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Higher Education (Access)

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 27 March 2008

1. What steps he is taking to assist universities in attracting the best students irrespective of background. (196478)

We support a range of policies to ensure that talented people from all backgrounds are able and willing to develop their potential through higher education. They include the Aimhigher programme and the gifted and talented education programme, which run alongside universities’ own outreach activities and the continuing development of better links between schools and higher education. We are also improving the level of student financial support, so that from September, at least two thirds of all students will receive a full or partial grant.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but may I draw to his attention some of my concerns about the number of young people from state schools going to Oxford or Cambridge? I hear reports from pupils who go to open events at those universities that the impression given to them is that they will not be given any preferential treatment just because they come from a state school. That might be the right thing to say, but the way it is said can put people off applying and working towards the goal that they may have set themselves of going to those universities. What can my right hon. Friend do to deal with that issue, to address the fact that the number of state school pupils going to those universities has stalled, and to encourage pupils to reach their full potential?

We continually stress to all universities, but particularly the most selective, the importance of continuing to make progress on widening participation. It would be wrong to suggest that no efforts are being made; I visited Cambridge university a few weeks ago and met a group of students from Leicestershire, none of whose parents have been to university. They were part of the outreach programme. We have to not only work on the universities’ admissions programmes, but look at the links between universities and the skills held at a much younger age, because it is at that younger age that people are likely to form the attitude, “This institution is not for me.” On Cambridge, the House will welcome yesterday’s announcement—although I have to say that it is nothing to do with the Government—that Mr. Harvey McGrath has made a £4 million endowment to Cambridge university specifically to help with its programme to widen participation.

Would the Secretary of State kindly agree to meet a delegation from the borough of Kettering to discuss how students from all backgrounds in the borough might be able to attract a new university to the town?

I suspect that I will do very little else for the next six months but meet the delegations of a number of right hon. and hon. Members who aspire to have a new university campus in their area. I would be delighted if the hon. Gentleman was one of them. It is clear that the new university challenge has inspired many communities across the country to realise what an important contribution a higher education institution can make to participation in higher education, economic development and economic regeneration. I am pleased to see how many areas and towns are now developing university plans.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recommendation of the former Select Committee on Education and Skills that Oxford and Cambridge change their application system so that it marries into the overall university application system would, at one stroke, encourage far more able young people from non-traditional backgrounds to apply to Oxford and Cambridge?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I am sure he knows, just a few weeks ago, Cambridge university, at least, announced that it was doing precisely what the Select Committee recommended. It is bringing its application procedure and application forms into line with the rest of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service system. Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), it is important that universities that are highly sought after look at every aspect of their process to make sure that there is nothing in it that puts off, even inadvertently, talented students from backgrounds where people would not normally be sent to a higher education institution.

The Secretary of State often boasts about the Government’s efforts to widen participation, but is it not the case that widening participation funds for a majority of Russell group universities have recently been cut? For example, Cambridge has been cut by 39 per cent., Oxford by 37 per cent., Bristol by 23 per cent., University college London by 13 per cent., and so on. Is that how the Government plan to help the poorest students get to our best universities?

It is important to understand that there have been no changes to the formula that determines how money to widen participation is allocated to universities. Part of the formula rewards universities that are successful in attracting students from a wider range of backgrounds. Many other funds are available to universities, including those that go into bursaries and other means of attracting students from such backgrounds, and it is clearly a responsibility on the universities that are making least progress to do better.

Does my right hon. Friend feel that universities are doing enough by way of going into schools, even primary schools, to encourage children to aim higher? In my constituency there are many children who have no family members who have been to university. They have no knowledge of what university is about, and they need encouraging. I even have in my constituency many children who have one parent who has never been to school. Those children are disadvantaged because they are not aspiring to the level of education that they could aspire to, and they need encouragement. The universities could help so much by going in and explaining to the children what they would be able to derive from a university education.

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. There is a high volume of activity by universities. A recent report produced by the vice-chancellor of Exeter university, Professor Steve Smith, collated examples of activities by every university involved with schools. We need to do a number of things. First, we need to determine which of those activities are most effective at promoting participation, out of the many different activities that currently take place. Secondly, we need better structural links between universities and schools, whereby schools become involved not just in one-off projects with universities, but through deep lasting links dealing with the curriculum, aspirations and all those issues. We also need to build on the work that has begun as part of the “Aimhigher” programme, which involves working directly with parents and grandparents, particularly in communities where aspirations are low. We are beginning to understand that trying to inspire young people is more difficult if the messages are not reinforced by other family members.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems that we have in the House—we have heard about it already from the Opposition Benches—is the talk about “the best universities”? What we want to do is get the best students into our universities. Will the Secretary of State do all he can to make sure that every university in the country is valued for what it does as an institution, instead of having the absurd notion of a league table to which people should aspire?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I have made a series of speeches over the past few months stressing the importance of mutual respect for the different types of universities. We should not pretend that all universities are the same, because they are not, or that all universities are suitable for each individual student, because they are not. It is important that each university is seen to be excellent at what it chooses to do, and that the right students can get to the right university for their particular abilities and aptitudes. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not like the language that suggests that some places are good and some are not very good, when in fact they are doing different types of education for different types of students, but very often doing it equally well.