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Higher Education

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008

I am delighted to lead this important debate, which I have been trying to secure for about six months. It could not be on a more appropriate day, following America’s election of its 44th President, who will be the first African American to become the President of that country. Senator Obama has come from very humble beginnings, and that is what this debate is all about. I played a small part in the presidential election campaign, because I was over in St. Louis, Missouri, for super Tuesday. I was on the phone banks, canvassing for Senator Obama against Senator Clinton.

Order. Viewing the hon. Member from the position that I hold at the moment, I find it difficult to understand how his part could have been a small one.

I shall be very humble, and I shall not agree with you, Mr. Cook.

Senator Obama ended up winning Missouri by 50.1 per cent. to Senator Hillary Clinton’s 49.9 per cent., and I feel privileged to have played a small part in those presidential elections.

I congratulate the Government on the progress on the widening participation agenda since we came into power. I fully support their target of having a 50 per cent. participation rate in higher education, which I hope will be achieved in the next four or five years. The Aimhigher scheme has been successful in getting into the less well-known secondary schools throughout the country and giving their students a flavour of what life at university is like. It has also linked some of our prestigious universities with schools and further education colleges across the length and breadth of England.

I am sorry to admit that the legacy of the mining and engineering industries in areas such as the local education authorities that I represent—Barnsley and Doncaster—means that we have no great history of children going to university. That is why we have some of the lowest staying-on rates in the country. There is no doubt that the education maintenance allowance that the Government are providing is making a big difference in my constituency in encouraging students to stay on.

In some of the more deprived communities that I represent, most of which are former mining villages, it is proving difficult to persuade parents to support their children in going to university. The Government always rightly make the case that parents need to be more involved in their children’s education. However, in some communities, it is not just a question of involving the parents more; it is also about raising the profile of education in communities in general. It is going to take a long time—perhaps a generation—to achieve that change of attitude in the communities that I am referring to.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, which is one of the most important that we could have. He has mentioned the importance of the EMA in getting youngsters from deprived backgrounds to go down the higher education route. Is he aware that the EMA helpline, which helps such students and their parents to get that funding and encourages them into education, is not working at the moment? I have tabled a parliamentary question about that today. Does he think that the Minister ought to look into that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we are to reach the students whom we want to reach and get them to apply for EMA, it is important that the lines of communication are open. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

The difficulties that we have in the Barnsleys and Doncasters of this world have been recognised by local education authorities through enhanced education provision. In Barnsley, over the next five or six years we will close every one of the 14 secondary schools, amalgamate them and reopen nine advanced learning centres that will provide educational opportunities from 8 am to 10 pm, not just to students of school age, but to the community as a whole. That is Barnsley’s radical way of tackling this problem, and it should be applauded for that. It is receiving £150 million from the Government to achieve that grand master plan over the next five or six years, but, more importantly, the council is speaking with its wallet and is providing an equivalent £150 million of funding out of its own coffers to achieve that plan.

Let me mention what is going on in Doncaster, which I also represent. I have only two secondary school pyramids in my area, one of which, Ridgewood school in Scawsby, is one of the few engineering specialist schools in the country. More than 20 engineering companies were willing to sponsor its specialist status because of Doncaster’s long and proud engineering history. For example, the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard were built there. The other secondary school campus that I represent is Mexborough. We are currently finishing a brand new Mexborough comprehensive school building, which should be completed just after Christmas. That shows that the Government and local authorities are working hand in hand to try to change the life chances of people in deprived communities such as those whom I represent.

There are two main reasons why I have been trying to secure this debate for the past six months. First, I tabled a parliamentary question in the spring about the notional benchmarks for widening participation that universities should have set themselves. In April, I received a response to my question asking the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

“what information his Department holds on (a) the targets each member of the Russell Group of Universities has set itself for widening participation for students from poorer backgrounds in the last two years and (b) performance against those targets.”—[Official Report, 23 April 2008; Vol. 474, c. 2078W.]

The statistics are quite alarming. In the last full year for which statistics on the Russell group are available, of the 20-odd so-called elite universities in the country, only three met their targets on widening participation. They set those targets for themselves, so the targets were not given to them by the Government. First, let me give a roll of honour to the best universities. The best was the university of Glasgow, which set itself a benchmark of 11.5 per cent. and achieved 16.7 per cent. The university of Liverpool had a benchmark of 12.2 per cent. and achieved 13.6 per cent., and the university of Sheffield, which is in my neck of the woods, set itself a benchmark of 10.5 per cent. and achieved 11.1 per cent.

I am sorry to say that a number of universities were well below the target figures that they set. The worst example was the London School of Economics, which set itself a target of 10.2 per cent. and achieved only 4.3 per cent. The second-worst performer was the university of Southampton, which had a target of 11.6 per cent. but achieved only 5.6 per cent. The university of Bristol, at which I got my degree, set a benchmark of 10 per cent. and achieved 5.2 per cent., and the university of Oxford had a benchmark of 8.8 per cent., but achieved only 4.6 per cent. Lastly, the university of Cambridge had a target of 8.9 per cent. and achieved only 5.3 per cent.

That is the scale of the problem that we face. Oxbridge still takes one third of all its students from the so-called 300 schools—the top 200 private schools and the top 100 state schools in the country. That shows that some of our top universities need to do much more to widen participation in their institutions.

Those are enticing figures, but is my hon. Friend able to break them down by subject—for example, medical studies? Would the situation be even worse in that case? He has mentioned that engineering was doing well in one place, so has he done the figures on that?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an interesting point. I do not have those statistics with me, but one example that I shall come to later is bucking the trend to which he has referred. One of the best practice models that I will mention is a medical school that is achieving some fantastic results, but I take his point.

On Oxbridge, there was an interesting article in The Independent entitled “Oxbridge ‘miss targets’ for state school pupils”. It stated:

“Oxford and Cambridge Universities will fail to meet the deadlines for their pledges to increase significantly their intake of state school pupils, according to a study published today.

Both universities agreed with the Government’s Office for Fair Access to reduce the proportion of independent school pupils they admitted in the next five years. Oxford vowed it would take 62 per cent. from state schools by 2011, compared with the current figure of 54 per cent.; Cambridge agreed to improve its proportion by the same date from 57 per cent. to between 60 and 63 per cent.

However, the study by the left-leaning”—

whatever that means—

“Institute for Public Policy Research, published on the closing date for this year’s Oxbridge applications, found Oxford is likely to miss its target by five years, and Cambridge will not hit its until 2012.

Lisa Harker, the IPPR’s co-director, said: ‘Students getting three A grade A-levels at state schools are significantly under-represented at both universities.’”

