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University Places (England)

Volume 505: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2010

Although the title of the debate refers to university places in England, I shall actually mention places in the UK. If the Minister has prepared his brief just in terms of England, I am happy with that, but it is a broader issue.

It is important to put on the record my belief that we have a truly world-class higher education system. Since the Robbins report in 1963—when I went into higher education—the higher education system has expanded from a small relatively elite system that served some 8 per cent. of the population to a mass semi-marketised system. In England alone, 42 per cent. of our 19-year-olds went into higher education last year. That is something to celebrate; it is a remarkable achievement.

Throughout that transformation, our universities have retained a world-class reputation with four in the world top 10, and 18 in the top 100. What is more, the recent 2008 research assessment exercise reported that 90 per cent. of the research submitted was regarded as of international quality and fell into the top three grades of “world-leading”, “internationally excellent” or “internationally recognised.” Some 150 of our universities had at least 5 per cent. of their research deemed world-leading. What is more, in arguably the most competitive academic fields of science, engineering and technology—SET—we remain second only to the US in our output of research and in many areas, from particle physics to robotics and bioengineering to genomics, our universities are truly world-leading.

This debate is about how we provide the nation with the next generation of brilliant scientists, technologists and academics, but it is also about providing the nation with a graduate work force, which has been recognised as crucial to our economic well-being by Lord Leitch and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Of course, relatively few of the 1.96 million undergraduates studying in our universities will go into academic careers. Most will find their way into a variety of careers serving the public and private sectors.

However, one thing is absolutely certain: it will be the development of intellectual capital honed in our universities that powers the UK out of recession and helps to resolve the huge global challenges that face us. As someone who has been close to the sector all my adult life, I recognise just how life-changing a university education can be. Few of us in Westminster Hall this afternoon would be here if it had not been for some involvement with higher education. I came from a small back-to-back house in Burnley with an outside toilet and one cold water tap, yet here I am. I am deeply grateful to Carnegie college in Leeds and to Birmingham university for what they have given me. Although I have always rejected the 50 per cent. target set by Tony Blair for the expansion of HE, I celebrate his ambition and that of others that more young people from backgrounds like mine should be encouraged to stay on at school and aim higher than their peers and parents.

However, as Chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I also recognise that simply sending more young people to university is not a sufficient goal in itself. Although I would defend the right of young people to choose both their university and course according to ability, encouraging more people to study science, technology, engineering and maths at school and then at university has become my passion. That passion is shared by many in our learned societies and is constantly promoted in the House through work by the Royal Society of Chemistry and others, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. It is in the areas of science, engineering and technology that students will have the greatest opportunities to contribute to the nation’s economic well-being and enrich our society.

The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent advocate of our university system for many years. Although he is right to mention the individual opportunities that universities give, he will, no doubt, also acknowledge that the university system helps this country to keep its competitive advantage, create wealth and find solutions for some of the major problems, whether they are medical, climate change or whatever. Does he worry that the main parties, which are threatening hard cuts in public services, could get the big science budgets of universities in their sights? Does he agree that that would be a major mistake for this country?

If that is the case, I agree. The question is how we can avert it and maintain the investment that has gone into UK science, particularly big science—for example, our work at Diamond Light Source, ISIS, the great big particle accelerators and the other major facilities that we maintain. Having mapped out the key areas on which, I hope, there is agreement, I am saddened that the Government threaten to dismantle a decade of investment, encouragement and expansion at a time when we need to turn the tap on, not turn it off—the point the hon. Gentleman made.

Although President Obama is investing billions in fundamental research—in fact, that is the cornerstone of the economic stimulus package in the States—we appear to be going in the opposite direction. Yesterday when I challenged the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee about the funding of science and higher education, it was disappointing that he said:

“What America has not done is what we have done over the last ten years which is to double the science budget and America is trying to catch up in a way that we have been investing consistently in science over these last few years.”

That is palpably not so. Throughout the whole of the Bush years, an equivalent proportion of public funds was spent on science in the US and in the UK—funding was virtually pound for pound in proportional terms. The UK was catching up after the disaster of the Thatcher years, which is when the real damage was done to our science base and our higher education. Frankly, such statements are not worthy of a Prime Minister and a former Chancellor who has done more to support science in his time in Parliament than probably any other member of the current Government.

