that we have two concerns. The first and most important is that the school system is not adequate for the job of widening participation in the way that we all want to see. That is why we should look again at the league table system, and there was some nodding by Labour Members when I made that point—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman was nodding off—[Interruption.] Perhaps they were shaking their heads. I said that we must ensure that people did not face any disincentives when choosing to take the crunchy subjects that universities value and that assist people in getting into higher education. That would be a useful reform and it has been promulgated by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, who is in his place on the Front Bench.

Secondly, we should consider part-time students, who come disproportionately—

I keep being interrupted and asked to make fresh points. I am obviously stimulating much thought in what passes for Labour Members’ minds.

We should do more to stimulate part-time study, because part-time students—as Labour Members will know—come disproportionately from low-income groups. The Minister recited the figures today, but we all know that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force is already in work. We need to keep training them and, as the Minister rightly said, to become more competitive.

I wish to end with a thought about increasing participation generally, not only in universities but in education as a whole. It is widely recognised that one of the failures of this Government, to which the Minister did not allude, is that there has been a 15 per cent. increase, to 1.25 million, in the number of 16-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. We are seeing, time and again, the results of failures at earlier stages of education. We need a better vocational route for those people and a better progression from further education to higher education. I am glad that progress has been made, although I realise that the Further Education and Training Bill was a rushed job, spatchcocked together at the last minute—Interruption.] I thought that was what the Minister said. However, he has been imaginative and conciliatory in his solution to the difficult problem of further education colleges issuing degrees with no co-operation with universities. I think he has accepted that articulation agreements will be in the Bill—I hope he will reply on that point—which is a good thing, because the agreements will ensure that there is integration and co-ordination between FE and HE institutions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that co-operation between local FE colleges and universities will be an opportunity to release the huge untapped pool of talents of women who did not go to university when they were younger and have now brought up their children? They will be able to undertake a course of academic or other study and acquire a degree without having to move away from home or give up their other responsibilities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right. We support the broad thrust of the Bill because it will help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, as long as we make sure that the FE and HE sectors are properly interlocked and not in pointless competition. We support the measure not because we want to aim at pointless targets of 50 per cent. participation in higher education, but because we believe that universities have enormous power to change society and to change people’s lives. That is why widening participation is a vital objective, provided we remember that we cannot ask universities to remedy the divisions and injustices that have already appeared in British education. Any serious attempt to widen participation must address the serious and growing gulf in performance between our schools.

We should congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning on his role in initiating this debate on widening access. It is high time that we debated the subject in the House. The Select Committee on Education and Skills has just embarked on a major inquiry into the sustainable university and the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is welcome to participate in any of our sessions. I am sure that some of the distinguished people who will give evidence over the next few weeks will be of great interest to him.

We must look seriously at the progress report on higher education. Much of what the Minister said is right and should be welcomed. I hope I shall not be castigated by anyone in the university world if some of my remarks are a little uncomplimentary about the higher education sector’s timidity in meeting some of the challenges.

I think all parties agree that getting less-privileged young people into higher education is a difficult job, and that although all the statistics show that there has been gradual improvement, it has not been fast enough for most of us. What should we do about that? We know that more than 90 per cent. of 18-year-olds with the appropriate qualifications go into higher education. Most young people who remain in education after the age of 17 go on to higher education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who has left the Chamber, suggested. That is to be celebrated, but those figures do not include enough kids from poorer backgrounds. We need to raise both our aspirations for those young people and their achievements.

Can I have my cake and eat it? What irritates me about some of our colleagues—not just Opposition Members, but Labour Members too—and many media commentators is that they pontificate about what goes on in our schools but do not actually visit them. In my job, I make sure that I get a strike record of visiting two or three schools a week. That means piling in an awful lot during term time. However, there is nothing like it.

If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, picked up The Sunday Times and read the education stories and finished with the last page and an article by the former chief inspector of schools, that would almost drive you to suicide. The only thing that prevents a suicidal act in my case is the prospect of visiting a real school on the Monday or Tuesday. If we go to a school, we see the good teaching, great learning and the highly motivated staff.

The best teachers that I have seen in my lifetime are now coming through. The new generation of teachers make wonderful school leaders. Indeed, last week, I spoke at the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham and saw how many new young heads are coming through aided by inspirational new programmes such as “fast track” that identify early on the young teachers who have the potential to become heads. I met two only last week. They are aged 29 and they are heads of their schools. That is truly inspirational.

Before my hon. Friend moves on from discussing the educational guru of The Sunday Times, he will recall that he played an important part in the demise of the former chief inspector. Given Mr. Woodhead’s continuing influence over a large section of the British establishment in respect of education policy, does not my hon. Friend think that Mr. Woodhead would be a suitable candidate to bring before the Select Committee at a future hearing?

The guru status and influence of that particular gentleman can be exaggerated. I will have to think about my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

The hon. Gentleman has just repeated a comment that he made in questions to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills earlier. He seems to be under the misapprehension that Opposition Members do not visit schools. May I assure him that he is preaching to the converted? I, and every colleague I know, frequently visit our schools and share his concern and interest.

I was just trying to get the balance right. I meet many Members of Parliament who do not visit many schools, and I urge them to do so. However, let us put that issue to one side for a moment.

We want to raise the aspirations of 18-year-olds. However, what was disappointing about the speech of the hon. Member for Henley was that he did not go below the age of 18 and explore what we can do to stimulate those pupils further. There was a broad generalisation that we must improve schools. Of course, that is so, but there has already been a steady improvement. However, he did not mention the fact that the independent sector is good at identifying what he calls the “crunchy subjects”. I am always a bit cautious about crunchy subjects because one person’s crunchy subject is not the same as another’s. Is economics a crunchy subject? Is law a crunchy subject?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that English and mathematics are crunchy subjects. The disgrace of our education system is that 44 per cent. of children still leave primary school unable to do reading, writing or basic mathematics. That is where the division begins and that is exactly the point that I was making throughout my speech.

That is the Woodhead argument, is it not? It is not true. That is not the percentage of children leaving school at 11 with those low levels. The hon. Gentleman does the children and teachers of this country an injustice by exaggerating the levels of illiteracy and innumeracy. Perhaps he can provide me with the facts or statistics that would authenticate his wild view, or perhaps he will change his view after two minutes as he did about the Connexions service as the result of an earlier intervention. It is not right to talk about low levels of performance. The performance of children in our schools is improving steadily, although of course it is never good enough and we want it to be better.

Let me talk about the responsibility of higher education in that respect. I have taken the Education and Skills Committee to visit many of the ivy league universities in the United States. People in those universities do not sit there, concerned and worried about the lack of bright students from less privileged backgrounds. The universities have a technique for identifying where those students are and a rigorous way of going out, finding them and bringing them into their institutions. If we look at the overall performance—particularly of the research-rich universities in our country—it is lacking, in terms of what our universities could learn from the United States. Stanford, Princeton and other leading ivy league universities in America have a map of America that shows every state, city and community. They know where the students are coming from and they know when they are underperforming in terms of attracting students from a particular state or municipality. They are so well organised that they use their alumni, as well as professional staff, to visit schools in areas from which they do not get students.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, slowly but surely, universities in this country—certainly in the north-east—are changing? However, we have to get to a situation whereby universities visit not just secondary schools, but primary schools to light the little touch paper there and to put the idea of going to university not just into the kids’ minds, but more importantly—especially in families where there is no tradition of going into higher education—into the parents’ minds.

I agree entirely that it would be much better if British universities did what American ivy league universities do in identifying those who can most benefit from a higher education, but the hon. Gentleman must recognise that the major difference is the amount of funding and the resources that American universities have to do that with. I am sure he would agree with me that many British universities do as much as they possibly can with the limited resources that they have available.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. American universities, and especially ivy league universities, have greater resources. When one meets a president from somewhere such as Stanford, he will have 50 MBAs standing behind him. That does not happen with most vice-chancellors in most universities in Britain. But let us get the balance right. I am not condemning universities in this country; I am saying that they could do far more in terms of going down their supply chain and looking at where their talent comes from and, if there is a deficiency, doing something positive about it.

I have been rather disappointed in some of our institutions. I am a governor of the London School of Economics and I tell our director that we do not do enough. We have summer schools, as do many universities. But, without the impetus of the Sutton Trust and Sir Peter Lampl, many universities would not even have gone that far. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and I have visited summer schools in Cambridge. The criterion for someone to go on one of those Cambridge summer schools, which are supported by companies such as Goldman Sachs and organisations such as the Sutton Trust, is that neither parent has been to university. Perhaps it is dreadful that that criterion is used, if the hon. Member for Henley is to be listened to, but the fact is that a high percentage of the young people invited to those summer schools get into Cambridge. So, there is much that can be done.

Universities in this country, including the London School of Economics, should go further. I am disappointed that more universities have not gone into partnership with academies, or created academies. They could go down their supply chain and choose to be based in communities where they could make a difference and participate in the process long before children choose their subjects. That is the level of partnership that I would like to see our universities indulging in. There is also the new ability to form trusts, which are in some senses less onerous. I would like to see more imagination from our higher education institutions in reaching down the supply chain, identifying the problem and doing something about it.

Let me make a comparison. The thing that, more than anything else, has stimulated universities in the United Kingdom to move faster towards the American tradition is fundraising. Universities throughout the country now carry out fundraising much more successfully than before, usually because they are copying American techniques. Indeed, many universities are hiring Americans to raise money for their institutions. If more attention were paid to the situation in America—the Americans have a similar culture to ours, and a comparison with continental Europe is much more difficult—we could learn American techniques reasonably quickly. There is much to learn from the United States. Of course, American universities have more resources, but there are now more resources in this country than there have been for a long time because the fundraising of some of our premier institutions has been very successful.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although there are many similarities with the American system, one of the major differences, which has a direct bearing on what he is saying, is that American universities have a well-developed system of keeping their alumni interested in, and supportive of, the university? Does he agree that British universities could try to do that to a greater extent? If they were to succeed, there would be not only more examples of people from less well-off backgrounds who had gone to university on which to draw, but better access to funding.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I welcome the fact that that is happening in British universities of every kind. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will go further with the tax breaks and incentives that he can give to people who put something back by investing in the institutions from which they have benefited.