I am sure that we all recall the case of Laura Spence, who was given a prediction that she would get five A grades at A-level in 2000 and was refused by Magdalen college, Oxford. Our current Prime Minister made a big point out of that at the time, and rightly so.

I seek my hon. Friend’s assurance, which I am sure that he will give, that he is arguing not for a reduction of standards for children from lower social and economic backgrounds but for fair treatment for those with equal qualifications. May I remind him that Laura Spence got her doctorate from Cambridge university last week?

I rest my case on that point. That shows how wrong Oxford university was. I am asking for a system that is fair to everyone. If my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, is telling me that a student who achieves an A* in history at Eton has a qualification equivalent to a student who gets an A* in history in a challenging school, I have some dispute with him.

I am listening carefully as the hon. Gentleman develops his argument. I hope that he will accept that the Laura Spence example is not a good one. All the medical student applicants to that college had predictions of the same grades as her, and it took in state school pupils who had had greater disadvantage but who perhaps did not have her publicist. Indeed, a report of the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made that clear, and I urge the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) to consider it. I shall return on another occasion to applications and success rates, which are critical to his argument about Oxbridge.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and defends his local university well. The fact of the matter is that all universities need to do more to widen their participation, and some need to do more than others.

The second reason why I wanted to secure this debate was to shine a light on best practice models. That returns me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). Models of best practice have involved adopting what has come to be known as positive action in widening participation. There are examples of positive action in a lot of universities, including a number of Russell group universities, among them colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge.

I wish to go into a little detail about what I regard as the best example of positive action at any university in this country: St. George’s medical school, which is part of the university of London. It is best described in another article from The Independent, dated 25 February this year and entitled, “Students from poorer backgrounds ‘catch up’ at university”. It reads:

“Students with lower A-level grades from some of the country’s poorest performing schools do just as well as high flyers from the independent or selective sector in their degrees, according to ground-breaking new research.

The findings have been seized on as vindication by campaigners who argue that universities should embrace positive discrimination to help candidates from struggling comprehensives.

The study looked at students at St George’s Medical School, University of London—one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country—where students from schools with low exam results can obtain a place with two Bs and a C grade pass, instead of the normal requirement of two As and a B grade pass.

All they have to do is show that their A-level results are 60 per cent. better than the average for their school.

It revealed that in their first-year exams there was less than a 1 per cent. difference—considered by statisticians to be insignificant—in the marks obtained by those with lower A-level grades when compared to those youngsters admitted under the standard route…Kenton Lewis, assistant registrar in charge of fair access at St George’s, said: ‘Without the scheme, the majority of these students would not have had the opportunity to study medicine. This is a clear indication that our innovative scheme has successfully widened participation without lowering standards.’”

The article cites the case study of a student named Mojisola Giwa, who was originally from Nigeria. It reads:

“Ms Giwa, 22, could have been lost to medicine had it not been for the St George’s initiative. She studied for A-levels at Newham sixth-form college in east London, so qualified for the scheme under which youngsters from poorly performing schools and colleges can obtain places despite not achieving grades as good as students from privileged backgrounds. She was offered a place at George’s provided she got four B-grade passes, as opposed to the two As and a B traditionally demanded of candidates.

Ms Giwa’s generation—she has a sister and two brothers—are the first from her family to enter higher education. ‘If it wasn’t for the St George’s scheme, it could have been impossible for me to study medicine,’ she said.”

That is the type of scheme to which I am referring.

Rather than refer to that as “positive discrimination”, which is a pejorative term in a way, why do we not call it “looking for potential”? We have to acknowledge that kids can be tutored to get high grades in certain exams if there is enough money and time to throw at them, but some kids do not have that opportunity. Let us call it “looking for potential” rather than “positive discrimination”.

The hon. Gentleman once again makes a common-sense point. I did not refer to it as positive discrimination; it was referred to as such as in the newspaper article. I call it “positive action”, which I think is along the lines that he suggests. The Minister might want to come in on this point at the end of the debate, but I think that it is illegal to have positive discrimination measures in such a matter. The hon. Gentleman will not hear me refer to it as positive discrimination.

The more detailed findings of the St. George’s project will be published shortly, and I recommend them as suitable bedtime reading for heads of widening participation and student recruitment at all universities. It is no wonder that this June, the St. George’s medical school project won the London education partnership award for professional contribution to higher education progression, and in October won the City of London special dragon award for social inclusion and received a special commendation in the Times Higher Education award for widening participation. This month, it is one of the three finalists in The Guardian public service award for innovation and progress in diversity and equality.

A National Audit Office report that came out in June confirms the point that I am trying to make about widening participation:

“Some progress is being made in encouraging under-represented groups to continue into higher education…But particular sections of society remain significantly under-represented and too little is known about the link between measures taken by institutions and any improvements in access.

The attainment of qualifications at secondary school is the principal reason for the difference in participation rates but social class remains a strong determinant of higher education participation. Women are better represented than men and those from non-white ethnic groups are better represented than white people. The National Audit Office has found that white people from lower socio-economic groups are the most under-represented group in higher education institutions.”

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, (Mr. Sheerman) who is the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, agrees with that point, which resonates with some of his Committee’s reports. The report continues:

“There are also significant variations between academic institutions in how good they are at widening participation. In 2006-07, one sixth of institutions made less progress than expected in recruiting students from areas with low participation. Those that became universities post-1992 generally do better than the Russell Group universities.”

I am running short of time, but I would like to make the following brief points. I would like the Minister to touch on three matters when he sums up. First, I would like to tease out his impression of the difference that the Office for Fair Access is making in the widening participation debate. I know from my spies in the higher education sector that sometimes it is perceived as too close to, or too cosy with, some of the universities. I would like his views on that.

Secondly, I know that it is too early to talk about the success of foundation degrees in widening participation. I will put my cards on the table and admit that I am a big supporter of them. I think that they will be a winner in the long run, but I would like the Minister’s view.

The third point is on the Open university, which has the proudest tradition of widening participation of any university, not just in the UK but in the world. In the briefing note that the OU provided to Members for this debate, it made a couple of key points to which I would like the Minister to respond:

“Part time higher education is a very cost effective way of widening participation so the support available to part time students should be enhanced. The OU would ideally like to see part time students have access to the support enjoyed by full time students—such as access to student loans, student bank accounts as well as other concessions…It is estimated that 40 per cent. of all higher education students are part time. So Higher Education funding models should be flexible enough to reflect this instead of being geared largely towards the needs of full time students as is the situation at present.”

