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Poorer Students

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 26 April 2007

4. What discussions he has had with vice-chancellors of Russell Group universities on increasing the number of students from poorer backgrounds who are accepted for study. (133955)

The Government have made a clear commitment to widening participation in higher education. I regularly have discussions with vice-chancellors and others throughout the sector about how we can help more people from under-represented groups, particularly young people from poorer backgrounds, to participate in higher education. The discussions focus on raising aspirations and opportunities to attract more applications. The document “Widening participation in higher education”, published last November, describes the actions that we are taking.

As the Minister will know, whenever universities consider the potential of students from state schools whose grades may be slightly different from those of students from independent schools, they get into trouble with certain sections of the press. Does he not think that the introduction of an A* grade at A-level will make the life of admissions tutors at some Russell Group universities much more difficult, given that in the first few years there will probably be a disproportionate success rate among independent school students?

I think there is a general consensus that there is a strong case for the A* grade. The key judgment will concern the level at which the threshold is set. I am sure that, as well as taking a range of other initiatives, we can continue to promote the widening of participation. I agree that university admissions tutors have always made judgments both about individual students’ attainment to date and about their potential to develop, and some of the initiatives that UCAS has been taking will help to inform those judgments.

The Minister will be pleased to learn that in Tees Valley the number of university applicants from low-income families has increased by more than 48 per cent. That startlingly good result was achieved primarily through the Aimhigher programme, which has inspired youngsters and schools to have self-belief. Will the Minister visit us in Teesside and look at the examples that we can provide? We would love to share them with everyone. Will he also tell us what additional support will be given to the Aimhigher programme?

As my hon. Friend knows, I visited Teesside university with her recently, and I will seek a further opportunity to do so.

The Aimhigher programme has been a real success story in promoting aspiration among under-represented groups, and we should continue to support it. We should also celebrate yesterday’s announcement of a significant increase in the number of university applications for next year. The number of applications for places at English universities has risen by 6 per cent., and—crucially—the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups has not only not fallen but actually increased. That demonstrates emphatically that critics of the new system are wrong.

I agree with the Minister that the A* grade will help universities to assess the merits of applicants, but does he think that students applying to university should be judged on whether or not their parents went to university? A yes or a no would be helpful.

I think that UCAS’s recent decision to include information about parental participation in higher education may prove to be a useful tool in helping university admissions tutors to make judgments. They have always made judgments about both attainment to date and potential to succeed. If there is no previous experience of higher education in a young person’s family, an admissions tutor will be able to provide that person with a taster course, or put him or her in touch with a student ambassador. That can help young people to achieve their full potential.

Will my hon. Friend ask the Department to conduct a review to establish the merits of the system in the state of Texas, where, as he knows, the top 10 per cent. of students who leave colleges have an automatic right to enter any university? That has proved to be a boon for university outcomes in the state.

My hon. Friend and I have discussed that subject. University admissions are, rightly, a matter for university authorities. Nevertheless, we must have available as much data as possible, to ensure that the widening participation initiatives that we undertake are as effective as possible.

Does the Minister agree—I think that he does—that one of the key problems facing the Russell Group universities is the comparative flight in the maintained sector away from the crunchy subjects that those universities value, such as mathematics and sciences and ancient and modern languages? What can the Minister do to avert that flight, and in that context does he not agree that it is tragic that there are plans to get rid of ancient history A-level, as that will intensify the dominance of a small number of schools in the Latin and Greek classics and close down a possible route to university for children in the maintained sector, which is potentially deeply socially regressive?

We must do everything that we can to encourage young people from all backgrounds, and in particular state schools, to apply to university. The evidence shows that there has been a significant improvement in attainment over the past 10 years which is helping to fuel an increase in applications. In respect of the crunchy subjects that the hon. Gentleman mentions, I hope that he welcomes the significant increase in applications for physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering science that there have been for next year, and which are part of a three-year trend. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question about ancient history, I know that he and my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools discussed that last night, and that we are looking at that issue.

Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that the kids who go to Eton school and are educated beyond their intelligence—like some Members who serve on the Opposition Front Bench—are being given additional opportunities to go to the posh universities, while working-class kids do not get the same chance? Will the Minister reverse this process?

I want applicants from all backgrounds and all schools to progress to university and to fulfil their potential. It is crucial that we help those from the poorest backgrounds to achieve that, and the Government are doing everything we can in that respect. The fact that there are increases in the numbers of applicants from state schools and from lower socio-economic groups demonstrates that we are making genuine progress.