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Higher Education

Volume 523: debated on Thursday 17 February 2011

13. What his policy is on widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and if he will make a statement. (41354)

20. What his policy is on widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and if he will make a statement. (41361)

This Government are committed to social mobility. That is why our higher education reforms have no payments up-front, more generous maintenance support and the extension of loans to part-time students. Last week we gave updated guidance to the director of fair access about access agreements and outlined details of our £150 million national scholarship programme.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for the additional support to disadvantaged students. In a report, the Sutton Trust has described university entrance quotas as

“a punitive measure against talent and effort”

and argued that no child should be denied a university place because of their social or educational background. Does he agree with that view and will he clearly rule out any move towards the social engineering of university admissions?

We in the coalition Government do not believe in quotas, for the reasons that my hon. Friend rightly sets out. They would be not only undesirable but illegal because the autonomy of universities in running their own admissions arrangements has legal protection.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Burnley college, which is operating in a disadvantaged area, on its event last Friday, when dozens of companies met scores of young people who wish to take up apprenticeships in engineering? Does he agree that that is the right way to go and that the coalition Government are repairing the damage following the destruction of manufacturing engineering by the previous Government?

As we heard so eloquently from the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, the coalition Government are absolutely committed to apprenticeships. It would be a mistake to hold the view that apprenticeships and places in higher education are in conflict. Indeed some apprentices may subsequently go on to university and benefit from a university course, too.

Can the Minister give an estimate of the likely shortage of funded places at university in the next academic year? Can he square that estimate with his desire to get young people from deprived backgrounds into university?

We have committed to repeat the initiative this year with 10,000 extra places at university. Current indications are that applications are running perhaps about 5% higher than at a similar point last year, but we will have to see what the eventual figure is. As the right hon. Gentleman used to say when he was in government, application to university has always been a competitive process. No individual place can be guaranteed but we are committed to broadening access to university.

In the last month, the Secretary of State’s Department has confirmed that another 10,000 student places are set to be axed. We now know that his national scholarship programme will help under 2% of students. The logic of his rhetoric on access would have us all believe that Oxford and Cambridge are to be the last universities in England allowed to charge the full £9,000, which nobody thinks is credible. In his mind, the Secretary of State may well still be “St Vince”, but with Corporal Jones from Havant and Private Pike from Southwark and Bermondsey by his side is he not really just Captain Mainwaring, bumbling along out of his depth with all his best moments long since past?

We’re not panicking; we’re not panicking. In fact, it is Labour Members who left us with a situation whereby access to our leading, most research-intensive universities for people from the poorest backgrounds was declining. That is the challenge that we are tackling. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s figure of 10,000 fewer places, as there are extra places. That is perhaps why the National Union of Students, in a leaked e-mail this morning, apparently described our reforms as “relatively progressive”.

The university centre Hastings is doing some excellent work with children from poorer families who want to go on to higher education. It is very concerned about the future of higher education for them and asked me to inquire about the national scholarship fund and what more can be done to help children on free school meals when they leave school and might need some assistance.

Absolutely. When the national scholarship programme is mature, it will be worth £150 million a year. With match funding, which we expect the universities to provide, it could offer—contrary to the assertions of Labour Members—extra financial support to up to 100,000 students. It could work in various ways, providing help with accommodation costs, fee waivers and extra direct financial assistance, which we think is a very practical way of helping students from poorer backgrounds.