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his exciting peroration, he will know that the Government’s policy on equivalent or lower qualifications will mean that about 20 per cent. of OU students will lose their funding. That will not simply leave things as they are but will make them worse. If the hon. Gentleman would challenge the Minister on that, he might get a reply as a result.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is another important issue on which I would like the Minister to respond.

I have focused primarily on the key role that all universities need to play in widening participation in this country. I have deliberately not touched on the other important issue—student finance and debt. It is worthy of a debate in itself, and I am sure that other hon. Members will include it in their contribution this afternoon.

As I said earlier, several best practice models, centred mainly around positive action, are employed by universities. They should become the norm rather than the exception. We still have schools in this country that have never sent a student to either Oxford or Cambridge, which cannot be right. We have all heard the expressions “failing schools” and “coasting schools”. I am afraid that at present, as far as widening participation is concerned, we have several coasting universities. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we have several failing universities that are not fully playing their part in tapping the untold intelligence and talent of our young people. I hope that today’s debate will stimulate a response from all universities on this important matter.

Order. As you all know, I have to start the first of the three winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm in order to enable us to finish by 4 pm. Five Members have indicated that they wish to contribute. I hope that they will all take account of time in making their contribution and also in accepting and responding to interventions.

The Government’s target of a 50 per cent. participation rate from lower-income groups is, as the National Union of Students has described it, bold and progressive. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills was keen to make explicit the Government’s understanding of the importance of widening participation in higher education when he said on 8 April:

“To succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy, we must unlock the talents of all our people. Other countries better overcome barriers to reach talented students. We are wasting too much talent.”

Hear, hear to that.

Yet the stark fact is that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds make up around one half of the population of England but represent just 29 per cent of young, full-time, first-time entrants to higher education. As the National Audit Office pointed out in June, lack of participation is most acute among men and women from white working-class communities, which is the most under-represented group. That is the community in which I grew up. Such inequality cannot be allowed to persist.

The NAO also reported that the participation rate for men is currently 10 per cent. below that for women, and that social class remains a key determinant of higher education participation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) said. I am unsure whether the Office for Fair Access can intervene on gender participation issues, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s guidance on that.

On finance, we know that debt aversion is a prominent factor in poorer students’ decisions not to apply to university. Indeed, my own experience of attending university as a mature student highlights the well-established nature of that socio-economic trend over many decades, and it is my belief that the Government’s policies on variable top-up fees and the student grant may be barriers to increasing the number of poorer students going to university.

Evidence is also emerging that additional factors in the faltering progress include the unregulated nature of bursary schemes and the failure to address the needs of part-time students. The findings of research into universities’ bursary schemes conducted by Professor Claire Callender of Birkbeck university revealed worrying variations in the level of support available to students through bursaries. In essence, Professor Callender found that access to a good level of bursary support is dependent on where someone goes to university. The relatively small number of low-income students at Russell group universities had access, on average, to an annual needs-based bursary of £1,791, but the average hardship support for students at the Million+ group of universities, which the majority of students from deprived backgrounds attend, was £680—that is, £1,000 less.

Perhaps more worrying still is the use of bursaries by universities in the two groups. The research revealed that Russell group universities awarded 77 per cent. of all bursaries in 2006-07 on the basis of financial need. In the Million+ group, only 45 per cent. of the recipients were students experiencing financial hardship. In the majority of cases, universities with a higher proportion of poorer students are awarding bursaries for purposes such as marketing, rather than to support students struggling with the increased economic cost of going to university.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend remembers where bursaries came from in the first place, and why they were instituted in the system. I think that some of us probably do and have the scars to prove it. Secondly, does he think that a national bursary is required to sort out some of the problems?

I shall return to that matter. I agree with my hon. Friend’s second point.

Returning to the Russell group, the Higher Education Statistics Agency noted earlier this year that only six of the 20 universities in this institutional clique were reaching the Government’s targets on recruiting students from state schools. The majority of state school pupils are not from poor households, but this type of resistance to change does nothing to dispel concerns over the endurance of elitism and class discrimination at some of our most internationally respected universities. I am not at all surprised to find that the London School of Economics is in the stocks in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough described, because for years it has persistently offered places to well-off foreign students with less good qualifications than home-based students. That is a scandal that ought to be exposed. We have done little about that, as a political class.

I sense that my hon. Friend is tempting me down that route. I am not sure that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), is a governor there, but I shall certainly have a discussion with him after this debate.

Another worrying statistic is that only four out of 20 Russell group universities reached the Government’s specific target for accepting students from deprived neighbourhoods. Oxford university is 3 per cent. off its own modest target of 8.7 per cent. This cannot go on.

The Russell group would do well to look at the successful participation policies of the university of Leicester, recently named university of the year by The Times Higher Educational Supplement. I am proud of that university. Its vice-chancellor, Professor Bob Burgess, who came here to talk to county and city Members of Parliament a few months ago, has been a major figure in improving the all-round performance of the university of Leicester over the last decade. He has said, rightly,

“we are a university that tries to extend its reach and widen participation to the students who perform well in school and college, but are from social groups or areas of the country that do not traditionally come to university.”

That university has strengthened its links with state schools and maintained appropriate levels of investment in research and buildings and is listening to the student body.

I visited the university’s computer centre and library not that long ago. It is a fine place. I ought to declare an interest, because my daughter used to work in the library there. All the things that I have mentioned have been key to the success of this most progressive and democratic of east midland universities. Our county and region are well blessed with top universities.

The Times Higher Educational Supplement said that Leicester university is “elite without being elitist.” What a fine, concise phrase that is for improving higher education in our country. The university of Leicester’s performance throws out the argument made by antediluvian academics and their political supporters that accepting the Government’s demand for more students from lower-income backgrounds and state schools would inevitably lower standards.

The comment of Lord Patten of Barnes about the Government treating universities—presumably Newcastle and Oxford, where he is chancellor—like a “social security office” was provocative stuff from a Tory dinosaur, although it is hardly surprising that Oxbridge and some of its cohorts resent state intervention in what they consider their own private affair. But Chris Patten’s sponsored statement was useful in reminding us of the key role that the Office for Fair Access has to play and where it must show its mettle.

Surely, OFFA exists to challenge this type of entrenched prejudice against working-class students, especially as the higher education sector remains 21 per cent. away from the Government’s target for this group. Yet no remedial action has yet been taken by OFFA—when will the Children, Schools and Families Committee say something about OFFA?—against universities failing to fulfil their side of the bargain and more accurately reflect the society we live in and the potential of all our students, regardless of what their parents earn. Perhaps OFFA needs to be more assertive in its discussions with those universities that are seemingly incapable of change, particularly if the Secretary of State’s impressive commitment, which I started my contribution with, to creating a socially just higher education sector is to be fulfilled.