Although I do not buy into the emotive statements of the Russell group—I am sure that the Minister will comment on them—claiming that the current cuts will plunge the sector back 800 years, the group has recognised that reverse gear is not a sensible option when we are in a race to the top. Perhaps more worrying than the petulant screams of a sector that has done very well over the past decade, is the fact that a number of forces are merging that threaten the ability of the sector to meet the demand for places generated by the success of our schools, our universities and, yes, the Government’s own policies. That has, I think, been supported by all the political parties represented in the House.

It should not come as a surprise to the Minister or to any of us that UCAS applications have risen by 12 per cent. this year. The numbers have been swelled by the 160,000 students who had the qualifications, but not the places last year. The recession means that many 18 to 24-year-olds are seeking to invest in their own futures through higher education, rather than go on the dole. The work of science and engineering communities has resulted in a significant increase in the demand for science, engineering and technology places. Our universities have bitten the bullet and actively sought out new cohorts of students from non-traditional backgrounds and from adults who want to study part-time. That is a huge success story, in which we should all take great pride.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Of course, world-class universities are absolutely crucial to my constituency and, as he says, to the future cultural, individual and economic development of this country. On his reference to all parties, I would like to place on the record my strong support for continuing the big investment that has been made, not only in science, but in higher education more generally. I am very concerned that it should be sustained for the future.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I share his passion for higher education, which is not only because of the constituency he represents, but because he has genuine enthusiasm. The purpose of raising the debate in a non-party political way is to show that the issue transcends politics and that unless we maintain our commitment we will slip down the ladder.

The situation regarding places is worrying. Last year, pressure was put on the Secretary of State and he found 10,000 additional university places in the summer, but he then announced that there would be no funding to go with them, even though they were mostly SET places. Universities cannot deliver science and engineering courses without appropriate funding, and it is nonsense to expect them to pick up that tab. In December, we saw £600 million axed from science in HE budgets, which will affect the area I am most interested in—science. Just yesterday, a further £250 million was slashed from teaching budgets. According to Sir Alan Langlands, the boss of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that will mean 6,000 fewer places.

The question is whether our universities can cope. Should they absorb the additional places and ride out the storm? Perhaps they can, but with no extra funding and a penalty of £3,500 if they recruit additional students above the quota, few will take the risk. The net impact is that the very students the Government, schools and universities have worked so hard to help gain qualifications and make applications will now be denied access at the gates of our universities.

I visited the university of Huddersfield last Thursday and found that it has done some remarkable work in Barnsley. That town is not noted for the number of its students going into higher education, but there has been a 23 per cent. increase in applications from Barnsley for the university of Huddersfield campus. The quota cannot be met because there is a freeze on places. As places become scarce and entry levels increase, there will be a cascade effect for students down the perceived order of institutions, and it will be the poor, non-traditional students who miss out. That could be one of the cruellest deceptions played on some of our most vulnerable young people. I want the Minister to explain how he will protect the interests of that group.

Other, perhaps more sinister, forces are at work. On 24 January The Sunday Times published an article with the following headline:

“Universities slash places in cash crisis; A funding squeeze will mean thousands of would-be students missing out”.

It was more like a headline from The Sun. Claims that Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, King’s, Imperial and Warwick were freezing places were perhaps not surprising, as they had already said that they would not take additional places unless there was funding. Others, such as the London School of Economics, Essex, Manchester and Edinburgh were cutting places. The university of Edinburgh was allegedly reducing its intake by 1,300—roughly a third of places. Other universities, such as Manchester, made moves to deliberately recruit below the limit to avoid penalties imposed by the Secretary of State. A storm is brewing on student places, and it is one that I want the Minister to address.

Let me be clear that I understand the dilemma for our universities, particularly for those offering SET courses. Are universities to recruit more students, even though the institutions have lower amounts of money, which will damage quality, or are they simply to reject students? That is a real challenge for them. I understand the argument, but the Secretary of State appears to dismiss it. On Monday, Lord Mandelson claimed that the proposed cuts were so minor that universities could absorb them.

