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University Admission

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2011

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this subject this afternoon, particularly under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne. I am very pleased indeed that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science has taken the trouble to come to reply to the debate. I am sure that those of us who are present very much appreciate that.

I begin with a tribute to my right hon. Friend who has a long-standing, deep and passionate commitment to extending opportunity and to maintaining excellence in our universities. We are fortunate to have him serving as a Minister in this Government. However, serious questions must be asked about the Government’s guidance, which bears the name of my right hon. Friend, although I think it has come from the bowels of the Government. It has been issued to the director of fair access for him to pass on and to put pressure on universities.

The Office for Fair Access has an interesting background. It is a quango that was set up by the previous Labour Government, and it has a Labour-appointed chairman. I understand from what the director said on the “Today” programme that it will be given additional funding and take on additional staff. No doubt that will raise a cheer in one or two other quarters, certainly in the world of quangos, as an example of a quango that can survive and prosper even under present conditions.

I participated in the Standing Committee that considered the previous Government’s Higher Education Bill six or seven years ago. Memory may play tricks over such a period, but I remember the rationale that was advanced by the Labour Government for the creation of the Office for Fair Access. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but Conservative Members opposed its establishment and voted against the Bill. We opposed OFFA in principle and did not believe that it should be set up. It may be not just that my memory is playing tricks and I may have been under a misapprehension—perhaps we opposed it because we thought that it did not go far enough. I do not know, but it is certainly going much further now—this is the important point—than the Labour Government wanted. It is going even slightly further than some Labour Back Benchers urged. The then Labour Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), was robust in opposing some of the suggestions from his own Back Benchers because he thought that they were going too far. That is another quarter in which some cheer will be raised by the guidance that has been issued by this Government.

The guidance goes much further than the previous Government intended because it puts far more pressure, particularly financial pressure, on universities with the link between approval for charging higher fees, fee income and admissions, and it is clearly intended to go much further. OFFA’s original scheme was that agreement for universities to charge higher fees—the increase under the previous Government was from £1,100 to £3,000—was made dependent on universities undertaking activities to promote applications to university, but stopping short of specifying admission outcomes.

The coalition Government now want to go a great deal further. The guidance is quite detailed and very prescriptive in what it requires of universities, and just the introduction—it gives the flavour of the guidance—says:

“Through this letter, we want to encourage you and the higher education sector to focus more sharply on the outcomes of outreach and other access activities rather than the inputs and processes. In particular, the Government believes that progress over the past few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate, and that much more determined action now needs to be taken.”

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but may I first say that I am happy to give way to any hon. Member who wants to intervene?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I am following his argument with interest. Does he agree that the arrangements, critical though he was of them, that the Labour Government put in place have had an impact? For example, Oxford university’s first access agreement with OFFA resulted in increased applications from students in state schools to the extent that they rose from 6,000 to 7,624, an increase of 27%. That exhortation has had an effect.

I welcome a greater number of applications from all sectors to our most prestigious universities, and the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention was timely. I pay tribute to the work of the universities, including Oxford and Cambridge universities. In debates such as this, attention often focuses on those two universities, as it has in speeches by the Minister and others in the Government.

Oxford and Cambridge universities do a tremendous amount of outreach activities, certainly far more than 20 or 30 years ago. They devote a lot of effort to that. One unfairness of the approach now being taken is that the more outreach universities do, the more they are told they are not doing enough. They seem never to be able to please their bureaucratic master in the form of the Office for Fair Access. The Minister looks puzzled, but it was in his letter, which I quoted, that the Government said that progress over the past few years has been inadequate.

The power of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is important, but I passionately disagree with nearly everything he has said. Does he acknowledge that the central difference between now and previously is the level of the fee income? Will he reflect on the fact that although more young people from poorer backgrounds are at university, the number of those who make it to the most selective universities remains largely flat, despite young people from state schools getting better grades? We must understand the effectiveness of much of that outreach work.

The right hon. Gentleman raises many points, and I will try to deal with some of them as I go along. I would like to see as many applications as possible to a wide range of institutions. The students who apply to universities must be selected on merit, and the pressure that the Government are applying cuts across that principle.

I have only half an hour, but if I have time at the end I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that in addition to quotas smacking of social engineering and lacking clear justification through evidence, they could harm the long-term economic interests of this country, which would adversely affect everyone? The answer is not quotas, but ensuring that standards in the state education system are brought up to the level that allows those within it to compete on merit, not by quotas.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I was coming to. It answers in part the point raised by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). There is a question of raising standards in some quarters of the state system, and also of raising aspirations among pupils, critically by their teachers. The universities have been playing their part, but there must be a limit at some point to how much we expect universities to do in reaching into schools and raising aspirations. Teachers have day-to-day contact with pupils, and there is a responsibility on them in some quarters to raise aspirations.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) referred to grades. Is it not also the case that there are severe question marks about the grades that pupils are being given in the appropriate examinations before they get into university? If the grades are not up to scratch, that is effectively a back door to the social engineering to which my hon. Friend referred.

