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University Applications

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

4. What discussions he has had with representatives of universities on encouraging applications from students from all backgrounds. (187371)

This Government remain fully committed to increasing and widening participation in higher education. To remain competitive, our economy needs more graduates, and it is right that those benefiting from higher education should come from all walks of life. I have had many discussions on this important matter, which in essence is about ensuring that talent does not go to waste and our nation does not lose out as a result.

Is the Minister aware that parts of West Lancashire are among the most deprived in the country? Public transport links are not good throughout the constituency and are particularly poor from places such as Skelmersdale. That disadvantages young people who want to attend either the university within the constituency or those on our borders. Given that the odds can be stacked against young people from low-income families, does the Minister not agree that we must provide as much support as possible to improve young people’s access to higher education and the career opportunities that that will give them in later life?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the work that she does on this issue. I believe that we should provide as much support as possible for the potential students in her constituency to whom she refers. That is why we brought back non-repayable grants and why, from this September, we are significantly expanding the proportion of students who will be eligible for such grants. Even with the mechanisms already in place, I hope that she would join me in welcoming the fact that in her constituency entry to part-time and full-time undergraduate courses has increased by 40 per cent. in the past 10 years.

We are all glad about the Government’s commitment to higher education for all. Will the Minister pay particular attention to one group of people—the sons and daughters of Gurkha soldiers? Last year, Gurkha soldiers were given equal status to British soldiers in every respect—pay and conditions, home leave and so forth—save for the fact that their children are not yet given home-student status. I understand that the Department is working on this matter with the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister commit himself to giving home-student status to Gurkha soldiers’ children, and will he tell us how the negotiations with the Ministry of Defence are progressing?

I am highly aware of this issue. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not make a cast-iron commitment on the Floor of the House today, but I have discussed the matter in detail with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence. We are examining the issue and I hope that we will be able to say something about it shortly.

My hon. Friend will know that the university of Bolton has a fine record of attracting people from all walks of life. However, he also knows that there is a high drop-out rate across the country—the university of Bolton is included in that. What more can we do to help to retain students who are attracted to universities and help them to stay in the courses that they have opted to study?

This is extremely important, although it is necessary to put it into context. We have some of the lowest drop-out rates in the advanced world. The recent Public Accounts Committee report included two tables. If we look at the one that includes both those students who transfer to another university and those who achieve a different higher education qualification, we get a more realistic picture. It shows that non-completion rates have reduced consistently since 1998.

The Higher Education Minister must accept that the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds accepted to universities has not increased as he would have wanted. Does he accept that debt aversion is a problem? Whether or not he accepts that, does he agree that there is a need for proper research into the reasons why there are not more applications from students from poorer backgrounds? Will he commission that proper research so that we can have evidence-based policy?

We have discussed this in the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills, and we regularly conduct research into these issues. There has been an increase in the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups applying to and being accepted by universities. I want that to be higher, which is why we have a host of policies in train to achieve that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in celebrating last week’s figures on applications to study at university next year. They show a significant overall increase of more than 7 per cent. and an increase in the proportion of applications from lower socio-economic groups.

Is the Minister aware that both Oxford and Cambridge still take one third of their students from 100 so-called elite schools—80 per cent. in the private school sector and just 20 per cent. in the state school sector? Both those universities are failing to meet their abysmally low widening participation rate targets of 9 per cent. What more can he do to drag those two universities kicking and screaming into the 21st century by widening their participation rates?

I understand the genuine concern on the issue. It is acknowledged by the vice-chancellors and senior management teams at both institutions. Those institutions have made progress in broadening their access, but, as with all institutions, there is much more to do. One of the most effective ways of achieving that progress is by having much stronger school-university partnerships, involving institutions across the country, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Members of Universities UK are well aware of the need to broaden access to universities and they are making every effort, but does the Minister accept that one of the best ways to encourage all people from all backgrounds to go to university is to teach the proper subjects in schools to give children a chance to do so? The number of 18-year-olds with a decent A-level is some 25 per cent., so the target of 50 per cent. is heroic. Why are more students not taught the individual sciences of maths, physics, biology and chemistry, rather than a general science that eliminates them from our best universities?

I know from many discussions with the hon. Gentleman and from his background that he takes these issues very seriously. One key change being made by the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to ensure that triple science is more widely available from the coming academic year. That will help with the issues that he raises. We have made progress, but we need to do more.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in towns such as Keighley a growing number of young women from the Asian community are doing really well at A-level and going on to university every year? I am so proud of that and I hope that it will continue. However, is he also aware that once they get to university they are often bullied by young men about their style of dress and their general conduct? Can he ask vice-chancellors to be protectors of those women, so that they can conduct their lives as they wish?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue and I know that she has taken a particular interest from a constituency perspective. It is critical that all students from all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities come together on campus. The institution then has a responsibility not only to ensure that all students are protected, but that they are integrated within the student community.

We discovered last week that the Government are spending some £211,000 for every disadvantaged student they get into university. We now know that at least a fifth of those students are leaving within a year, despite the Government spending a further £800 million to tackle drop-out rates. We also know that student debt will shortly reach £21 billion. Can the Minister tell me which one of those financial failures gives the taxpayer best value for money?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his claim that a fifth of students leave university within a year and I ask him to go back to the figures and look at what he is saying. The figures can be made to add up for the claim that £200,000 is spent for every widening-participation student, but only if the total money spent on widening access for all less well-off and disabled students is divided by the total number of additional full-time students from lower socio-economic groups. However, that excludes part-timers, mature students and those students from better-off backgrounds whom we nevertheless want to encourage to apply to all universities, especially the selective universities. The hon. Gentleman needs to address that point.

As for so-called student debt, I understand that the Conservatives are still committed to a real rate of interest for repayments on student loans. We should have a comment from them on whether that is still the case, because it would do nothing to help students.

I know that my hon. Friend visited the very good North Warwickshire and Hinckley technical college in Nuneaton recently. When he has talks with the professors at universities, will he ask them to recognise fully the wonderful diplomas that will be rolled out in the tertiary sector? Very good work is being done, but if it does not create a route to university for some students, it will have failed.

I very much welcomed the opportunity to visit the college in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I agree that the development of the specialised diplomas is one of the most significant educational changes that we have seen in a generation. For it to succeed, we need all universities to recognise them as an admission qualification for higher education. All the indications from universities are that that is happening, and I welcome that.

A young person whose parents have had degree-level education or who come from a professional background is more than four times more likely to access higher education than someone whose parents have a manual occupation and have not been educated to degree level. Given that, does the Minister not think that some of the widening-participation budget that is allocated for retention, which has already been mentioned, might actually be more appropriately spent by universities on targeted outreach work for individuals from schools that traditionally do not access higher education?

Our commitment to widening participation, as well as the investment that we have put into that area, is clear and strong. However, we need to keep under review the way in which that money is spent. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to target those schools and communities where access is lowest to ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that people fulfil their talents. That should include the provision of information, advice and guidance.