If we are to dissolve the class barriers to full participation in higher education from lower-income families, then all universities must be prepared to forge links across the state school sector and ensure that the privately educated minority—the 7 per cent. who are privately educated and have such disproportionately high access to Oxbridge and Russell group universities—are not over-represented among Russell group universities. It is a disgrace that that situation should have survived almost 12 years of a Labour Government, with another four, five, six or seven years to come, perhaps.

OFFA has a crucial role to play in successfully regulating admissions practices and policies and now is the time for it to get its teeth out of whichever box they have been stored in, put them in and show some teeth to the universities that are represented by some of the hon. Members here in this Chamber.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate. He and I share a background; we were teachers before being elected and we spent quite some years together on the Education Committee, as was, pursuing our interest in education. We have a lot of views in common on this issue.

As hon. Members’ contributions so far have indicated, a wide range of issues can be looked at in respect of widening participation in higher education. I wholeheartedly support the Government’s ambition, mentioned at the start of this debate, of having 50 per cent. of school leavers going to university. I was surprised, when that idea was first put forward, by the number of people who criticised it and opposed it as being totally unrealistic and undesirable, given that Scotland is already way past that target. Scotland has always valued education and succeeds at it to a far greater extent than England.

When Select Committee members went to California some years ago to look at higher education and further education, we talked to its equivalent of the chamber of commerce. The employers there were not echoing the voices in this country that said, “Fifty per cent. is far too much.” They said, “Here in California, the fourth largest economy in the world in its own right—if it were a separate country—we have 60 per cent. with degrees and it is not enough; we need more.” They were certainly signed up to the idea that access to higher education and expanding it is essential to the success of any modern economy in a globalised world.

I shall mention briefly the education maintenance allowance, which has already been touched on. That is a good initiative that has proved successful, but this year it has been a shambles that is still staggering on. A number of my constituents—including another one in the past week—have approached me because they have not received their EMAs, have not been able to get registered, despite making two or three attempts, or have registered but have not got the money. We hear all sorts of figures on how many people across the country are suffering, ranging from 50,000 to 300,000, but we do not know the real figure. What is the company doing about that, and what penalties will be imposed for this absolute shambles, which is destroying a good scheme? I have heard anecdotal evidence, as I said in the Children, Schools and Families Committee recently, of students from poor family backgrounds in Chesterfield staying on but dropping out within the first two months because that essential money was not there to support them.

Outreach work in schools is essential to encourage pupils considering staying on for post-16 studies and then going on to university, which has been touched on by hon. Members. The Sutton Trust, in research looking at pupils who started secondary school in 1997, found that young people who are eligible for free school meals are 19 per cent. less likely to go to university than those who were not on free school meals. Looking more closely, it found that if pupils on free school meals—the indicator of poverty—could be persuaded to stay on post-16, they were just as likely, after that, to go to university as people from more affluent backgrounds. The problem was getting them to stay on in the first place to clear that hurdle. EMAs were a great step in helping to achieve that, which is why this year’s shambles must be dealt with and resolved—it has not been resolved yet—and why there must not be a repeat of that in future.

Schools today play a much greater, and better, part in trying to overcome problems in respect of home background and role models. When I was a school pupil in the late 1960s and early ’70s, coming off a council estate in Sheffield, I knew absolutely nobody among my family, neighbours and friends’ parents who was a role model as a manager of a business, an accountant, a lawyer, a civil servant, a doctor, or a professional of any kind; I had never met any such person. It was only through school that that started to happen. Speaking as someone who was a secondary school teacher for 22 years before being elected, schools today are much more proactive and capable in what they are doing to raise that awareness among pupils and raise the aspirations of people who come from backgrounds where there are no such role models. All the excellent work that a lot of universities are doing in outreach work with local schools in their areas is starting to produce dividends, but it is a long, slow process.

After someone has got through all those hurdles, stayed on post-16 and applied to university, the problem arises, which has already been touched on, of gaining access to university. The Sutton Trust did another piece of research on admissions from 2002 to 2006, and it bluntly stated that state school pupils are losing out compared with those from private schools. The trust found that the number of pupils who went to Oxbridge universities from the top 30 comprehensives in the country was a third of what would be expected based on their A-level results and ability. The number from the top 30 private schools was more than expected. There is a clear and massive imbalance, based on the sort of school candidates go to, in intake to top universities, which is, of course, a category that extends way beyond Oxbridge. I am a proud graduate of York university, which has been rated seventh in the country for two years running now. We should not always be thinking of Oxbridge when we talk about the top universities.

The imbalance is clear. There is a barrier of some sort in the process that prevents bright children who go to state schools—93 per cent. of the school population—from gaining their due access to the highest-performing universities. We need to look at that issue carefully; we have still not resolved it, and we have already heard the comments about Oftoff, as it has been unkindly nicknamed, and whether it is achieving its purpose.

Another piece of research, by Professor Geoff Whitty of the Institute of Education at the university of London, has made the same point. He pointed out, on the basis of his research, that private school pupils gain more places at elite universities despite the fact that they get only slightly better A-level grades—the difference is typically about half a grade. He said that they were significantly more likely than their state school peers to get into leading institutions such as Oxbridge universities and the Russell group. Professor Whitty said that that meant that universities such as Bristol, which have experimented with considering students’ potential as well as their raw A-level results, were right to do so, and that universities should be encouraged to do that more widely.

Logic and common sense tells us that ability is not fixed at 18. At what point is it fixed? Certainly not then. I know from having been a head of sixth-form for 12 years, and from my own children, one of whom is now at university, that beyond the age of 18 people still develop an awful lot. It is obviously foolish to say that there can be no improvement beyond the A-level score that someone attains at 18. In a private school with half the class size and more teacher attention, and in a boarding school with a captive, spoon-fed audience, pupils may already have reached, or gone beyond, their potential with their A-level grades. As Professor Whitty points out from his detailed research, comprehensive schools, by contrast, must educate children of all abilities in larger class sizes, so pupils with given A-level grades are doing better, given their environment, than a private school pupil with the same A-level grade. There is a strong case for making allowances for that.

My final point—it has been suggested that someone might take it up, and I shall do so briefly, although we have rehearsed it exhaustively before—relates to tuition fees and student finance. As I have said many times, I cannot comprehend the logic that says the way to improve access and to encourage children from poor backgrounds, who traditionally do not go to university, is to lumber them with a huge amount of student debt through tuition fees. I cannot see a shred of logic in that approach. We shall come back to that argument a lot in the next couple of years, because we are about to conduct a review.

