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University Access

Volume 489: debated on Thursday 12 March 2009

9. What steps he plans to take to increase the number of people from poorer backgrounds attending university. (262858)

This Government are committed to ensuring that every young person has a fair chance to attend a university. The proportion of young entrants from lower socio-economic groups going to university has increased steadily, reaching almost 30 per cent. in 2007. The National Council for Educational Excellence set out a series of further measures to widen participation and promote fair access, and we are working with a group of 11 selected research-intensive universities that are committed to reaching out to talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that they have a chance to demonstrate what they can achieve.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the university of York’s bursary scheme, which is based on household income, is more likely to encourage more students from lower-income backgrounds to apply than, say, the university of Sheffield’s bursary scheme, which is heavily weighted towards A-level results? Does that not reinforce the case for a national minimum bursary scheme, so that all students, wherever they applied, would know what support to expect?

So far the Government have not been convinced that we would be better off with a national bursary scheme, because it would be hard to determine how it differed from the national system of student financial support. Universities enjoy freedom and flexibility in determining their bursary schemes, although the schemes must be agreed with the Office of Fair Access. I have no doubt, however, that the operation of such schemes is one of the issues that will examined when the review of fees and financing is launched later in the year.

Although there is good practice and much is being learned at universities throughout Britain, the Department may be interested in a specific example arising from my involvement with the university of Glasgow. When people were encouraged to provide more scholarships, especially for disadvantaged students, it became clear that many of those who might be considered eligible to donate were put off by the very word “scholarship”, assuming that it was necessary to be extremely rich to provide a scholarship or endowment. In fact the donations can be quite small, but they can make all the difference—particularly to a potential student from a disadvantaged background in, say, the city of Glasgow who might otherwise not go to university.

That is an interesting point. We are always willing to learn from good practice wherever we can find it. We have encouraged further donations to support such activity with a match funding scheme launched last summer, which provides additional funds from the taxpayer if universities can also raise money from endowments.

A key issue is that we are currently losing a set of students who do not get near to applying for what they perceive as the most selective and competitive universities, generally the most research-intensive. That is why I am so encouraged by the work being done by the group of 11 universities with which we are working. They are examining ways they can proactively seek out such students—who may intend to go to university, but not to apply for places at the research-intensive universities—and encourage them, by means of summer schools or other such activities, to consider studying at such universities. I believe that breaking down the barriers to aspiration is as important as some of the financial inducements in the system.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that more than half of all young people from all social backgrounds aspire to embark on higher education, and that those who reject the target of allowing them to do so—including Opposition Members—merely demonstrate that they do not share the dreams of those young people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we have observed in the Chamber over many weeks and months, those who come up with arguments against the 50 per cent. target—arguments such as “We would not want to set a target because you cannot tell people to go to university”—are simply disguising the fact that they do not share the ambitions of young people across the country, and have no commitment to the policies that would make a difference. If they ever got their hands on the budget, they would do what the Conservative party has already promised to do and reduce the budget to make it impossible for progress to be made for those young people.