Although we have teased each other about this, it is true that variable fees, or top-up fees, as the Lib Dems successfully called them, have been a success story. Those of us who passionately believed in variable fees and still have the bruises from our discussions about them in the House—they were backed by a very narrow vote, against the opposition of Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members—are seeing that the measure is showing much success. English universities are out-competing universities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on applications, and there is evidence that more children in England from deprived social and economic backgrounds are going into higher education than in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is a success story.

Although we did not know about this, one of the less successful aspects of the measure that is now materialising—we have evidence for it—is the paradox that the universities with the most funding for bursaries have fewer students from socially deprived backgrounds to whom to award them. We have a problem that the research-rich universities have a disproportionate amount of funding for bursaries compared with the less well-endowed universities, where the need for bursaries is greater. We must do something about that.

I heard what the Minister said about the use of unused funding for social inclusion, but there would be a danger that we could develop a system similar to that in independent schools. Independent schools justify their position to me by saying that they put money back into poorer students, but the “poorer students” to whom they give bursaries tend to be those with parents who are not very well-off and are struggling with the fees, rather than children who are from very poor backgrounds, but have ability. There is a danger that such a situation might arise if we were to give the bursaries to people who did not really deserve them.

On access and fees, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the crucial measure of the system is the chance that a particular person born in a particular year will apply for higher education? If he does agree, what is his response to the calculation that a child born in 1986-87 had a 43.7 per cent. chance of applying to university by the time of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service cut-off point of 15 January, that that figure fell the following year to 40.5 per cent., and that although the figure increased in the most recent year, it increased to only 43.2 per cent., which was less than the starting point? Does not that contradict what the hon. Gentleman said about access and fees?

No, it does not, because we only have one year’s figures to look at in considering the impact of fees. As we have said, we will look very carefully at the figures for the three years. One reason why Labour Members believed that the variable fees option was the way to go was that we understood clearly that although expenditure on education across the piece had increased substantially under the Labour since 1997, less of an increase had been affordable in higher education. We knew that realistically, there was one way to get new resources for the higher education system, and we knew that there was one way to start paying staff in higher education properly—something that the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) will perhaps appreciate.

Let us remember that we still have many world-class universities of which we should be proud, but we cannot take them for granted, and if we do not pay academic staff adequate salaries we will not get the talent coming through. People will not choose an academic or research career, but will instead go to the City of London, which everyone seems to think is the acme of success. They will not choose to give something back by teaching in a higher education institution. There has to be a balance; if people choose that pathway, they should earn an adequate income for doing so. I have a vested interest, as I am still a vestigial member of whatever the Association of University Teachers is called these days. I also have a son-in-law who is a struggling academic; they will all tell you that they are still struggling on their salaries, which compare badly with those in the United States.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, and I appreciate his supportive comments about rates of pay for my colleagues in academia, but he should appreciate that the amount of money that universities, especially research universities, get from tuition fees is actually quite small, compared with the university budget as a whole. In Cambridge the total university income is something like £500 million, and the net income from fees is less than £20 million, so academic pay is not entirely determined—in fact, is hardly determined at all—by tuition fees.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is quibbling a bit. The fact is that a significant tranche of new money came in, and will continue to come in, for higher education. One of the great things about the university system in this country is its relative autonomy from government. It is far superior to the rather centralised systems in continental Europe. One of the reasons why I know the details is that the Select Committee on Education and Skills is considering the Bologna accord at the moment, and we have taken evidence on the subject.

In a moment. The very different tradition in mainland Europe, and difference in the history of its universities, has been brought home to me. We should surely nurture a system in which there is greater independence from government. We were talking about receiving money from alumni, and we are now talking about receiving money from fees, and surely that arrangement is part of the health and strength of a relatively independent higher education system. It adds to universities’ viability and independence. It means that in many years’ time, long after we have stopped strutting this stage, we will have a university and higher education system that maintains itself, and has independence and integrity. Surely the hon. Member for Cambridge would agree with that.

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had followed the never-never land approach of the Liberal Democrats and opposed tuition fees, that extra money would not be going into Higher Education, and would not be having the effect that he describes?

When the Select Committee intervened and held a session to try to bring the two sides together in the pay dispute, I asked the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers whether she was embarrassed about taking the money after opposing the proposal. She said that she did not feel any embarrassment at all. [Interruption.] Well, I am glad that she spoke up for her members in that regard.

Another problem affecting access to higher education is the existence of subcultures. We can discuss the problem in an airy manner, but some children face barriers to higher education. As I travel around England looking at the problem and talking to students, I meet people in my own community and in other communities, and I have discovered that there are distinct subcultures in which people do not believe that higher education can play a part in their life. They do not know anyone who went into higher education, and they do not have any neighbours in higher education. They live in communities where that aspiration is not voiced, so there is a tremendous onus on their teachers to introduce them to higher education.

It is extremely difficult to tackle that problem. We know which parts of the country, which wards and which postcode areas are affected, so we must identify the relevant schools so that we can support them in raising aspirations and giving students the imagination to think about going to university. With my colleagues in the Select Committee, I try to visit schools around the country and talk not only to teachers but to parents and students. We know when we are in part of the country where that aspiration is low. I recently visited a Yorkshire school—it is not in my constituency—in a white working-class area of social housing. The head told me, “We don’t have many aspirations that these children will go into higher education.” That attitude made me angry, as it is rare that one hears such low aspirations from teachers.

We must, however, tackle those subcultures. We know where they are, which is why I want more active participation by the Government, through whatever agency, so that schools can raise the aspirations of their students and tackle the problem. There are other subcultures that worry me, too. I have four children, two of whom went to Cambridge, one to Bristol and one to Edinburgh. I accept that I am lucky that my children all went to university in towns and cities that are accessible and pleasant to visit. They went to local comprehensives, and they all said that there is a subculture in those universities that puts off a hell of lot of children from ordinary backgrounds. I do not know as much about Oxford as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and other Oxford graduates in the Chamber, but a subculture dominated by the independent sector and the leading public schools is prevalent in our research-rich universities.

That problem is underestimated. In the past five years, the number of students from Eton going to Oxford and Cambridge has grown from 38 to 70 students a year. That statistic makes me angry, as does a similar statistic for Westminster school. I do not wish to condemn those schools, but Oxford, Cambridge—and, I admit, the London School of Economics—are regarded almost as finishing schools for our leading independent schools. That is not the only problem, as a subculture has been set up within those universities. Having discussed the issue with my children, who have been to those universities, I know that there is another Oxford, another Edinburgh and another Bristol. That subculture is extremely off-putting to children from other—

The hon. Gentleman knows a lot about it. I know a little bit about his Oxford set and the old Etonians at that university. The perception among many ordinary bright young kids—and he will never be able to see this—is that those universities are not for them, because the pervading ethos is set by a restricted and privileged group of young people. We underestimate that.

Five years ago, we said that bright kids from working class homes were put off applying for Oxford and Cambridge because the system of application is so distinctive and so different. We took evidence that because Oxford and Cambridge were different, ordinary kids in ordinary comprehensives who were bright enough to be predicted to get three A grades were put off applying because they saw those universities as different, exclusive and not for them. We recommended on an all-party basis that that system should change.

It is a tragic comment on the vacuity at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that he is obliged to reduce an important and interesting debate about higher education, access to higher education and the difficulties of allowing schools to compete on an even playing field to an ad hominem, ad personam discussion of the off-putting characteristics of this or that group of people. That is tragic, and it also shows that the hon. Gentleman is failing to address the key point of the debate. If we want to widen access to higher education, there is no point in blaming the people who are at Russell group universities for being in some way off-putting—a pathetic argument, which will be bitterly resented by Russell group universities, because they make huge efforts to widen participation. We should look at what is happening in our schools.

It is obvious that the shadow Minister does not understand the problem. He has been part of that system of privilege, and it is so ensconced in him that he does not even realise that it exists.

I do not find the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) remotely off-putting, but is not the key point in the debate about differential access to the leading research universities for applicants from state schools and private schools the HEFCE research which shows clearly that for every given set of A-level point scores, applicants from state schools gain a higher class of degree than applicants from private schools? Is that not the key point that we should focus on? Does my hon. Friend think our leading research universities are doing enough to recognise that statistical fact?

My hon. Friend has stolen the last part of my speech. That is precisely the argument. Many of our bright young people underperform because they are given poor guidance and they come from a background where they are not encouraged to stay in education, and all the things that we take for granted. In my speech I have tried to identify some of the steps that we could take in partnership, and some of the ways in which higher education institutions could reach down and do something about that. The hon. Member for Henley does not like that. The feeling that some of our research universities are centres of privilege to which ordinary young men and women have no access and no right is one of the problems. I am trying to balance the argument, but he does not like it.

The hon. Gentleman has made a sincere speech and some good points. I was particularly interested in what he said about the zones that he goes into where people have no aspiration whatever to go to university. That is tragic and we need to work on it. As for the quality of the elite universities and the ethos that they allegedly exude, the fact is that in the 1960s far more children, proportionally, went to those universities from the maintained sector than do now. It was about 60 per cent.—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is on his feet making an intervention. Perhaps he will bring that remark to a close.

The point is that in the 1960s and 1950s far more children from the maintained sector got access to those very universities than achieve it now, because of the failure of the hon. Gentleman’s Government’s schools policy.

Order. Interventions are made from a standing position, and Mr. Sheerman is responding to an intervention.

Most of us in the Chamber, including the hon. Gentleman, know that the figures are much more complex than the ones that he has shouted at me.

The point is that the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) conceal the fact that in the 1960s direct grant grammar schools were deemed to be part of the maintained system. That figure comes from the redefinition of which schools were in the maintained system, which is completely irrelevant to widening participation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Opposition spokesman has been infuriated by the fact that one particular aspect of my speech is about the power and influence of one sector of education in this country, which is highly privileged and from which he took advantage.

As one of the working-class kids who was not put off by Cambridge’s atmosphere and who went on to interview applicants for Cambridge undergraduate courses for 20 years, may I say that the reason why there is a different cut-off point for the Cambridge entrance procedure has to do with the desire to interview as many applicants as possible in as short a time as possible, in order to be fair in comparing various applicants. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) might be right to say that a different system would have a better effect, but he should be aware that there might be negative results of switching away from that system.

I want to end my remarks by saying this: this country must use all the potential of all the people. One valuable point that has come out of today’s debate is that we are not focusing simply on the potential of young people at 18 or 21. As my hon. Friends have said, part-time students and mature students are entering higher education in larger numbers; you will know something about that, Madam Deputy Speaker. People are deciding to enter higher education later, which is a success story. We want people with potential to be able to go into higher education, if it is right for them. It is not right for everyone.