The £1,000 fee went up to £3,000, and it is going to go somewhere else. The Russell group universities propose tuition fees of £7,000, £9,000 or £14,000—or, as Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford university, has proposed, mortgage-level tuition fees. That will certainly stop children from non-traditional and poorer backgrounds even remotely considering choosing universities according to their ability, as opposed to their ability to pay.

When the new Labour Government introduced tuition fees, having said in the 1997 general election that they had no plans to do so, they largely based their proposal on an experiment in Australia. The Select Committee went to Australia and was told in Canberra, 10 years after the introduction of tuition fees, that there had been no problems at all for people from poorer backgrounds. When we went to Sydney and talked to the opposition party—which, ironically, was the party that had, in government, introduced the measure—we were told that the Government seemed to have forgotten all the research that they had been hiding, which had been drawn out only by freedom of information requests. That research showed that there had been problems and that children and students from poorer backgrounds now go much more often into shorter, cheaper degrees, which in turn get them into less well-paid graduate occupations. They cannot afford the mounting tuition fees under the system. Women, of course, who take career breaks because of children or who often make career choices that take them into less well-paid graduate professions, are the ones who have been hit hardest by the burden of student debt.

None of that should be a surprise. It is exactly what we would expect in England, and it is exactly what is happening in England. It is still not too late, when we think about Chris Patten’s mortgage-level tuition fees, to think again and return to a system of education paid for by the taxpayer and paid back by appropriate levels of taxation, with graduates contributing more either because they earn more or through a graduate tax of some kind. However, that is a debate to return to in more detail later.

I shall be brief. Of the nine hon. Members participating in the debate, seven have served on a Committee that I chair—even the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods)—so proceedings are a little interbred. However, it is a very good debate. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) was able to get the debate. It surprised me, because he cannot be on my Select Committee any more because he is now the deputy to the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber. I am amazed that he cannot continue as a good member of my Committee, but he can function as a Back Bencher and obtain debates in Westminster Hall. I am sad that holders of such posts can no longer participate in Select Committees—and of course they are unpaid. However, it is a pleasure to follow the argument that my hon. Friend put.

I think that my hon. Friend was a little tough about the Russell group, and some of the comments about it have been a little excessive; let me put the record straight. I would not demur from the overall argument. I attended the London School of Economics for both my degrees, and am one of its governors; but I am not a majority on the governing body and some of the situations that arise there are not ones that I welcome. However, it is a large governing body. I remind the House that we have independent universities in this country. They are not creatures of the state but independent institutions, and long may they be so. We want them to do all sorts of things, and jump through hoops, but at the very heart of the quality of the higher education in our democracy is their independence.

Not for the moment.

With independence comes the fact that we cannot—and thank goodness we cannot—tell the universities what to do on a daily or weekly basis. There are problems; I hear the arguments, which are well made.

I want to deal with three detailed points. The Select Committee on Education and Skills considered the widening participation agenda, and we strongly criticised the outdated admissions and application process that was still used in Oxford and Cambridge. However, Cambridge has mended its ways and has now come into the main body of applications for university entrance. Let us welcome that good change. Oxford has not done so, and it should. The one thing, in my experience of going into schools, that puts off many of the kids in our schools from applying to Oxford and Cambridge is the different and very distinct application process. They are immediately regarded as a swot sitting in the corner with a special application because they are going to Oxford or Cambridge. Both Oxford and Cambridge should long ago have come into line. Cambridge has and we hope Oxford will.

Also, many of our highly competitive universities put great faith in the interview process. I believe that the interview process is severely lacking with respect to any scientific basis, the way in which interviewers are trained, or not trained, and the passionate faith that is placed in it. When the Select Committee visited the United States the leaders of many Ivy league universities said that they did not believe in interviews. Indeed, the president of Stanford university said that if they wanted more people like them, they would interview. They use five or six criteria to identify the latent talent in applicants. It is right that we want to identify talented young men and women in our country, and to do so correctly, but much of the interviewing process is still lacking. It is hard to persuade the universities that interview that that is not the best way.

We have seen a profound change in outreach programmes in universities, but they are not always led by universities, and I think all of us would agree on the record that the Sutton Trust was a trail-blazer under Sir Peter Lampl. It blazed a trail, and said that if we want kids to go to research-rich universities, which they are terrified to go to because they think they are posh and not for them, we must get them to a summer school. Let them see and experience the university, let them meet some of the students and staff and get through those barriers. It was not the universities that blazed that trail; it was the Sutton Trust.

When one goes round universities now, they often conveniently forget that it was an external stimulus that set them on that path. However, they are doing much better now, and sometimes the Sutton Trust can step back a bit because universities such as the London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge and York now hold summer schools, and are progressively introducing new ways of outreaching to schools. Some have done that by setting up partnerships with academies, which is a progressive measure. I have argued for that in the institution that we discussed earlier, but I have not won the argument yet.

Universities that have gone in for academy partnerships are doing the right thing, but that is not the only way. Many universities now have outreach programmes in schools. They send students and staff into schools, and use their alumni, as happens in the United States, to go into schools from which they do not get students.

The Select Committee went to a number of universities in the United States that have a map of the country, and if they know of a state or part of a state that is underperforming in the number of talented young people applying to that university, they send local alumni to find out why.

There have been some remarkable improvements over the past 10 years—let us not deny that—and not only in terms of the extra money that has gone to universities. I know that some of my Liberal Democrat friends object to variable fees, but we have seen enormous enhancement in the quality of higher education because we introduced those fees, most of which have gone into paying university staff better. If we do not have high-class tuition and research, we will not have the world-class universities that we need. We have them now, and the money has, by and large, come from variable fees, which I was in favour of then, and still am.

No, I will not

I know that there was a hiccup with the payment of education maintenance allowances during the summer, because of the partnership with a private company, but they have had a good take-up, and analysis shows that they work and bring more young people from deprived backgrounds into higher education.

Let us not forget that the leaving learning age will rise to 17 and then 18. In our present economy, I would bring that forward by two years, and not wait. Raising the leaving learning age will be a remarkable opportunity to keep kids in education. It is good to have a go at research-rich universities and the Russell group, but if we do not keep kids in school until 18, they will never have a chance to apply to university. We always said in the Select Committee that all the evidence shows that if kids are kept in education from 16 to 18, they have the chance to go on. That is where my priority lies.

Let us not bash the Government for everything. During the past 10 years, resources, motivation and direction have been absolutely right. As with all Governments, they have not got everything right, but that would be perfection in any political system, even that of which Mr. Obama will shortly be President.

