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Higher Education

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009

We continue to make encouraging progress with widening participation in higher education. The latest UCAS figures show that acceptances from England for 2008 are up by 7.4 per cent. on the same point last year, and this year’s figures are the highest ever. That means that there are more students in higher education than a year ago, including a higher proportion from poorer backgrounds.

I have a constituent who has been accepted as homeless and is on the homeless register. At 34 weeks pregnant, she has had to drop out of university after being told that until she has the baby, she is ineligible for housing benefit. Is the Minister aware that young people are being forced out of education for that reason and will he take action to ensure that those who fall pregnant while they are in higher education are not penalised?

I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s problem, but I would say that such assistance is dependent on Government finance and the proposals to take £610 million out of my Department will not help.

A very young thing. In 1970, the proportion of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge who were educated in state schools was higher than it is now. Given that all students at university today have had the majority of their education under this blessed Labour Government, to what does the Minister attribute that almost incredible, somewhat depressing and somewhat shameful statistic?

I do not recognise the statistic. This year there has been a 7.4 per cent. rise in the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending our universities. That must be a good thing. I think that increase is the result of the Aimhigher programme and the Aimhigher associates programme, which brings students back into schools and into their local communities to encourage other students to go into education. It is also the result of the work that the universities are doing through summer schools and classes with parents and students, all of which are designed to ensure that we get better equity across the system in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the system is perfect or that it was perfect when he went to university. There is much that we can do and it ought to be a cross-party issue.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that many universities are performing very well in widening participation? Cambridge has done very well, as opposed to Oxford, by having the same application process as all the other universities. That helps. Will he be more aggressive with the universities? Let us change the culture in many of the leading research universities; let us make them work harder and make them more understandable for working class kids. Working class kids respond to hard work and our universities do not work hard enough at the moment.

I know that my hon. Friend is something of an expert on that issue. I hope that he would agree that we are seeing a cultural shift, particularly among our most selective universities, and that he will welcome the group of 11 initiatives. Eleven of our most selective universities—the number is increasing—are coming together to pool and share the systems by which they widen participation, to learn from each other and to ensure that a student from a poorer background in the south of England who has benefited from one of the summer schools or classes can go to a university in the north of England. All that work will be going on over the next few months.

Youngsters in my constituency do not always have role models who have been to university. What is my right hon. Friend doing to increase mentoring in schools and colleges?

I am truly grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend continues to take in his constituency, which is very similar to mine. I know that he will welcome the work that Aimhigher associates are doing; these are young people who have been to university, who come back to school to work with young people in their home communities. I hope he will also recognise that good work is going on, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, through the reach programme, which is about encouraging young people, often from ethnic minority backgrounds, to aspire to go to university.

I have always believed that the re-designation by the Conservative Government of polytechnics as universities blurred the distinction between vocational and academic education and was a profound mistake. Could the right hon. Gentleman assure me and the House that in these straitened times everything possible will be done to stress that vocational is not second best, and that there are many people in this country whose potential can be challenged not by pseudo-academic courses but by rigorous vocational training?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that I would absolutely agree with him on that. He is absolutely right that there has been an artificial divide in Britain, for all of the 20th century and into this one, between what we have perceived to be vocational and academic. I would encourage him to look at this year’s research assessment exercise results, which show that there is excellence to be found in our newer unversities, just as in our old ones.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he just read out, welcome though they are, have been achieved in spite of some of the approaches taken by some of the top universities? Does he agree that they could do more to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially early in their education, perhaps as early as primary school or middle school age, to raise their aspirations so that they might be better qualified to apply to those universities when they reach school-leaving age?

We could all do more. The universities recognise that there is more to do, which is why the group of 11 universities have come together to launch initiatives to ensure fair access to the most selective universities. The work of the National Council for Educational Excellence has made it clear, however, that schools could do more. My hon. Friend will also recognise that there are schools in our constituencies where the teachers themselves need to aspire to the very best for those young people and connect up to those universities, and where educational advice and guidance needs to be better.

Broadening access to higher education is critical to promoting the social justice that Conservatives crave, but social mobility has stalled since 1997. Although £2 million a year is spent on widening access, the participation rate of working-class children has risen by just 1 per cent. The report that the Secretary of State commissioned from Christine King, which he dismissed as provocative, says that flexible funding and learning is central to improving access. Surely we must build on the work of the Open university, Birkbeck and others who provide flexible learning; so will the Minister say whether the Government will back Professor King’s recommendations? One does not have to be Mastermind to recognise that flexible learning is the key to improving access.

But equally, one does not have to be Mastermind to know that a £610 million cut to our Department’s budget—

Order. I think that a few hundred words have been said about the Conservative party policy, and that must cease. It is for the Conservatives to let the world know about their policies, not Ministers.