We do not have a system in our universities that identifies potential as well as that in the United States—I am sorry to return to that example. When I have talked to the presidents of universities in the United States, they say, “We don’t interview. If we wanted more people like us, we would interview.” Many people in this country are hooked up to the view that interviews are the best way to identify talent. We restrict the scope of people who enter higher education by using interviews. Some universities do not interview, but the research-rich universities tend to interview.

In the United States most universities use five different criteria on which to judge a student, including written work, standard assessment tests and recommendations from teachers. Those five criteria are used to judge not only examination passes and grades, but whether students have the potential to benefit from the institution. That goes to the heart of today’s debate. If we are going to do something radical about getting into higher education all the talents who could be there, we must change how we assess potential at every level of our education system.

I enjoyed the long speech by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), and I enjoyed some of the interventions even more. One of the other jobs that I do for my party in this House is to sit on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, and yesterday we visited the Natural History museum together to see the outreach work that it does in education. We did not see any Liberal Democrat creatures among the specimens there, nor Etonian creatures for that matter.

When the Minister opened our debate, he rightly referred to the economic reasons why we need to get more people educated to level 4 or degree standard. The Leitch report, which has not been mentioned by name so far, has the rather challenging target of increasing from 29 per cent. to 40 per cent. the number of people in our work force who are educated to degree level. The stark statistic in the report, though, is that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force have already left formal education. That suggests that the people who will need to go into higher education in order to achieve that target by 2020 are the people who are currently in work, which suggests in turn that an even greater proportion of people than now will be studying for degrees part-time. Moreover, a greater contribution will probably be made by the further education college sector, which already contributes about 14 per cent. of the people who study for degrees. Those are some of the topics that we have not heard a great deal about this afternoon.

We are here to discuss widening participation in higher education, which is about much more than simply increasing the stock of the population—the human capital—with a degree. Throughout the past few decades, because a greater proportion of the population have gone into higher education—we hear about fiscal drag; perhaps this is educational drag—people from all classes have participated more. None the less, there are still some alarming gaps, which means that we do not have a broad mix of social classes within higher education. For instance, over the past 15 years the proportion of people with unskilled or manual worker parents who go on into higher education has increased from 11 per cent. to 19 per cent., whereas the proportion of children who have parents with non-manual or professional occupations has increased from 35 per cent. to 50 per cent. The social groups at either end of the social spectrum, as measured by the Office for National Statistics, have increased their participation in higher education, but nevertheless the gap has widened. If we go back 40 years, the proportion of students from the lowest socio-economic group of all has barely changed—it has increased, but the increase has not been dramatic—whereas the highest socio-economic group of students with professionally qualified parents who have been to university themselves has a participation rate in higher education of more than 80 per cent. That implies that we have reached saturation point in that social group.

There are other differences in society. Nobody has referred to the gender difference that is opening up in higher education. For some years, the Government’s favourite measurement of initial participation rates in higher education, for which they have the target of 50 per cent.—although they do not talk about it much any more—has been stuck at about 42 per cent. However, that is an average, and underneath that average we find that the participation rate is 37 per cent. for male students and 47 per cent. for girls—a 10 per cent. gap that is widening with each year that passes. That trend continues in the most recent UCAS application statistics, which the Minister is fond of quoting. There are 221,000 applications from women and 174,000 applications from young men.

As many hon. Members have acknowledged, a large part of the explanation for that difference lies further back in the education system: it reflects attainment at school, not just the higher education process itself. In future, the gap between girls and boys may actually have some beneficial aspects in society. The salary premium has been mentioned a couple of times. At the moment, male graduates tend to get the higher salary premium because of the kind of professions that males and females have traditionally gone into. Perhaps the widening gender gap means that women will start to dominate in some of the higher-earning professions such as medicine, law and accountancy. That might be a good spin-off benefit.

The ethnic gap has not been mentioned. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on 13 March, the Minister gave the latest available statistics, which show that only 305 students who identify themselves as black African, black British or black Afro-Caribbean, and only 300 who identify themselves as being of Bangladeshi origin, went to Russell group universities. That is a pitifully small number, which does not get the attention that it deserves.

Geographical variations have also emerged from the underlying trends. My constituency, along with others such as Sheffield, Hallam, is in the top category for participation in higher education. However, Bristol, South—which the Paymaster General represents, just over the river from my constituency—and Nottingham, South are the bottom two parliamentary constituencies for participation in higher education. In one city, which is one of the most prosperous cities in Europe, and the most prosperous in this country after London and Edinburgh according to some measurements, there are stark differences in educational attainment and participation in higher education.

I am listening attentively to the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I agree with the thrust of it. Will he comment on the extent to which Bristol university has extended access to students from St. Paul’s, which I believe is the ward to which he refers, and contrast that with the work of London Guildhall university, which has a remarkable record of widening participation for ethnic minority communities?

If the hon. Gentleman is patient, he will find that I shall deal with fair access to particular institutions, and the point that he makes, shortly.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although the Government have made some progress with black African ethnic minorities, the representation of Asian Indians in higher education institutions has gone backwards? How does he explain the disparity between the wide range of ethnic minority children and white children that appears to exist at universities?

I thank my Select Committee colleague for his intervention. It is perhaps for the Minister rather than me to explain matters on behalf of the Government. However, even within the white group to which he refers, there are enormous variations between social classes. It is a flaw in the statistics that they do not reflect that. The participation rates of white boys from council estates in higher education are probably even lower than those of students who identify themselves as being from the different ethnic groups that we discussed.

In my constituency, eight wards have higher education participation rates that exceed 43 per cent., which is the highest figure that is given in the Higher Education Funding Council’s statistics. However, nine wards in Bristol, South have participation rates of below 16 per cent. In Bristol, North-West, Southmead ward has a participation rate of less than 10 per cent. Westbury on Trym, which is next door, but happens, by a quirk of the boundary, to be in my constituency, has a participation rate that exceeds 60 per cent. I shall not breach the rule about props, but simply mention that the cover of HEFCE’s compendium of statistics, which I am holding, displays a map of the Bristol wards.

There are similar pockets elsewhere. Not many representatives of rural constituencies are currently in the Chamber, but participation rates are unacceptably low in parts of Cornwall, Devon and other rural seats.

What are the barriers to people accessing higher education? As has already been said, solving the problem lies not only with higher education institutions but with attainment in school or college. Of course, the staying-on rates at 16 or 17 are also important.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, while there is an economic dimension in respect of the relationship between socially deprived areas and the staying-on rates, another problem is the lack of role models—perhaps people who have themselves been to university—in those communities to help raise the aspirations of youngsters to go to university?

Yes, I agree absolutely. I intend to say more about that later.

The 2003 review by Steven Schwartz showed that of the top three Office for National Statistics social groups, 47 per cent. get the requisite A-levels to go on into higher education, compared with 23 per cent.—less than half—of classes 4, 5, 6 and 7. A large part of the problem could be dealt with, I believe, by the reform of the curriculum. Some points were raised about that in Education and Skills questions this morning. The reason why people are not achieving more at 16 or are not motivated to stay on beyond 16 probably lies in the school curriculum itself. Although we have a statutory school leaving age of 16, I think that many people in our communities leave school mentally at 14 or even younger. That is the big challenge for the Minister and his ministerial colleagues—to make sure that the 14-to-19 diplomas start to arrest that alarming situation.

The Minister initially disputed the fact—though not when it was repeated—that 90 per cent. of people, from whatever social class, who get their A-levels go on to higher education. The big problem is therefore young people not reaching the standard of qualifications that they need. School reform is clearly outside the scope of this particular debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, but there are things that universities and higher education colleges can do about the problem. The Government’s programme has a role to play, but universities can do more through their outreach work.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), I take part in the Royal Society MP-scientist shadowing programme, which I find extremely worth while. Last year, the chemist who was shadowing me—I was shadowing her on that particular occasion—helped me to find out much more about Bristol university’s outreach work in Bristol schools and further afield in rural parts of Gloucestershire. It does much to enthuse children about the excitement of science—chemistry in that case—and to encourage schoolteachers into the university department to upgrade their skills and take them back into the classroom. Those teachers then help to get some of their children interested in what higher education has to offer them.

I hope to speak in another Adjournment debate next Tuesday on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and perhaps that debate will provide an opportunity to enthuse people from different racial groups about history and their past. They might like to do what I did and go on to study history at university.

There are many things that universities can do in their work with schools, but the hon. Members for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) are right that there are aspirational barriers as well as problems with attainment levels in schools. We have a part to play in trying to tackle them. When it comes to our parliamentary role in visiting schools, I think that I can trump the hon. Member for Huddersfield today, because I visited a school before I came here on Monday morning, and on Friday I will visit two primary schools and a secondary school as well. Like the hon. Gentleman, I try to do that as often as I can. We can find out far more about what is going on in our schools by visiting them than we can even by attending Select Committee hearings.

Another barrier to participation in higher education is undoubtedly the burden of debt, exacerbated by fees and the different financial arrangements that students now face. The Minister has been crowing, as we all expected, about the latest UCAS statistics, and that has been echoed by some, though not all, of his hon. Friends. The figures show that UK applications have gone up from about 371,000 to about 395,000—an overall increase of 23,624, to be precise. The point has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that the number of 17 and 18-year-olds who could have applied has gone up by 30,000.

Will the hon. Gentleman distance his party from some of the remarks that were made before the last election about tuition fees discouraging students from applying to go to university? We now have evidence that that is not the case. Will he also accept responsibility for discouraging some young people from low-income backgrounds in my constituency from going to university, because his party’s representation of tuition fees made no mention of the reintroduction of bursaries and grants?

No, I will not accept responsibility for that. In every speech that I made in the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns, whether I was talking to schoolchildren or to people in student unions who had already gone to university, I was careful to make the point that if they had the educational attainment and the ambition to go to university, they should not let the prospect of debt put them off, because university would transform their lives. I am sure that all my fellow Liberal Democrat candidates would have said the same thing. I was actually trying to do some of the Government’s work for them, and I continue to do it. However, that does not mean that we can disregard the fact that debt will be perceived by some students as a barrier to their going into higher education, and that it might well skew their occupational choices thereafter.