Does the Minister agree with his Secretary of State? No one is listening, so he can tell us frankly whether he does. Does he dismiss the claims, particularly from our research-intensive universities, that less money per student means less quality? If he does not dismiss those claims, the issue needs to be addressed. How do we prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers if we cannot offer them appropriate amounts of laboratory experience or access to the most up-to-date equipment?

If it was simply a domestic matter to be resolved by English or UK universities and the Government, perhaps the situation might be a little easier, but sadly it is not. Our higher education system is so widely respected that demand from EU and non-EU students to study here has grown in the past decade at a greater rate than demand from the indigenous student population. Indeed, EU and international students add considerably to our economy and culture and to the diversity of our universities, and they spend roughly £2.3 billion in the local economy in off-campus expenditure, so we welcome them. I would like to put it on the record that the HE sector should be immensely proud of the talent it draws from overseas in an increasingly competitive overseas market.

However, to ask how those increasing overseas applications sit with the general upsurge in demand for UK university places is a legitimate question. International student places are allocated and funded entirely separately from UK places and do not form part of the same quotas set by HEFCE, but does the Minister know of any evidence that suggests that universities are lowering their offers to overseas students at undergraduate or postgraduate level to expand that lucrative market? After all, with no cap on international student fees and the cost of courses currently ranging from £8,500 to £32,000, it is inevitable in the recovery from the recession that most universities will want to attract as many international students as possible. Perhaps the Minister could offer reassurance that he is taking steps to monitor what could be a potential problem for the future.

EU students, however, are a different matter. Under EU law, all EU students in the UK are treated exactly the same as UK students. They count towards the same HEFCE student numbers, face the same £3,145 tuition fees as their UK counterparts and are entitled to the same grants and subsidised loans to cover the cost of fees and living expenses. They also compete for the same places, which is the key point. The UK is an increasingly popular destination for European students, and applications from the EU are increasing at a higher rate than those from within the UK. Last year, although the number of British applicants rose by 8.8 per cent., the number of applicants from the rest of the EU rose even more quickly, by 16.4 per cent.

EU students are drawn primarily to the Russell group universities and those with the greatest international reputation. That inevitably means that UK students applying to those universities are less likely to get in as the level of competition is higher. Although we certainly want to ensure that our universities recruit the most talented students from all over Europe, that must not be at the expense of places for UK students, many of whom simply cannot afford to study at universities far from home.

What can the Minister do to ensure that there are sufficient places available in our research-intensive universities for UK students, who are more likely to stay in the UK after studying and use the skills we have invested in to enhance our country’s economy and skills base? What evidence does he have that graduates who come from the EU go on to contribute to the UK economy? If they do not, what steps is he taking to encourage them to do so?

As an aside, what steps is the Minister taking to recover student loan repayments? Figures published in 2009 revealed that among the 2,240 EU students who have so far become eligible to start paying back loans, only 1,580 were doing so, leaving taxpayers with a potential £3.8 million bill. It would be ironic if UK students were denied places in universities because of competition from EU students and then ended up contributing in their taxes to pay for the loans that were not paid back. I leave him with that little problem.

As usual, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)—[Interruption.] I think that he might be ringing me as well just to make sure I get the point. He has chosen a topical subject. In fact, this is the sixth debate that we have had, in either Westminster Hall or the House, on higher education and the question of student numbers. The debate is given added relevance, however, by the funding context, part of which he outlined in his contribution. Obviously, that has been against the background of this year’s higher education recruitment round.

I have publicly described some of the reactions to the Government’s announcement in the grant letter written to universities shortly before Christmas as amounting to scaremongering. I note that in his Yorkshire Post article last week, the hon. Gentleman said that it was “academic hysteria and hyperbole”. We agree on that.

It is important that we put all that is written about the savings that we have asked the sector to make— I shall say a bit more about that shortly—against the backdrop of record investment over the past decade. I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman’s article took due note of the generosity of higher education funding settlements in recent years, and of the success of the Government’s policy of enabling many more people to benefit from university education. I am pleased that he mentioned that again today.