I have worked out that I can speak for six minutes, and no longer. I have been following the maths and the time as the number of hon. Members waiting to speak has come down.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who speaks with great experience as a long-standing member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee with a personal interest in the matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on raising the subject in his clear and typical style. This is my first opportunity in a debate to welcome the Minister to his new role, and I do so. I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) arrived—we were briefly worried about him. It is noticeable that one in 30 Liberal Democrat Back Benchers, one in 90 Labour Back Benchers, and zero in however many Conservative Back Benchers, are here and participating.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said that he would like to congratulate the Government, and I thought that he was then going to say that he could not, given the facts and figures. There is something in that, because we have not reached the 50 per cent. target, and we are not heading fast towards 50 per cent. The Minister’s Department will allow expansion by only 10,000 places next year, compared with 20,000 the previous year, because of the £200 million black hole. Widening participation and increasing participation are separate agendas, and one hopes that with an increase there is more scope to widen, but that does not necessarily follow. On the widening participation agenda, it is not clear that there are reliable figures showing that the Government have succeeded or can point to universities succeeding. If the Minister gives figures, I shall ask him to source them carefully, whether the baseline was chosen prospectively or is the one that most fits with the latest figures showing an improvement, and what category of lower socio-economic groups he uses, because that seems to vary year by year according to the subject. Widening participation is not just about increasing participation, nor is it just about full-time school leavers. That must be acknowledged. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) talks about other issues, including part-time and mature students who are such an important part of that agenda, as we all recognise.

Given earlier comments, I want to point out that I do not seek to speak for Oxford university, which is one of the two universities in my constituency, and Oxford university does not speak for me. I know that the chancellor does not speak as a representative of the student view or indeed the academic view at Oxford. I disagree with his view on releasing the cap on tuition fees, and I am happy to put that on the record.

A key issue about access to research-rich universities is that more must be done by everyone to improve the situation. At the point of admission, universities can deal only with people who have applied.

I will give way in a moment.

A lot of work must be done to encourage students to apply, and having a reputation for being posh and being a place where some people may not fit in is not helpful, which is why universities must ensure that that is not their image. They should resist being stereotyped and caricatured unfairly as having that image—that happened in the debate—when we know that it is not so. The key question is, are the success rates for those who apply—that is the second stage—equal? My criticism of Oxford, if there is one, is that sometimes the success rates have not been equal and there has been a higher success rate—generally on the same grades, because straight As are required for anyone thinking of applying—in some years for non-state school students, and that is unacceptable.

I agree that it is wrong that someone from an inner- city comprehensive with an A and two Bs is not seen as having the same level of potential as someone with three As from Eton. There are data to show, as has been cited, that that is so. It is not right that universities that are brave enough to accept that are attacked—Bristol was unfairly attacked—for doing the right thing. It is not a case of positive discrimination; it is ending unfair negative discrimination. Regardless of the independence of universities, the Government should insist that all universities within the scope of the evidence base, which is clear, should insist that the best, bright pupils from state schools, even when their qualifications are not as high as those from independent or grammar schools, should be able to apply and to be considered. The St. George’s evidence is very strong.

I do not have time to say more, except that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) about the deterrent of the student finance arrangements that the Government have introduced.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on initiating the debate. He and I spent about two and a half years on the same Select Committee and I know he is passionately committed to social mobility and to ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to access higher education. Indeed, he and I have similar backgrounds; we are both alumni of Bristol university and come from under-represented white working class families, as he put it. I even had free school meals when I was at school, and it will perhaps not surprise my colleagues to know that an early indication of my capitalist leanings was that I used to sell my dinner tickets to the highest bidder.

In his introductory comments, the hon. Gentleman said that dealing with this issue will take a generational change in social attitudes in some communities. Indeed, in or near our constituencies, all of us no doubt know of some schools that send 100 per cent. of their 18-year-olds to higher education and some schools that year after year send nobody at all. My constituency has one of the highest participation rates in higher education in the country. However, south of the river, Bristol, South—alongside Nottingham, North and Sheffield, Brightside—is one of the three lowest parliamentary seats in the country in terms of levels of participation in higher education.

We are trying to combat generations of under-achievement, poverty of aspiration and other challenging social indicators. Widening participation is a major issue that is largely linked to educational attainment and the potential of someone’s background. The hon. Gentleman has focused on fair access, which is a subset of widening participation; it relates to a small but none the less incredibly significant group of people. We are largely concerned with people who have achieved at school, but who for some reason do not reach the university destination that either reflects the level of their achievement at school or their potential.

The hon. Gentleman focused largely on the Russell Group list of research-intensive universities. In my role, I have several times met the admissions directors of Oxford, Cambridge, my own university of Bristol and some of the other universities in the Russell Group. I know that, as individuals—whether they are the manager or pro-vice chancellor responsible for admissions—they are all committed to ensuring that this problem is addressed with due seriousness. Several examples of good practice already exist in some of these universities—for example, Oxford university has a programme of engagement with teachers in state schools and visits high-performing state schools. That is a good thing to do, but, of course, visiting high-performing state schools that turn out a lot of children who do well at A-level leaves out states schools in which there are perhaps only one or two achievers. They are perhaps the people who are most missing out on fair access.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extremely sad that when schools and universities try to identify latent talent in non-traditional geographical areas and press for admission procedures to be revisited, newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, hyperventilate about social engineering and dumbing down? That contributes nothing to the debate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he is exactly right. The vice-chancellor of Bristol university has a fat file full of criticisms from The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the head teachers of several leading private schools. Such criticisms are made every time the university tries to do something in relation to unfair admissions, even though such actions do not in any way dilute the entry standards, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. None the less, attempts to deal with the issue of social context and the potential of applicants opens up the university to unfair criticism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said.

Bristol university does a lot to attract children from a wide social pool to go to university—for example, ChemLabS is a programme that not only encourages young people to take an interest in science, but to go to Bristol university, although many of the people who take part in that programme actually apply to other universities. The programme is a success in its own right, but that does not necessarily mean that Bristol gets the full credit for it. Leeds university has a similar aspiration and now has an inter-disciplinary science foundation year to ensure that children who perhaps have not got the right mix of A-levels to do a science course at a Russell Group university are given a grounding in science and maths.

I join my hon. Friend in commending Leeds university’s science access programme, which is proving successful. Equally, on the other side of the coin, as it is one of the Russell Group of universities, earlier this year, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute estimated that fees could rise to up to £7,000 a year. Does he agree that it is absurd to suggest that that will not have an effect on widening participation and encouraging people from less well-off backgrounds?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to the issue of the fee cap, but I certainly agree with his point. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned that in relation to many Russell Group universities, we must essentially deal with the problem of comparing people who do not apply in the first place with those who do apply and often have three As. It is hard for the universities to discriminate between such applicants. Incidentally, the introduction of the A* grade is likely to make that problem even worse for admissions tutors.