I was talking about the Minister crowing about the UCAS statistics on the increase in one year. To do so seems rather perverse, however, given that, underneath that statistic, there has also been an increase in the number of teenagers who are eligible to apply to university. We can get lots of good news out of the way in one go this afternoon, because the number of teenagers who are eligible to apply to go to university will increase every year between now and 2011. I am sure that the Minister will therefore have lots of good news for us in the future.

I do not think that it is perverse to celebrate the fact that a higher number of students are leaving school more qualified to go to university. The hon. Gentleman said earlier that we had effectively reached saturation point among the better-off going to university. Clearly, the level of payment that people in the better-off groups are making is not affecting their entry into higher education. Is he arguing that the better-off should be paying more, to subsidise the least well-off?

That was a rather convoluted economic point. All students will have had their debt increased in the current year by £3,000 when they leave university, no matter what social group they come from. The debt burden will be the same for all of them. The Minister appears to be grunting, and I recognise that the Government have introduced bursaries and maintenance grants, but students use those to live off while they are at university. The grants do not reduce their debt levels thereafter.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the old system, poorer students on average ended up with higher levels of debt? Does he acknowledge that one of the virtues of the new system is that they end up on average with lower levels of debt?

The arrangements that a modern-day applicant has to face are so convoluted, compared with those that we all had to deal with, that I am not sure that we can make that judgment. One of the smart little differences that the Government have made is that a student’s eligibility to borrow from the Student Loans Company is reduced by £1,500 if they qualify for the £2,700 maintenance grant—sometimes called a fee loan, depending on which publication we read. So, yes, they are getting a grant, but the student loan that they have to live on will have been reduced. It is a complicated scene that students face at the moment. The Minister will tell me if I am wrong about that.

The Government would be foolish to rely on one year’s set of statistics for justification. One swallow does not make a summer, and one blip this year does not make for a statistical trend either. Over the past few years, as different financial arrangements have come into play, higher education statistics have been on a rollercoaster, and that will continue for the next few years as students under the old regime leave, and those who have to face the new regime join the system. It is too early for the Government or Labour Back Benchers to justify retrospectively the decision in 2004. They certainly cannot rely on one data set from one year of applications to imply that it will be okay to take the cap off fees in 2009. Such far-reaching policy conclusions cannot be made on the basis of one year’s worth of statistics.

If university applications continue to increase in future years, will the hon. Gentleman’s party then recognise that its stance on tuition fees was wrong?

If the hon. Lady looks at my website or the federal party website, she will see that the first thing that I did when the statistics came out—during the half-term recess, I think—was to welcome them. I welcome more people going into higher education, as would most of my colleagues. That does not mean that we cannot question some of the assumptions made about those statistics.

As the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said, the UCAS statistics do not include the large number of people who apply directly to institutions, either because that is the way that they do it or because they are studying part-time. About 40 per cent. of students currently study part-time. The statistics leave those people out of the equation. We do not yet understand, because the statistics have not been made available to us, the effect of the arrangements on them.

On social class differences, the Minister is clinging to a 0.3 or 0.4 per cent. increase—depending on which table one reads—in participation by lower socio-economic groups. Such a marginal increase in one data set is nothing to draw firm conclusions from. Earlier, he conceded that I had a fair point—just for once—in mentioning that the biggest sub-set of data in the UCAS statistics relates to students who do not volunteer information on their parents’ socio-economic group. We cannot draw hard conclusions from such statistics.

Debt may or may not make a difference. In some circumstances, in which a person is determined to go to university, I accept that it may not. Were I making my university choices again, despite coming from probably a similar background to the Minister’s, from what he said earlier—mine was a single-parent family from a council house in south Wales—I would like to think that financial considerations would not have stopped me. But some people in a similar group might make a different decision. Even if people do go on to university, the issue might skew their choice of institution or subject. We do not know about that yet.

Student bursaries are completely bewildering. I tried to replicate my choices of 20 years ago via the Aimhigher website and gave up after struggling to find out the different levels of financial support for the different institutions and subjects—history and economics—between which I was choosing at the time.

I think that they are. In the end, I chose history. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is nodding that I did a crunchy subject, and I certainly think that it was—I have not read his latest book about Rome, however, although I did see it in the Library the other day.

The Department for Education and Skills has launched a new bursaries website in the past couple of weeks, which is a way of conceding that the information available was bewildering for students to navigate.

It is possible that a third barrier is presented by the structure of degrees. The financial arrangements for part-time students may present a barrier as well, but it is likely that the structure of courses does not attract some people who would like to benefit from higher education. Perhaps we should adopt a credit-based system, allowing students to dip in and out of higher education at different points in their lives, perhaps even studying at different institutions.

The hon. Member for Henley nods. That happens to be my party’s policy; I do not know whether it is his party’s policy, or indeed whether he can speak for his party when his chaperon is absent. It seems that he does not dare to say anything! But it is my party’s policy, something that may not be quite as well known as our opposition to variable fees at the last general election. We would like the degree structure to be reformed, so that students can take up a course of study and if their circumstances change—or for any other reason—can stop and continue with it later, perhaps at a different institution, in order to build up a degree. I understand that Wales is beginning to move in that direction; perhaps England should consider doing the same.

There has been an increase in foundation degrees over the past few years. We welcome that, and look forward to discussing it soon when we debate the Further Education and Training Bill. We may also need to consider the length of study involved in a full-time degree. Why does it have to be three years? It is not three years everywhere else, as we know from discussions we have had elsewhere about the Bologna arrangements. Perhaps the period could be condensed. Do students really need the long holidays that are required by the academics who teach them? If we condensed the programme of study into two years, the debt with which students leave university would undoubtedly decrease, and that would draw more people in.

Perhaps I should inform my hon. Friend that research universities no longer refer to “the long vacation”; it is now called “the research period”. Academics must do their work at some time.

I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me. I trust that the research takes place in the courts of Cambridge and not on a Mediterranean island—unless it is archaeological research, of course. Anyway, there are reforms that I think the higher education sector could introduce to increase participation rates among not just young people, but people of all ages.

Fair access is another issue. Widening participation is not merely about increasing the total volume of people who enter higher education; it is also about the institutions at which they study. Some higher education institutions have been extremely successful in attracting more students. I recently visited the university of Bedfordshire in Luton, where 60 per cent. of students come from areas with a Luton postcode, and I have already mentioned the contribution made by further education colleges to attracting members of the local community to higher education. However, this is not just a question of going to university; it is a question of where people go.

My life—like that of the Minister, as he told us earlier—was undoubtedly changed, not just because I went to university but because I left my home community, then still a mining village in south Wales, to enter a completely different environment in Bristol, where I met many students from Eton and other such schools. I had never met people of that sort before, but, unlike other Members who have spoken today, I was not put off by that, and to this day some of my best friends are people who went to those schools. Nevertheless, fair access must be an aim of widening participation. It is not just a question of increasing numbers; it is a question of ensuring that people have fair access to our top universities, a phrase that has been used a number of times today.

The latest edition of the House of Commons compendium “Social Indicators” shows the benchmarks set by the Higher Education Funding Council for all higher education institutions. Some universities, such as Greenwich and Teesside, exceed their benchmarks for students from certain socio-economic backgrounds with given A-Level grades, while others—including, regrettably, Bristol, of which I am an alumnus and which I now represent in Parliament, as well as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Nottingham— fall short of their expected intake of students from social classes 4 to 7. I will not restart the debate between the hon. Member for Huddersfield—who has left the Chamber—and the hon. Member for Henley about the state school-private school gap, but as recent reports have shown it is widening in some higher education institutions. That means that there is an important role for those institutions to play. I have mentioned the local outreach work that universities do; I know that Bristol university does that in local schools, and I am sure that all other universities also do such work.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the programmes at top American universities. I see no reason why such programmes could not take place at our universities as well. Under the “widening participation” postcode-related grants that universities receive from the HEFC for taking students from certain backgrounds, there is, effectively, a financial incentive. As we know where those low participation postcodes are, why can we not encourage universities to reach well beyond what they consider to be almost a catchment area and pair them off with particular schools, especially those in low participation areas, so that they can enthuse and draw in students from such backgrounds? When I was doing my own university applications—before somebody brings this up, I admit that I am an Oxford reject—I noticed from reading the Oxford prospectus that certain Oxford colleges have historical links to particular schools. Why cannot some of our universities develop links with certain state schools?

To echo a point made earlier, we need to start this process when people are younger. If we start speaking to people when they are 14 or 15, it is probably too late. We need to do more work in our primary schools. I made that point earlier this week when I met some young scientists from the Royal Society of Chemistry representing a group called “Voice of the Future”.

Let me turn to my final point. [Interruption.] I know that other Members are keen to speak, but I think that my speech has been briefer than the contributions from both of the other Front-Bench spokesmen—although perhaps I have not had as many interventions. Fees might skew the choice of subject that people make. We know that there is already a social imbalance in certain subjects: 45 per cent. of the medicine and dentistry intake come from the highest socio-economic group—higher managerial and professional people—compared with 8 per cent. from class 6, which covers semi-routine occupations. The figure for class 7 is so low that it is not even reported. The balance is better in law and business. [Interruption.] Yes, so it is better in the professions of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and myself, but, curiously, the trend is the opposite in education and teaching. Only 14 per cent. of the intake for degrees that lead to teaching careers is from the highest socio-economic group. We are also worried that the intake for science subjects is skewed. Part of the reason for that problem lies further back in the school system, and is to do with the qualifications of the teachers who teach the subjects—in particular physics and chemistry.

There is a huge risk that the market system that the Government might introduce beyond 2009 will make such trends even worse. If we have genuine variability in the tuition fees, that might not deter people from participating in higher education, but I think that it will deter people from going to certain institutions and skew their subject choices.

I began by mentioning the challenge of the Leitch report. Higher rates of participation in higher education will bring about economic prosperity and social justice. Widening participation is all about achieving social justice; it will make sure that we all share in prosperity, and it will also give us a chance of increasing social mobility in our country which, depending on which measurement we use, is either the lowest among the industrial countries or just above the level achieved in the United States. Many Members have cited statistics this afternoon. What is clear is that it is far too early to know with certainty whether fees are having a detrimental effect, but we certainly know that there is a lot more work to be done in widening participation.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams). I do not necessarily agree with all of his analysis, but I share his objectives for social justice.

I should declare an interest in terms of my personal background and as a parliamentary patron of the adult learners body NIACE—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—and a vice-president of Carers UK. I also participated in adult education as a tutor for most of my working life and I continue that interest as a professor emeritus at Swansea university, my former university.