The Government’s record on expanding access to higher education in terms of simple undergraduate numbers and the social make-up of the student body is a proud one. Frankly, the achievements of the past 13 years are thrown into sharp relief by the failures of the previous 18. I do not want to be overly political—that has not been the tone of this debate—but we should remember that the unit of resource in universities fell by 38 per cent. between 1991 and 1997. That led to huge class sizes and poor facilities across the country for STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—on which the hon. Gentleman is particularly keen. In fact, he will remember, and may well have been part of, the Save British Science campaign. Things had got to that stage.

We are light years away from that today. The backdrop, as of this moment, is that we have more students in higher education, a broader spread of young people from different social backgrounds in our universities and more students from a British but nevertheless ethnic minority background than ever before in our history. We also have better facilities. Our commitment to a ring-fenced science budget and to research is something of which we can be very proud, and I am pleased to honour and repeat it to the House today.

Statements about STEM have been made this afternoon. I want to remind the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that, notwithstanding the savings that we have asked the sector to make, it is still the case that public funding in research will increase by 7 per cent. in the next financial year. That is our commitment, and, as the Prime Minister indicated, it does hold up to what we have seen in the United States. Because of where we have come from, our commitment to support science should not be underestimated.

On funding, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least recognise our record and remember that many of the savings that we have asked the sector to make relate to capital spend that we brought forward from last year to this year as a fiscal stimulus—£250 million—and to capital spend that over the period of the Labour Government amounts to more than £6 billion. That is against a backdrop of a capital spend on further education of zero when we came to power, and of much less on higher education than today’s. I hope that when he looks carefully at the grant letter, he will recognise that we have made our decision—obviously, HEFCE was in on the detail of it—in order to protect front-line teaching and our commitment to a ring-fenced science budget.

Much has been said against how that stacks up in relation to university places. The supply of university places for home students has grown, and the supply of fully funded places will grow again this year, but demand for them has grown even faster. In part, that is a product of our policies and schemes such as Aimhigher, but also, given the wider economy, students are looking to higher education as somewhere that they want to be.

The hon. Gentleman knows how much effort the Government have put into helping young people over this period, with our Backing Young Britain campaign and, underneath it, the guarantee of a job, training or work for young people. He referred to the 10,000 places that we brought forward last year and the signalling of our intention that those places should support new industries, the new jobs agenda and the STEM agenda, about which he is particularly concerned.

It is far too early in the cycle to whip up fear about student university places. I was concerned when I was at a school in my constituency this week that those young people, seeing the headlines, will begin to worry that there will not be a place for them at university this year. I say to the sector and to those who are concerned about it that we should be measured in our language.

At this point last year, exactly the same things were being said. Some people said that clearing would last for about half a day. It lasted for weeks. They said that barely 10,000 people would find a place through clearing, but 40,000 students found a place. They said that there would be a terrible crunch and students would be left with nothing. We have more students at university than ever before in our history, and we will have more students at university next year than we have ever had. I reassure the hon. Gentleman about that.

The hon. Gentleman has been keen to ensure that there is no suggestion that quality is not fundamental to our system, so he will understand that it has never been the case in our history that everyone who wanted to could go to university. Demand is rising. At this point in the year, many young people will have applied, but not all those who apply over the autumn and into January eventually make their way to university. Some make other decisions, and that is why we have announced an extra 35,000 advanced apprenticeships. We want young people to take up advanced apprenticeships in new and important technical and professional areas of our economy. We have announced places in further education in new areas and in STEM areas because we recognise that this is not just about higher education. We make a distinction between higher-level skills and higher education.

It is also the case that there are students who get straight As who do not go to university in the year that they applied because they did not get into the course or university that they wanted. They take a gap year or they do some further study and apply again.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and to shed a bit more light than heat as I stand here in February, by saying that we should see how things go throughout the year, remembering that this year is different from last year. This year, we can at least say that we are not in the grip of and at the height of the recession—we have moved out of it. We remain vigilant about employment, but we are moving in the right direction.

Statements have been made about international students. I was speaking to the leaders of the University Alliance group this morning. They reassured me, as I want to reassure the House, that these are separate markets. We welcome the growth in the number of international students—