Perhaps the Minister could respond to this specific point. On the issues surrounding the applications procedures, to which the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred, when Professor Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel university he produced a report that recommended we should shift to a system of post-qualification applications, so that the A-level or diploma results of young people are known. We would then know exactly who has good qualifications and would be able to match those people up with the research-intensive universities. What progress do the Government expect to make in switching from our existing examinations timetable to a system of post-qualification applications? Considering when that timetable was devised, it is now out of date.

The advice that young people receive early in their school career is essential. We must ensure that the independent advice that young people receive in schools is aspirational and that it challenges their stereotypical feelings or their parents’ feelings about the backgrounds from which they come. We must ensure they receive accurate advice about the subject choices they need to make, so they do not have the bitterly disappointing discovery at age 17 that the choices they have made do not enable them to apply to some of the top universities in the country.

Many issues are outside the immediate control of the universities and need to be addressed by policy makers. Debt alleviation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), is certainly something that will concern many students from poor backgrounds. That is particularly the case for those who wish to take courses that are perceived to be expensive or that might take a long time to complete—for example, medicine. In its 2007 student survey, the British Medical Association said that graduates in medicine currently leave the system with at least £20,000 of debt. If the fee cap that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) mentioned is lifted in the future, which is an expectation widely held in the sector, medicine is likely to become an incredibly expensive degree. That means the social profile of those studying medicine will become even more skewed. There should be a level playing field for students who study in different modes—particularly for those who choose to study part-time, in relation to which the current funding system is prejudicial.

Why is this issue so important? I was curious to note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough did not stress that not having fair access creates a barrier to social mobility in this country. Depending on which study one reads, we are either the worst or the second worst socially mobile country in the OECD.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the Sutton Trust several times. Sutton Trust reports, which I read with avid interest as well, have shown that 81 per cent. of the judiciary went to Oxford or Cambridge. Most of the leading members of the British media went to Oxford or Cambridge. Most heads of charities and, indeed, a significant proportion of parliamentarians—our colleagues—went to Oxford or Cambridge. The Sutton Trust produced a report in September 2006 on the educational background of the House of Commons. It found that 28 per cent. of MPs went to Oxford and 34 per cent. went to an independent school; 59 per cent. of the Conservatives went to an independent school. I heard today the Leader of the Opposition trying to associate himself with change and with a young person who has just been elected in the western world. If he thinks that an example of change is yet another old Etonian being elected to govern this country, he does not understand the meaning of change or social mobility.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) by reminding him that I was the first in my family ever to go to university, that I went to a state school and that I do not enjoy the privileged background that he claims is commonly enjoyed by Conservatives.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he shares my passionate support for the principles outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who obtained this Adjournment debate and has usefully brought these matters to the attention of the Chamber.

Participation in higher education has a vital role to play in expanding opportunity and building a socially mobile, cohesive and just society. I know that the Minister shares those ambitions, but the uncomfortable truth is that rather than increasing opportunity across society, the expansion in university education in the past 30 years has served to cement social division. Opportunity for some has not meant opportunity for all, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made clear. In 2005, the Sutton Trust found that people born in 1970 were less likely to have moved between social classes than those born in the year of my birth, 1958—it is hard to believe that I am 50, but I am. Behind that change has been a rise in educational inequality. Young people from the poorest income groups increased their graduation rate by just 3 per cent. between 1981 and the late 1990s. That compares with the rise of 26 per cent. for those from the richest 20 per cent. of families.

This week, a Cabinet Office report stated:

“Broadly, social mobility is no greater or less since 1970.”

Its conclusions are backed up by a recent OECD report that revealed that the link in the UK between higher education participation and parents with a university qualification is one of the strongest in the developed world.

Rab Butler, a great Conservative, once said:

“Education is the spearhead of social reform.”

However, despite the fact that more than £2 billion a year has been spent on widening- participation programmes, the participation rate of working-class students has increased by just 1 per cent. since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the improvement rate is declining: in the nine years to 1995, participation by working-class students grew at a faster rate. Astonishingly, for some groups, admissions are in decline. We know that from the latest UCAS figures.

Why is that? I say to the Minister, who has inherited much of the problem rather than created it, that it is because the Government have focused completely wrongly on two things; the admissions process and aspiration. It is a kind of pushmi-pullyu policy. However, the pitiful progress in attracting working-class students into higher education is not the result of a biased university admissions system or simply the result of inadequate aspirations. Let us be clear: there is an assumption abroad that universities are institutionally biased against students from poorer backgrounds. That prejudice was memorably demonstrated in relation to the Laura Spence affair, which we heard about again today, but there is no prima facie evidence of snobbery of that type. If there were, that would be a shocking indictment of our university admissions system. But in truth, fewer young people from working-class backgrounds go to university because universities receive far fewer applications from them than from their middle-class contemporaries. Far from proving discrimination, the evidence, such as it is, suggests that applications are treated with admirable fairness.

In two years of access agreements, OFFA has not identified a single breach of those agreements. In 2006, a report for the Higher Education Funding Council based on extensive reviews of the available research found that, if anything, the university admissions system favours applications from working-class candidates. Even the Secretary of State acknowledged that when he said that

“there is no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with most admissions”.

On the push side of the policy, the Government have focused on raising aspirations. They have put millions of pounds into the Aimhigher programme, but research suggests that Aimhigher is not effective at targeting the worst-off students. Media analysis of the campaign illustrates the fact that its message is best received not by socio-economic groups D and E, but by group A. Those conclusions were supported by a revealing Government study that found

“no conclusive statistical evidence that such interventions have…led to increased aspirations to enter higher education.”

Surely that forces us to conclude that that is not the right approach. Given that the Government are cutting the funding for Aimhigher, I guess that they are grudgingly coming to the same conclusion.

The worst of their misanalysis found form with the Government’s decision on ELQ—equivalent or lower qualifications. I acknowledge that that did not happen on this Minister’s watch, but it was a decision by the Government of whom he is a part. It is sad to say that under this Government there is no chance for second-chance education. I have referred to 20 per cent., but it is actually nearer one quarter of Open university students in England and Northern Ireland who are losing their funding under the ELQ cuts. The cuts mean that 20 per cent. of all part-time learners will become unfunded from this academic year. We cannot continue to draw deeply on a shrinking pool of the same kind of students to stimulate growth in higher education. We must broaden access, which is why the Conservatives have called for the ELQ cut to be reconsidered as part of the bigger funding review.