I welcome this debate as an opportunity to recognise and applaud the work of the Labour Government since 1997 in widening participation. The debate is important for two other reasons. The first is the long and honourable record of higher education in attempting to address the questions of social and economic injustice. The second is the current challenge of the skills agenda, as we have already heard from the hon. Gentleman, and—following the Leitch report—the interface between the skills agenda and part-time higher education. That will be the main subject of my contribution.

Before I come to that issue, I will indulge myself in discussion of another crunchy subject—history, which is my discipline—and provide a brief historical perspective. Arguably the most influential thinker on education of the 20th century was Michael Young, the founder of the National Extension college, the inspiration behind the Open university and—the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) may not know this—largely the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto. In his seminal work, “Labour’s Plan for Plenty” from 1947, which was largely the Labour manifesto, he paid tribute to Britain’s greatest social thinker of the 19th century, Robert Owen. We commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert Owen’s death next year. Michael Young said:

“Of all the social services, education is far and away the most important. ‘The best governed state,’ said Robert Owen, the pioneer of modern socialism, ‘will be that which shall possess the best national system of education.’”

We would all endorse that.

It is to the credit of this Labour Government since 1997 and of our first Secretary of State for Education and Employment, as the post was then, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), that one of his first acts was to establish the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. I was privileged to be appointed as a member of that group. Its two reports, “Learning for the 21st Century” and “Creating Learning Cultures: Next Steps in the Learning Age”, provided the intellectual groundwork for the progress in the last decade in such major issues as the interface of lifelong learning with community development, access to learning, stimulating demand among under-represented groups in further and higher education, and building networks and partnerships in localities and regions.

Democratic devolution was developing at the same time in the late 1990s in Scotland and Wales and they pioneered their own educational programmes, which were more radical in some respects. In Wales, the whole vision of the Welsh Assembly Government was of a learning country, and that encouraged much wider participation, especially in building interesting relationships with the voluntary sectors and women’s groups, and in developing the notion of community universities in different parts of Wales that had begun to develop in the period after the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

I turn now to the contemporary challenge for the skills agenda and part-time higher education. I believe that all higher education institutions should address the question of widening participation and the need for greater opportunities for part-time students from the perspective of not only social equity but economic progress. The challenge is both global and local; the two are complementary.

A national campaign would be welcome to highlight the valuable contribution that part-time higher education could make if there were greater opportunities and proper financial support for such study. The National Union of Students debate in Central Hall on 21 March will no doubt provide the opportunity to begin such a campaign. I have been impressed by NUS representations, which reminded us recently that 42 per cent. of HE students are part-time, yet the equalities review of March 2007 shows that the great expansion in higher education has apparently led to an increase of only three percentage points in the number of graduates from the poorest families. That is a debatable figure—indeed, it was discussed earlier—although it is too soon to assess the recent changes. However, it is a major challenge to all of us, especially my Labour Government and other parties.

For that reason, and from the perspective of social equity and the global economic challenge, the recent written evidence of Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck college, to the Education and Skills Committee is important. I visited the college recently, as did the hon. Member for Henley who gave a lecture there—he would not allow me to intervene earlier when I wanted to refer to my visit. Professor Latchman is a dynamic leader of that institution, whose president is the distinguished historian, Professor Eric Hobsbawm. Birkbeck is a higher education institution serving one of the great cities of the world, and a range of students who largely study part-time. I was impressed by the fact that it is ahead of Government and other thinking about how we address the skills deficit and widening participation, especially in its innovative project to develop a new campus in the east of London and the Thames Gateway.

Professor Latchman raised important issues, with which I am sure many Members are familiar, about ensuring that part-time study is better supported. Before I go through them, I should point out that many other higher education institutions that are supportive of part-time students, such as London South Bank university, my own university—Swansea—and the North East Wales institute of higher education, would also benefit if we addressed the economic barrier faced by part-time students.

Professor Latchman made the following points: first, it is necessary to make use of full economic costing in determining the allocation of teaching funds, to recognise the higher cost of part-time provision; secondly, the funding allocation must be responsive to the flexible and modular patterns of study followed by part-time students; and, finally, there must be recognition that the present funding method has limited scope for increasing part-time fee rates as a means of closing the funding gap faced by many institutions, such as Birkbeck, which have a large number of part-time students. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised by Birkbeck and similar institutions.

Carers are an under-represented group in higher education, yet bearing in mind their caring responsibilities they could benefit enormously from part-time study. The Government have done outstanding work in supporting carers—from the Prime Minister’s national carers strategy in 1999, which established the carers special grant, to my Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, which the Government supported and which highlighted the importance of education and training opportunities for carers, and the Work and Families Act 2006, which gives carers the right to request flexible working. To build on that progress, I believe that the current review of the national carers strategy should recognise the pioneering work of the National Extension college in helping carers to access further and higher education. There should be a section in the new review on carers’ ability to access such opportunities. That would contribute enormously to addressing the question of social exclusion and the need to widen the participation of this very important group. The whole question of the 21-hour rule is a serious barrier to carers studying part-time.

As I said at the outset, I have focused on the new skills challenge and its relationship with part-time study. I end by paying tribute to a pioneer in this field—Bob Fryer, who 10 years ago was the principal of the Northern college. He was chair of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning and, since that time, he has continued the important work of widening participation by developing innovative and Government-supported strategies that could be seen as a model for future action. He was a leading figure in the early years of the University for Industry, which is now rebranded as learndirect, then the chief executive of the NHS university, and he is now the Department of Health’s national director for widening participation in learning. His work shows how seriously the Department of Health takes the development of its staff, especially the 25 per cent. who are qualified below NVQ level 2. His first report last year identified a great disparity between professional and non-professional employees in the national health service, and it is something that I know the Department will take seriously. It is very much part of the whole debate about widening participation.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the fact that we should not be narrow in our definition of higher education. It is not entirely about residential, full-time university opportunities; it is about work-based learning, home-based learning and a whole host of other things that have been developed by fine institutions such as the Open university.

I conclude not only by referring to the great and the good, such as Michael Young and Bob Fryer, as pioneers, but by recognising those people at the grass roots, such as Lesley Smith and Julie Bibby, who are carrying forward the work of widening participation for working-class women in former mining communities through the work of organisations such as the Dove workshop in the Dulais valley. It is now held up throughout Europe as a model of how to address the skills deficit in socially deprived communities. I should declare an interest at this point: my wife was one of the founders of the workshop and is its current president.

I am wearing the tie of the university of Wales, whose motto is “Prifysgol y Werin”—the people’s university, an aspiration that we all share. The challenge before us today is much easier than it was 150 years ago, when the university of Wales was established. The pennies of the poor, which inspired the establishment of the university of Wales, still inspire developments such as the Community university of the valleys, with which I was associated, Birkbeck college’s fine work in east London, and—most inspirationally of all—London South Bank university’s partnership with universities in South Africa to widen participation for black and coloured peoples, women, and working class people in that new country. It is the task of this Labour Government to sustain, widen and deepen such initiatives so that they are not marginal, but are mainstream in our higher education system. That would be a real achievement.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not allowing him to interrupt during my speech. It was because I was taking so many other interventions. I want to join him in what he says about Birkbeck. I hugely support Birkbeck’s fantastic efforts in the east end. But does he really think that women represent a minority whose participation in higher education needs to be expanded, given that they currently make up 59 per cent. of the student body?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but what was lacking in his contribution was any class analysis. I am talking about working-class women and black working-class women. People from all kinds of social backgrounds should be encouraged—particularly women of working-class origin.

My last point is that this is a worthy, honourable and appropriate challenge for a party in government today that gave this country and the world the national health service and the Open university. It is a challenge that it will meet and in which it will succeed.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), because I want to pick up on some of the points that he made about part-time students, but also because I share with him an interest that I should declare: until fairly recently, my wife was in charge of widening participation at Warwick university. I should put that on the record from the outset, before I start complimenting Warwick university on all the wonderful work that it did until recently to widen participation—and, of course, is still doing.

It is quite apparent from what we have heard in the debate so far that the issue of widening participation in higher education has been around for a great many years, but the issue has changed and developed. Whereas once upon a time we might have talked about the need to bring more women into higher education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has just observed, that is most distinctly no longer the issue. If anything, the issue is now the opposite of that. It is just as true to say that, as the Secretary of State observed yesterday and this morning, we must look at how to bring more white working-class boys and young men into higher education, as to say that we must look at many ethnic minority groups.

The issue is changing and developing and we find new challenges within it. One of those new challenges, to which reference has also been made, is the need to bring more disabled people into higher education. That brings with it specific challenges that are to do with the need to persuade people with disabilities, whether physical or mental, that university is an environment within which they can thrive. I say that because for those with a disability, it is particularly challenging and worrying to have to adapt to a new environment. It is important for that group that we make every effort to ensure that the environment is reassuring and that the development they will need to find within the environment that they will move into will be suitable for them.

Above all—this applies not just to disabled potential students, but to many of the other groups that we have talked about—we need to find new and imaginative ways to persuade people of something on which everyone has focused. I am talking about the need to explain that, despite their initial perception, university is a place within which they can do well and feel comfortable. One of the most imaginative and effective ways to do that is to develop mentoring programmes. If it is possible to demonstrate to someone that a student who is just like them—in terms of their background, the challenges that they have faced and the interests that they share—has done well at university, that is the most effective way that I can think of to show a prospective student that they will also do well in a university setting. I hope that what the Government have in mind for developing the widening of participation in higher education will include an element of mentoring, because that is very effective.

I want to widen the debate beyond the issues about which we have talked at some length and to concentrate on how we can broaden out the 18-to-30 age group that is going into universities. We could widen participation among those outside that group. I disagree with the Government’s 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education among the 18-to-30 age group for several reasons. One of the target’s flaws is the fact that it tends to focus too much attention on that age group and thus to underline the perception that higher education is only for people between the ages of 18 and 30, and that when one reaches the age of 30, it is no longer an appropriate course to pursue. That is profoundly wrong, and it is entirely at variance with other things that the Government are properly trying to do to develop the idea of education being a lifelong experience.

In many ways, the problem is mirrored by what is happening with adult learning courses. For perfectly understandable reasons, the Learning and Skills Council is focusing its attention and funding on the 14-to-25 age group, but the people who suffer are those outside that age group who are trying to attend adult learning courses later in life. Again, I understand why that focus is there and I sympathise with many of the reasons for it. However, one of its consequences is that it underlines the perception that if one has not taken the chance to go into higher education early in life, one cannot do so later. Such a situation would be profoundly regrettable.

