Skip to main content

University Places

Volume 518: debated on Thursday 18 November 2010

14. What recent steps his Department has taken to increase the number of student places at universities. (24734)

Despite the need to address the deficit, we have enabled universities to recruit an additional 10,000 students in 2010-11. Had we not done so, the number of university places in England would have fallen this year. Our proposals for a fairer and more progressive system of university funding mean that we can maintain student numbers in the future.

Lord Browne’s review made it clear that the artificial cap on the number of students attending individual universities should be removed to improve market efficiency. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will implement that important recommendation in full?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate of the cause of liberalising universities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are determined to ensure that they have a freer system, and we will set out proposals to that effect in our forthcoming White Paper.

Is the Minister aware that the Government have just asked the British Council not to recruit before 2011-12 for its English language assistant placement scheme? The scheme is vital to many language students, and cancelling it next year would cause a great deal of disruption. Will the Minister reconsider? If he does not, he will remove a valuable scheme that is important to many language students in this country.

We are discussing the issue with language schools, and I met some of their representatives at the Department recently.

Will the Minister acknowledge that even before Lord Browne’s review, many universities—the university of Glasgow being a case in point—were finding that because of the purely artificial 50% figure that had been arrived at years ago, they were having to up their criteria for entry for, say, next autumn? Students who thought that they would be given a place are now finding that they are unlikely to be given one. How will the Government’s interpretation of Lord Browne’s recommendations deal with that fundamental problem?

While university places remain publicly funded, there has to be some sort of control. However, because of the proposals that we implemented in England this year, there were more places for British students in England. I hope that I am not being too chauvinistic when I say that, in the absence of similar policies in Scotland and Wales, the number of student places fell in both countries.

As the Minister knows full well, there is mounting concern about the damage that will be done by the Government’s unprecedented 80% cut in funds for our universities. The Institute For Fiscal Studies, which Ministers used as a crutch, is busy revising its assessment of the Government’s plans; there is increasing evidence that poorer students will be deterred from going to university; and the Higher Education Policy Institute says that fees of £9,000 a year will be the norm rather than, as the Minister has claimed, the exception.

Is it not now clear that, rather than arranging a quick vote to end the Deputy Prime Minister’s embarrassment on the issue, the Government should publish their plans in full—including their plans for student numbers—so that they can be properly scrutinised in the House and the full facts can be considered by all Members before the House votes on increasing fees?

We are, of course committed to publishing a White Paper on our proposals, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that they will ensure that power in our higher education system resides with the student, which is where it should reside. Universities will have to respond to the choices and preferences of students, and we believe that about a quarter of graduates will contribute less under our proposals than they do under the system left to us by the last Government.

Methwold high school in my constituency is developing a pioneering plan to offer university of London degrees. It will be a first, particularly in a rural community. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a great way of increasing participation and aspiration, and would he be willing to meet me along with a delegation from Methwold high school?

I think I read an interesting article about that important initiative in Times Higher Education the other day. I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the House’s attention to it.

We are committed to broadening participation in higher education. That is what our £150 million scholarship scheme is all about, and initiatives such as the one described by my hon. Friend are very valuable.