We must move away from the idea that we simply have to pull more young people on to traditional university courses. In place of the strategy that deepens access for the few, I want a strategy that genuinely broadens access for the many. To do that, we must tear down the institutional barriers that inhibit imaginative solutions and innovative modes of learning. That means recognising that increasing participation is not just about academic offers made to 18 to 30-year-olds; it is about mature learners and vocational learners, too.

We must revisit the traditional assumptions about the patterns of higher education study. The rhythms and structures of campus culture are often simply unsuited to the needs of the under-represented groups. The ingrained pattern of low participation in some neighbourhoods and among certain social groups requires solutions that are sympathetic to the lives of different learners. Full-time study is difficult for those in work or with families. The financial burden of living away from home is heavy for those from low-income groups. We must recognise that different lifestyles necessitate different learning experiences, such as part-time courses, community-based learning, modular study and distance learning. Through changed modes of learning, we can change the chances of thousands of potential students. We can and must build bridges between aspiration, higher education admissions and achievement.

The Dearing review some years ago concluded that much greater flexibility in higher education provision was needed to widen participation, yet the system has not become flexible since then. The number of young first-time entrants to higher education studying part time has remained stubbornly fixed at 6 per cent. for the whole of this decade and we still have problems with modular study. In Britain, if someone leaves a university course early, they are branded a drop-out. In many other countries—notably, America—they are thought to have gained a credit; they have done one, two or however many years of college.

The advice and guidance for young people on higher education opportunities is not adequate. We need to think more seriously about an all-ages careers service that is dedicated to giving the right type of advice and that is focused in towns and cities but also available in schools. As was said earlier, these decisions are usually made by young people. We also need to think about having more HE in FE. FE colleges tend to draw on their local communities, and their cohort is more broadly based. They should be able to offer more higher education courses, yet bureaucratic barriers prevent them from so doing.

In summary, we need to think seriously about these matters again. That means thinking more imaginatively about modes of study and access points to learning because all should have a chance of glittering prizes, regardless of where they begin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate, and once again bringing this important subject to the House. It has been a good debate. I recognise the contributions that were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and by the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes).

Widening participation in higher education is not to be confined to young people. It is highly relevant to the 6 million adults in the population that have level 3 qualifications, which approximates to A level, and level 4 qualifications. However, I shall concentrate this afternoon on young people.

I hope that the House will forgive me for not mentioning the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who I know was upset. I did not sleep because of the events of last night.

Getting young people from a more diverse range of backgrounds into university is something that should matter deeply to everyone. That is because higher education transforms ordinary people’s chances in life. The School of Oriental and African Studies transformed my life. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough had his life transformed by his experience at Bristol university.

I was the first in my family to go to university. Many other hon. Members could say the same. Experiences like ours have been replicated thousands of times in families across the country. When I leave the House shortly after this debate, I shall be going to Buckingham palace to be made a Privy Councillor. My mother would never have dreamed, given the cleaning and home-help jobs that she had to do to help her five children get a quality education, that such a thing could have happened. Nor could she have imagined that the networks that university opens up would have brought her son to a place where he could be friends with the next President of the United States of America.

Widening participation is about producing highly-skilled and well-rounded people. It is also about social mobility and social justice, but it is just as much about learning for learning’s sake and the tremendous opportunities that it brings to those who participate.

I can understand the Minister’s excitement and pleasure on being made a Privy Councillor.

Our debate is also about money, is it not? The Government are in a real muddle over maintenance grants. Will the Minister take this opportunity—it matters to students from working-class backgrounds and others—to say how many new students in 2009-10 who would previously have been eligible for help will be worse off as a result of the change? Will it be 50,000, or 80,000? What will be the new taper rate for those maintenance grants?

I shall come to that later.

It is clear that an overwhelming majority of the 500,000 university staff in this country support the great principle first laid down by Lord Robbins—that every young person with the ability and the desire to do so should have the chance to go to university. Admissions officers tell me that they are with us in wanting more gifted young people to apply for their institutions’ courses. They share our frustration that, for the want of the right intervention at the right time, too many still have their educational horizons closed before they leave school.

I acknowledge that universities have taken action over the years to improve the situation, but it has to be sustained. Fifty years ago, one in 20 young people went to university. When I went to university in 1990, it was roughly one in five. Today, it is about one in three. The House will know that the Government remain committed to raising that figure to one in two.

The social mix of students is richer than it once was. In 1997, four in every five young undergraduates came from state schools. By 2006, that had risen to nearly nine out of 10 of a much larger student population. Likewise, in 1997 only 11 per cent. came from low- participation neighbourhoods; by 2005, the figure was 13.5 per cent.

We know that well over half of young people from all social classes want to go to university. That is the highest that it has ever been, and the rate of increase in aspiration and ambition has been fastest among the lower socio-economic groups. Since 1997, the Government’s policies have given no fewer than 300,000 more people the chance to go to university. Yet in a sense we have only just made a start.

I shall not dwell on the obstacles that we face in achieving the fairness that we all seek. Hon. Members have mentioned many. Those obstacles have not changed much over the years, although our methods of addressing them have. They include low aspiration. I disagree with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings; I believe that aspiration is essential to this agenda. My experience in working-class estates in constituencies such as mine and in the northern constituencies of my colleagues tells me that aspiration, the change in work and context in those communities, are vital factors in explaining why such young people do not go to university.

Ultimately, the universities themselves are responsible for which students they admit. It is inevitable that much of the onus to expand opportunity should fall on them. Most have responded positively to the challenge, and the Government have supported them in that.

For example, we have extended the Aimhigher programme, which has already done much to encourage young people to see going to university as an option. The programme operates on the principle that showing youngsters one concrete example of the fact that people like them can aspire to go to university is worth a thousand words. That is why we introduced Aimhigher Associates, a scheme to allow 5,500 undergraduates to mentor 21,000 children from the age of 13. That is a significant number. The initiative will be supported by £21 million over the next three years. I believe that it has the capacity fundamentally to change lives.

It is difficult to give way when less than two minutes remain. I know that we will return to the subject over the weeks and months ahead.

I could take the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough as an example. The university of Huddersfield’s Barnsley centre is directly opposite the further education college. The university authorities have not waited for the people of Barnsley to come to them; since 2005, they have brought a range of higher education opportunities to their doorstep.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the performance of the more selective universities. They, too, are now making progress. However, I acknowledge that to date it has been slower than the average for the whole sector. I am sure that members of the more selective universities will reflect on some of the statements made in the House this afternoon.

Notwithstanding the changes to student grants that we announced last week, I can tell the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that average household income is just under £40,000. That is why we guarantee that a grant will be available to those households, and that people will be supported. We have made a real improvement.