I am not making my point solely to criticise the Government. On the contrary, I think that they are trying to deal with the situation. It is important that people understand that education, and especially higher education, is about second chances as well as first chances. Someone who did not go into higher education should be able to do so later, and people who, for whatever reason, went into higher education and then came out of it should be able to go back. Academics and those involved in higher education often say that people who go back into higher education later in life after an initial only-too-brief experience have done proportionately better on the second occasion, and better than others who have gone straight into higher education. There is a lot to be said for the opportunity to go in, or back in, at a later date.

It is important that we develop the idea of lifelong learning and consider widening participation in that context. We face a changing economic world in which few people of my age or younger will be able to look forward to one career from the moment they leave education to the moment they retire. We have realised that that is true for manual trades and technical professions, but we might not have recognised it quite so comprehensively for the professional or academic fields. For people in those fields, too, there will be huge burdens of retraining and expectations of re-education, so universities have a massive part to play in developing that re-education and retraining.

I accept that that already happens, to an extent, so I congratulate universities on what they do. They already effectively provide continuing professional development for those in mid-career who wish to develop their skills. I would like to see more of that. However, we face a particular challenge when addressing those who are between careers because, for whatever reason, they have left their particular employment or profession. Such people might wish to retrain and re-educate themselves so that they can go forward in a different field. However, those people are often in an especially difficult position. Employers, of course, see it as in their interests to pay for the continuing professional and academic development of their staff, so they do so. The universities find that helpful and they provide a good service. However, people who are between careers have a problem because they do not, by definition, have an employer that can help to fund what they wish to do to retrain, to be re-educated, or to re-skill. How are they to fund what they wish to do? Those individuals face particular problems. The hon. Member for Aberavon mentioned people who wished to become part-time students; overwhelmingly, the people I am describing will wish to study part-time, rather than full-time. They may face caring responsibilities, or more general family responsibilities, and they may well be obliged to earn money while studying. They will almost certainly face the challenge of having to reacquaint themselves with how studying and learning works, because they will have been absent from education for some time. They will face particular challenges, and although the issue is partly about how we can structure their educational experience so that they feel more comfortable with it, it is substantially about funding.

I do not have a magic solution to offer the Minister any more than anyone else does, but neither his Government nor any other Government can simply say, “The issue is too difficult and complicated; we won’t address these problems.” An answer must be found, because the group of people to whom I am referring will become ever larger, and will have ever more demanding needs. We need to find a way to ensure that their educational experience is comfortable, and we need to ensure that they can afford to undertake those educational tasks and can sustain themselves economically while they do so. That is partly because of the economic benefits that they will receive, but partly because of the benefits that we will all receive if more people reach a higher standard in education.

There are wider benefits to higher education, too, but very little has been said about them this afternoon. There are huge cultural benefits, benefits of well-being, and straightforward health benefits to higher education and further education. We have an increasingly ageing population that will need to return to education more often. People may wish to return to education once their working life is done. They may well want to re-enter some form of education during what may be a very long retirement, in order to keep their brain active and keep themselves interested, and we should encourage that. Why should we not talk about widening participation in higher education for those in retirement? They will have the time, and may have the income, to go into higher education. There must be considerable advantages to our society of encouraging people to keep their brains active, given that we know that dementia, Alzheimer’s and other conditions among older people will be an increasing drain on the health budget.

I am keen to allow others to participate, but I wanted to speak in favour of broadening the definition of widened participation, so that it includes those beyond the 18-to-30 age group, important though that is. I want to talk about a broader idea of what education should be; it should be a genuine lifelong learning experience. It should not be expected or anticipated that a person’s education will finish when they are 16, 24, 60 or 84. It should genuinely be an opportunity that people may take advantage of at any stage of their life. If we can achieve that, we will genuinely have widened participation.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on introducing today’s debate. Like many others in the House, I share a real interest in widening participation in higher education. As hon. Members may well know, before I entered the House I worked in higher education and did stints at Ruskin college and the Open university, two institutions that are absolutely committed to widening participation.

The debate is important, because it underpins values held by the Labour party, most notably the value of securing equal opportunity for all socio-economic groups when it comes to education. That is one of our foundations, and it remains an important aspiration. I am sorry to start on a contentious note, but I could not disagree more with the hon. Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) about the Government’s aspiration of getting 50 per cent. of young people into higher education. We have to look closely at why the Government set that target. It has helped us to shape the debate about higher education by focusing it clearly on getting more people into HE.

I accept, as does the hon. Lady, that it is a good thing to get more people into higher education, so I do not object to the target on those grounds. However, if we set a target of 50 per cent. we instantly suggest to young people who are seeking to go to university that if they do not do so, they must be in the bottom half. There is no problem in saying that we want as many people as possible to go to university who have the capability and ambition to do so, and who will benefit from the experience, but there is no reason to put a figure on it.

I accept that point only in so far as to say that we should not rest with the minimum. We must do everything that we can to encourage as many young people and other age groups to go to university. However, it is important to provide an aspiration, as it helps to focus everyone’s attention on getting more young people and others into university.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) is not in the Chamber, because he discussed the Leitch report, which made the point that we need to upskill the entire population. Some of that upskilling will take place in further education to level 3, but we must give our young people higher-level skills if we are to achieve a knowledge-based economy and compete internationally. In the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity of visiting India and China, where there is massive investment in the higher education system and a hunger for learning among young people. If we are to compete in future we must ensure that our young people have suitable skills.

There are other reasons for extending higher education opportunities. Recent forecasts by the Institute of Employment Research show that half of the 12 million jobs—some 6 million—likely to become vacant between 2004 and 2014 will be in occupations most likely to employ graduates. Graduates are more likely to enjoy better health and are less likely to commit crime. They are much more likely to engage actively in civil society, and we need no other reason for trying to encourage access to higher education. So far, the Government’s record is quite good. Since 1997, university applications for undergraduate enrolment have risen by about 23 per cent., and there has been a 28 per cent. increase for postgraduates. The proportion of first-degree entrants to university from state schools has risen, as has the number of young people going to university from low-participation areas. About 28.2 per cent. of young entrants to first degree courses are from the lowest socio-economic groups, which shows that good progress has been made on achieving the 50 per cent. target. However, Government Members are not at all complacent, and we accept that much more needs to be done if we are to achieve the 50 per cent. target and, indeed, exceed it, as we all want to do.

To achieve that goal, the Government have taken a number of steps to improve the admissions process. In particular, they have sought to raise aspirations. Not only do we have to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for everyone, but we must ensure that we raise the aspirations of people in the lowest socio-economic groups, as well as their attainment at university level. That means encouraging more young people to engage in post-16 learning. As well as young people doing A-levels and going straight on to university, there has been an increase in part-time study at university.

When considering the 18-to-30 group, we perhaps do not pay enough attention to the expansion that has taken place in work-related learning and work-based learning, and the excellent work that a number of trade unions are doing in the workplace through Unionlearn and by getting employees signed up to opportunities for more training and further qualifications.

Aimhigher has been mentioned this afternoon. It is a national programme that we know works in some of the intensively disadvantaged areas of the country. It co-ordinates a number of activities locally from HE, FE, schools and the learning and skills councils to encourage more young people into higher education and further education. I welcome the activities that Aimhigher carries out in my constituency, but I would like to hear more from the Minister about how it will be reviewed and how it might be transformed so that it can extend its work further.

I shall say something more about the higher education institution and the further education institution in my constituency. When we have these debates, we sometimes forget about the tremendously good work that is already being undertaken by institutions to raise aspiration and extend access. As the MP for City of Durham, I draw attention to the work of Durham university and New college Durham. Durham university is one of our leading research institutions. It would probably accept that it could do more to widen access. Nevertheless, it has a school- targeted aspiration-raising scheme, which it calls STARS, fortunately. That is targeted at local schoolchildren aged 14 to 16 to give them an idea of what it is like to be a student. They are brought into the university for study days and given mentors in the community.

I also want to draw attention to the mentoring scheme that Durham university runs through Collingwood college for its students to mentor looked-after children. We need to put more effort into raising the educational attainment of looked-after children, and the mentoring scheme has been shown to be extremely successful in raising the aspirations of those children. The Government should try and think of ways in which that scheme could be rolled out further. Durham university does all the things that almost all higher education institutions in the country do, by offering master classes, summer schools, talks and tours for years 12 and 13.

New college Durham undertakes activities though the Aimhigher programme. It has a target of taking 75 per cent. of its students from low-income neighbourhoods. We should applaud that target and the college’s efforts to work with local schools and other colleges to meet it.

There are a few topics on which I should like to hear the Minister’s comments. We have heard the figures that show that the Government are making considerable progress towards the 50 per cent. target, but there is more to do. What role will extending foundation degrees, particularly vocational foundation degrees, play in achieving the target? How might the Further Education and Training Bill address the issue by giving colleges the ability to award their own foundation degrees? What more can be done to encourage universities, particularly ones like Durham, where the majority of the intake comes from the independent sector, to get more applications and more students from state schools into our best universities, and to ensure that some of those students come from lower-income backgrounds, to raise aspirations across the board? Will the Education and Inspections Act 2006 be an important factor in that respect in terms of extending the right of schools to have a sixth form?

Will the Minister acknowledge that there is still a need to streamline all the different organisations involved in promoting skills and skills development? The situation is incredibly confusing not only for young people, but for older people who are trying to get back into higher or further education, because they are bombarded with information from a huge number of agencies. There needs to be better liaison between local authorities, learning and skills councils and schools in an area in order to plan effectively.

On sixth form and post-sixth form places, we may need to look at support for part-time students. Science teaching and the need to produce more science graduates has been mentioned this afternoon. I have a science learning centre in my constituency, and it is excellent. It is giving wonderful support to teachers, and we need to consider how to roll out that model. I am absolutely certain that a science learning centre and the support that it gives to teachers means that there are more young people taking science-based subjects at A-level and going on to study science-based subjects through higher education. Can attention in the 14-to-19 curriculum be given not only to vocational subjects, but to encouraging young people to take their education on to further education and foundation degrees?

I will finish there, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. We all agree that, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) has outlined, the issue that we are discussing this afternoon is very important.

To be fair, the Government have committed enormous resources and effort to trying to widen participation and improve fair access to higher education; they have spent some £350 million of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash on that in recent times. I criticise them not for their commitment but for their use of outdated dogma, and to some extent for their incompetence. The Government suffer from the same problems that afflict many in the education establishment.

I have looked at a number of briefings for this debate from organisations ranging from the National Union of Students to the Association of Colleges, many of which make the same basic error. They seem to believe that the Government can do everything—that the Government can intervene and change the world to create a perfect model of society. I suggest that the lesson of the past 10 years is the opposite of that: we need less interference in order to achieve more success. The old saying “Less is more” is relevant in this particular case.

Part of the problem is that the Government have approached increasing participation from the bottom socio-economic groups from the wrong end. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has said, much of the problem in getting a wider section of social groups into higher education lies in primary and secondary schools and the social problems in the areas surrounding those schools. As several hon. Members have said, there is a poverty of aspiration in many parts of the country today, and far too many parents have a poverty of aspiration for their children. We can set as many artificial and socially engineered targets as we like, but if we do not tackle that poverty of aspiration, improvements will be difficult to achieve and maintain. Our schools, both primary and secondary, do not currently provide a significant ladder of opportunity for social classes 4 to 7 as measured by UCAS.

Despite all the initiatives and money spent, the overall additional participation of the bottom social classes is only 1.8 per cent. since 2002, and just over 3 per cent. since 1997, according to the Library. That is not a significant return on the huge investment that has been made, and it is despite the bigger numbers going into higher education since the mid-1990s. From 1994 to 2005, the number of home students accepted at universities through UCAS rose from 251,000 to 360,000—an increase of about 30 per cent. I congratulate the Government on making funds available for that and on making further funds available for an increase of another 50,000 over the next couple of years.

The good news is that more young people go into higher education and will continue to do so, but the bad news is that they do not come from an increasingly wide socio-economic group, despite all the Government’s top-down schemes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, the latest wheeze is to record whether applicants’ parents went to university so that admissions tutors can make judgments as to which candidates deserve to go to their universities. Our great academic institutions are being encouraged to pick students not on merit but on the basis of what their fathers did decades before. After last week’s debate, some will appreciate the irony of this Government’s establishing a new hereditary principle. Universities are being penalised for not hitting arbitrary targets for the number of poor students they should be taking; several have had funds cut as a result. That kind of social engineering attacks the problem from completely the wrong end, and does nothing to resolve the issues.

One thing that the Government may have got right, although it is still too early to tell for certain, is top-up fees. The figures suggest that after last year’s dip, this year’s applications have climbed by about 7 per cent. That is good, but as we have heard, the NUS and others, including the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), suggest that it may be related to the demographic bulge.

Well, we will see about that. The NUS also makes a significant point about the 42 per cent. of higher education students who are part-time, about whose socio-economic class we do not have much information. For poorer students, there is something to be said for an annual grant of £2,700 plus a university bursary and interest-free loans that do not have to be paid back until they start earning. That may incentivise some poorer students to go to university; it certainly should not disincentivise them, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman suggested, particularly as fees are not paid up front. What I find less convincing, and less attractive, about that model is its effect on those who fall just above the qualification level. As always, students and parents who are just above the qualification level for such grants and bursaries face the biggest barriers to entry.

On student funding, I am prepared to listen carefully to any further evidence-based plans from the Government, as I think that they are going in the right direction. However, within the overall context of widening participation, policy mistakes are limiting access for poorer socio-economic groups. Let me demonstrate that with a couple of examples of how the schools system, as run from the centre, has militated against the success of the Department’s own purported aim of improving fair access.

Two years ago the Government stopped languages being a compulsory subject when they dropped them from the core curriculum at key stage 4. Surprise, surprise—the numbers taking languages slumped. In 2004, 80 per cent. took one language or more at GCSE; now only half that number do. With fewer and fewer young people taking the subject to GCSE and then on to A-level, many universities struggle to recruit students. Consequently, languages are becoming elitist because only middle-class students study them at top universities. While the number of comprehensive schools teaching languages falls, grammar schools, specialist schools and independent schools forge ahead with them. Students from those schools go on to the Russell group of universities. However, further down the pecking order, 16 universities no longer offer a degree in the four major languages of French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Many schools in the state sector no longer teach single science subjects. The flow of students studying pure science at university has become a trickle. That has caused approximately 80 departments to close in recent years, including the physics department at Reading university, in my constituency.

The changes in language and science teaching in schools have had a direct negative impact on the number of young people from specific social groups who can participate in important academic subjects. The chances of those who have not had a middle-class upbringing being able to study a pure science or a language at university are increasingly slim.

With all due respect, this speech is one of the most poorly researched that I have heard—and I do not say that gratuitously. The hon. Gentleman has made a statement about the closure of university science departments. Will he give us the figures for the number of students who study science? If he can do that, he will paint a different picture.

I will not give specific numbers, but I am talking about pure science subjects, not the combined science subjects to which the Minister is referring.

My hon. Friend is a man who knows about this subject. Pure science subjects such as physics have experienced a sad decline in numbers of students, and 30 per cent. of physics departments have closed in the past eight years. The Minister is right to say that the number of those studying forensic science and combined science subjects is increasing, but if he examines what is happening to chemistry and physics, he will realise that there is serious cause for concern. My hon. Friend is right to make that point.

I mentioned lack of competence in some subjects, and I should like to give an example of that. Have the changes to post-qualification access—PQA—been shelved? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us later. It is a system whereby students apply to university after they receive their A-level results.

In September 2005, the Department published consultation proposals from a group chaired by Sir Alan Wilson about the implementation of PQA. The Department based the case for change on the fact that 45 per cent. of predicted A-level grades are accurate. The group highlighted the fact that predicted grades were most inaccurate for students

“from the lower socio-economic groups and those from certain school or college backgrounds” .

The Department said that, “crucially”, students with underestimated grades did

“not receive the conditional offers that they merit”.

In other words, students from lower socio-economic groups were disadvantaged by the current system.

However, Geoff Hayward, who produced a report for UCAS, said:

“It’s just not true. They are trying to portray a particular image that poorer students are being disadvantaged by the system, but the report I wrote finds very, very weak, if any, support for that conclusion.”

Dr. Hayward’s report shows that predicted grades are indeed less accurate for students from lower socio-economic groups, who are more likely to have their grades exaggerated. However, the discrepancy is largely explained by the accuracy of the different grade predictions. A grades are much more reliably predicted than others, and a strong correlation remains between socio-economic background and achievement at A-level. The report states:

“Teachers in independent and grammar schools make the most reliable predictions, largely because of the high proportion of A grades being achieved in these institutions.”

The fact that fewer than half of all grade predictions are accurate matters only if it affects admissions. The report finds little evidence that it does. It found “only weak and negative evidence” of over-prediction increasing applicants’ chances of success. Some commentators observed that the idea that the whole system might change to benefit specific sorts of applicant, however deserving, was asking for trouble. Why change the whole system when the evidence suggests that offers are not affected by slight inaccuracies in predicted grades?

After a major push for a move to PQA in 2005, the Government seem to have gone very quiet. Have they realised their mistake and buried the issue? Perhaps the Minister will explain in his summing up what is happening, but there is a bigger issue. If PQA is not a magic-bullet answer to improving fair access to higher education, what are the Government going to do to improve the chances of bright and able pupils from poor backgrounds to access top universities? Preferably, they will not offer socially engineered schemes—but I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on securing the debate. First, may I say that 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a debate on this topic in Government time? That in itself is a tribute to the efforts of the Minister and his predecessors on widening participation. I congratulate the Government on their unswerving pursuit of the objectives of increasing fair access and widening participation. I want to put on record my support for almost every individual policy that they have implemented over the last 10 years, which has made this achievement possible.

In contrast, during that time I cannot remember—until today—a single statement or policy put forward by the Opposition that has advanced this cause. In fact, the Opposition have voted against virtually every Budget that provided the money to make progress possible.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way earlier, and I had more than my fair share of interventions—but let us see how the next 10 minutes go.

In the 15 years before 1997—before I was elected to the House—I had some involvement in this field of activity, and I cannot remember a single act by the then Conservative Government that advanced the cause of widening participation—[Interruption.] Although the numbers of students in our universities increased during that time, that was entirely due to two factors. The first was the gradual extension of comprehensive education during the 1970s and 1980s, which led to more children and young people achieving the necessary qualifications to enable them to stay on, to study their A-levels and continue on to university. The second factor was the two recessions in the early 1980s and early 1990s, engineered by the Conservative Government, that raised unemployment and led many adults to seek places at university because they could not find a job in the labour market. That was the reality.

It is precisely because of that reality that I particularly welcome the new rhetoric put forward by the official Opposition. [Interruption.] There now appears to be at least a consensus of rhetoric about the importance of widening participation—if not a consensus about the policies needed to address the issue. [Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Talk about a badly researched speech! I really think that the hon. Gentleman should reflect the role of the Conservative Government and the Conservative Education Secretary in hugely expanding the university sector by allowing the creation of a huge number of new universities.

That is not a picture that I recognise. What I do recognise is the fact that the previous Government put a cap on the number of places in universities. Since that time, of course, Conservative Front and Back Benchers have continued to argue that there are too many students of the wrong type going to university. Throughout this whole period, I have asked a number of Conservative MPs which of their children they are prepared to tell that they are the wrong kind of kid to go to university—and not one of them has been able to answer that question.

Until we see some sort of conversion halfway along the road to Damascus, which is where the Opposition currently are, and until we see them adopting and supporting the sort of sensible policies that this Government have put in place, we cannot accept that their position has much credibility. Indeed, during the whole 35 minutes of the opening speech by the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson)—he was actually winding us up the whole time, which I thought was a subtle achievement—only one new policy was put forward. That was a tweaking of the arrangements for performance tables—a weighting of achievements in science subjects—which as far as I could see would simply increase the differential between schools that already had a large number of students pursuing and achieving in pure science subjects and schools that did not. That would have been a regressive step.

I support the various measures that the Government have taken and I pay tribute to the universities that have taken this matter seriously. In the opening speech from the official Opposition, I was struck by the way in which the hon. Member for Henley praised Bristol university in one breath and, in the next, condemned the measures that it had used to improve its rates of participation.

I also want to pay tribute to the work of the many Aimhigher partnerships operating throughout England and Wales. Although it is sometimes difficult to assess the direct effect of much of this work, I hope that the Aimhigher project will still continue after the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, because it involves long-term investment for long-term achievements. I particularly want to pay tribute to the active work of the Aimhigher partnerships in Greater Manchester, which covers my constituency.

We need to get away from a total obsession with getting a wider group of students into our elite universities. Widening the social base of those universities is crucial—my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, outlined the nature of this problem, and some of the solutions, extremely effectively—but widening participation is not only about Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and one or two of the London universities. It is about the whole range of universities, and we need to look at the whole of the British university system rather than focusing on the elite research universities.

If we want to make progress with our leading research universities, we have to move to the post-qualification admissions system. That crucial measure will help us to implement a fairer system. We must also do more work on making more information on students’ backgrounds available to admissions tutors. In the various discussions that I have had on this subject with Opposition Members in the past 10 years, I cannot remember a single occasion on which they did not introduce the concept of social engineering. That is an important concept, because we have had a thousand years of social engineering that has led to the kind of class-based inequalities of access to university that we now suffer from. The job of the university admissions tutor is to identify potential. To pretend that that can be done without judging the achievement of the student in the context of the school that they went to and the family that they came from is naive and dishonest. I therefore fully support moves to make such information available to admissions tutors.

I want to make a point that I hope will elicit a degree of consensus among all three parties here today. However important the Government’s measures to improve the admissions arrangements to universities and to widen the social base of the students attending universities, the problem is not at the point of entry to the university. As speakers from all parties have said, the problem is to be found earlier in the education system. In my view, it arises at the age of transfer from primary school to secondary school. What distinguishes the British education system from many others in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is the significance that parents attach to the choice of school for their child. Until we can move fairly and quickly to a secondary education system that is more equal, and in which the choice of school has less effect on a child’s eventual achievement, we will never have a fully developed, successful widening participation policy in our universities.

No, I am sorry.

If we can develop a more egalitarian, less hierarchical and less elitist secondary school system, it follows as night follows day that more young people will achieve more at 14, 16 and 18 in a way that will provide them with an automatic route into university.

They will not all be studying philosophy, politics and economics or ancient history at Oxbridge, but a range of important subjects. The progression from school to university, however, will become more automatic and inevitable if we lift the level of talent of all our pupils, and if the choice of school has less effect on the eventual outcome.

The 14-to-19 reforms are a hugely important development, which relates directly to the widening of participation in universities. It is regrettable that the Government did not adopt Mike Tomlinson’s report in its totality. I hope, however, that the issue remains on the table for the future. We make a mistake, however, if we believe that the key to the problem is somehow to get parity between the vocational and the academic. As long as the academic subjects lead to the kinds of careers that pay two, three, four or even 10 times as much as those to which the vocational subjects lead, parents and students will never be convinced of parity. The key lies in eliminating the nonsensical concepts of vocational and academic. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the hon. Member for Henley agrees.

Medicine, of course, is the classic example of a vocational subject. For decade after decade, our system has produced people who know every fine detail of the history of the Peloponnesian wars, but who cannot change a plug or switch on the dishwasher. It is critical that rather than trying to get parity between the two concepts, which we will not achieve, we eliminate those concepts and develop a new framework and set of terms of reference to describe the different natures of learning reflected in the practical and the conceptual.

On costs and fees, among the most important steps forward in the past 10 years to a more egalitarian education system were the introduction of tuition fees in universities in 1999, and the extension of those fees by raising the maximum level to £3,000 for 2006. Those were hugely controversial steps. Once the effects have been analysed in four years’ time, when the first cohort of students will have gone through the new system with a maximum £3,000 fee, I believe that the case will be made for raising the cap. We cannot continue to finance a world-class university system largely on the back of the taxpayer. We need different sources of funding, to which fee income will contribute. I also find it impossible to understand how anyone who believes that it is reasonable to pay a fee for a child’s secondary education should find that the taxpayer should pay the largest part of the fee for that child’s university education. That is completely and utterly illogical. Raising the cap will be an important and high-profile political issue three or four years from now.

Finally, may I make a plea that the Government do it differently next time? We cannot just sit back as we did last time, and subcontract the decision to Sir Ron Dearing or some other expert. We cannot just have an external analysis of the impact of raising fees on the first cohort, and then try to push the change through Parliament. We must prepare the ground and develop a better understanding among Members of the three main parties represented here and among the wider public, parents and students. We should start discussing the arguments for and against raising the cap. We should not leave it to the last minute. We must do the groundwork so that in 2010, when I believe that the case will have been made for raising the cap in a careful and regulated way—and in a way that provides sufficient scholarships and bursaries so that no applicant from a low-income background feels that they cannot go to university—that change will become part of the new consensus in an expanding, thriving and internationally competitive university system.

I think that our debate has been genuinely helpful, informed and instructive. I must say that at the outset I did not expect, at the conclusion, to be urged from the left to lift the cap, and I greatly respect my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for that. I will not alter my opinion that we need to see what happens during the first three years of operation, but my hon. Friend’s speech underlined the fact that there is a redistributive case for the system that we have introduced. I think that that is one of its merits.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) began by saying that we should encourage more young people in lower socio-economic groups to enter higher education. I wish that that could be stated clearly from a Conservative perspective in the columns of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

Their columns—apart from the hon. Gentleman’s— constantly attack the Government for pursuing exactly that objective, but if we have a cross-party consensus here, that is to be welcomed.

Like many other Members who spoke, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Aimhigher programme and our review of it. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) asked me about the review, which I instigated. I did not do that because I wanted the programme to be cut; I think that it is an excellent programme. However, I also think we should ensure that it is targeted as effectively as possible. The review has identified the fact that while an immense amount of good work is being done, it is not being targeted as closely as it should be on young people and children in the lower socio-economic groups.

My point is that the money is there to target young people from the poorest backgrounds, which is not happening in all circumstances. We need to put that right.

The hon. Gentleman went on to make a number of comments about the fact that the key challenge in providing access to higher education is posed not by the university admission system, but at a much earlier stage. I agreed with that analysis, but I parted company with the hon. Gentleman when he repudiated the real progress made in the last 10 years in driving up attainment in state schools. There has been a step change in performance during that time. However we structure the figures—whether or not we include English or maths—there has been a significant improvement in the performance of state schools, which before 1997 had been flatlining for some time.

The hon. Gentleman majored on the position in the Russell group of universities. Ten thousand more young people are gaining access to those universities than were doing so in 1997. Is that enough progress? No, we have further progress to make—but I think the figure demonstrates that progress is being made.

We saw a couple of weeks ago how long it takes for a clear commitment on the part of the Conservative party to mellow into an aspiration. I think there was a gap of two minutes between the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to abolishing the Connexions service and his commitment to reforming it. I found that an instructive example of the evolution of Conservative party policy.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about announcements made by the UCAS board about the need to take account of socio-economic and parental backgrounds. I should make it clear that the decision was made by the UCAS board, which includes representatives from universities across the country. It is a positive response to the Schwartz review’s recommendations on an holistic assessment process. The Government did not ask for the decision or intervene in it, but I certainly welcome it. The new arrangement is optional for higher education institutions, which can decide for themselves whether they want to use it, but it could help the difficult process of assessing potential, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North. Universities have been grappling with the issue for some time, and I think we undervalue its importance if we decry it.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), on whom I intervened, began by accusing the Government of outdated dogma. In fact, his comments demonstrated his own outdated analysis of the Government’s policies and programme. He made one statement that was completely erroneous, and which motivated me to intervene on him. He talked about the targets for higher education institutions in respect of the proportions of students from poorer backgrounds and from state schools accessing them, and he then made the completely unsubstantiated claim that if universities do not meet those targets, they will be financially penalised. That is simply untrue. They are not performance targets, there is no link with funding, and I hope that he will withdraw those comments.

The hon. Gentleman also made some comments about the teaching of modern languages. The most significant change that we can make is the one that this Government are committed to: to ensure that by 2010 every child in every primary school in this country has access to learning a modern foreign language. The key change we are making is to introduce that commitment at primary school level.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about science subjects. After several years in which there was a decline in the number of applications to study the hard science subjects, over the past three years there has been a positive trend in the right direction. In particular, in terms of the applications announced a few weeks ago for next September there have been big increases—of above 10 per cent.—for chemistry, physics, maths and engineering. That is solid progress, and it should be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman also made some very strange remarks about post-qualification applications and claimed that the Government had gone quiet on that issue. He cannot have been in the Chamber when I made a significant point during my opening speech about the importance of post-qualification applications and the fact that although the Government do not control university admissions, we are doing everything in our power to urge universities to move towards having a full system of PQA by 2012. The fact is that more than half of predicted grades are inaccurate, and in terms of both under-prediction and over-prediction—both of which are a cause for concern—students from the lowest socio-economic groups are the most adversely affected. However, it is for the benefit of people from all backgrounds that we need a fairer system of application and admission to university.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made a number of important points, but I think that he under-represented the progress that our universities are making in terms of community outreach and summer schools. Those efforts should be supported.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) made a significant point about the importance of work-based higher education. In respect of the Leitch challenge, 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force are already in work today. We need to ensure that those who are already in work have real opportunities to access higher education. That will be the biggest area of expansion in the system in future.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the burden of debt, and there is an important issue to get across on that: the postgraduate system of debt and repayment that we have established is debt like no other. It is not like any loan that people can get anywhere on the high street because there is no real rate of interest—people repay only when they are in work and earning more than £15,000, and if after 25 years they have not paid the debt off, it is cancelled. If people could get a loan like that in any building society or bank on the high street, we would not be able to move for people queuing up to get hold of it. We need to do much more to get across the benefits of the new system.

The hon. Gentleman also decried the fact that under the new system there has only been a small increase in the proportion of applications from students from lower socio-economic groups. I do not deny that we need to do more, but, before we introduced the new system, it was alleged that that if we introduced variable fees, applications would plummet, particularly from students from poorer backgrounds. That simply has not happened, and I would like some recognition to be given to that fact.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) made some important points about mentoring, which is a key element of what we are seeking to do. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham talked about the 50 per cent. target, and my hon. Friend rightly said that that is about setting an ambition and an aspiration. I would hazard a guess that that 50 per cent. target probably has the greatest common currency of any public service agreement target among ordinary people in this country. I think that underlines our ambition for the expansion of higher education opportunities, both for the younger population and throughout people’s working lives.

This has been an important debate with a lot of commitment shown. We are making progress, but we undoubtedly have to do more.

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.