One of the crosses that the Government may have to bear as a result of that guidance is a great deal of scrutiny of grades, and comparisons between the grades that people from certain schools received, and which universities they successfully applied to. I have a lot of confidence in university admissions tutors and their approach to the job, particularly in the most selective universities.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important subject. In August last year, the Minister told the Daily Mail:

“Admissions policies are for universities, not for Ministers”

Does my hon. Friend agree?

That happily brings me to my next point. I imagine that the Minister will say, in his fair way, exactly what he said to the Daily Mail a few months ago. I am sure he will be anxious to reassure us that the Government intend universities to be free to continue to make judgments and admissions based on individual merit. However, in light of the guidance given to universities by the Office for Fair Access, I am afraid I will not able to place as much confidence in the Minister’s reassurance as I would like, and it would be stretching my credulity to accept it at face value. In the long directive from the Office for Fair Access, the word “merit” appears only once after 25 paragraphs of detailed instructions to universities, backed by the threat of financial pressure. It uses the words

“so long as individuals are considered on their merits and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence based.”

That is the only place I can find the word “merit”, and it appears in much the same place as one would expect to find the legal small print in an advertising brochure.

As my hon. Friend may know, I voted against the trebling of tuition fees. I did that as someone who has been to one of the top universities on a maximum grant. When I applied to that university, I was looking not for privileged treatment in the admission exam, but for fair treatment, and for the ability to afford the course if I were fortunate enough to be successful. We were told that trebling fees would not put off people from poorer backgrounds from applying. We are now told that for people from poorer backgrounds to apply, we must socially engineer the people who get in. The narrative seems to have changed and it now contradicts what was said before. Instead of people getting in on merit, they are getting in on considerations of social position.

My hon. Friend’s point will be widely shared and many people have come to the same conclusion. There is always a problem with such attempts to compensate. Even though bursaries are rightly awarded to people from lower-income families, there will always be a family on lower-middle income, or in straitened circumstances, who remain just above the level at which bursaries are awarded. They are called the “squeezed middle”. When the previous Government introduced fees at a much lower level, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice raised that issue as a particular problem with the fee system, and it is a matter to which we must devote some research. We all want students to be encouraged to go to the university of their choice and not to be discouraged by their financial circumstances.

Will the right hon. Gentleman contain himself because I have a number of questions to put to the Minister? I hope there will be other chances to debate this matter.

I have some questions arising from letters that I have received from my constituents and independent schools in my constituency. Is it not the case that universities are being put under tremendous financial pressure to come into line with the outcomes that central Government wish to bring about through the Office for Fair Access, irrespective of the principle of merit? As advocated by the Government, the principle of merit is a face saver, but the reality is that the financial pressure on universities puts them in an invidious position. Universities are told the outcomes they are expected to achieve, and financial pressure is put on them because they will not be able to charge the fees they wish if they do not achieve those outcomes. That cuts right across the principle of merit, which, much as Ministers may talk about it, cannot be sustained in light of the detailed guidance provided.

Will the Minister explain why the first access performance indicator relates to

“the percentage of students admitted from state schools or colleges”?

Given that a clear majority of pupils, including those who apply to the most prestigious universities, come from state schools, how does that equate to disadvantage? The headmaster of an independent school in my constituency wrote to me about the Government guidelines:

“The principle of widening access to university is an excellent one. But I know you will share my concern that disadvantage should not be equated with education in the state sector. Any lack of social mobility in the UK has causes that start even at the pre-school level: attempts to fix them at the point of university entrance are dangerous, misguided and unfair. Independent schools have large numbers of disadvantaged pupils receiving financial support: they do not deserve to be discriminated against.”

Ministers seem particularly interested in admission to Oxford and Cambridge, and although there are many other good universities, they choose to focus particularly on those. Is it the Government’s case that a lower proportion of independent school students who are admitted to Oxford and Cambridge go on to obtain a first-class degree than students from other backgrounds? That would appear to be the gist of the Government’s justification. Will the Minister supply evidence of a difference in degree performance between state sector and independent sector school students at Oxford and Cambridge? Even if the Government are able to provide such evidence—it will be interesting to see whether they can—surely that would be a matter for Oxford and Cambridge to take into account, and to exercise their judgment independently, without pressure from the Government.

A number of hon. Members may wish to ask questions of the Minister. To conclude, let me say that we all share—certainly in the Conservative party—the objectives of promoting excellence and spreading opportunity. However, in light of some of the interventions I have received, the Minister must explain how the Government’s plans for influencing university admissions will help raise standards in schools where standards need to be raised, and how they will help to raise aspiration. Should the Government not focus on improving standards in schools, establishing a positive ethos and, above all, raising expectations? I believe that is happening in the Education Bill, but the guidelines hardly seem like a vote of confidence for that. Would that not be a better course to take, and rather more in line with our traditional principles and ways of thinking, than the route taken in the guidelines, which are bureaucratic, complex and impose considerable burdens on universities? Above all, as I have said, the guidelines put significant financial pressure on universities. That cuts across the principle of admission on merit and sits uneasily with the Government’s creditable objectives of abolishing top-down targets and promoting localism and decentralised decision making. We must devote more time to this matter as there is a lot of interest in the debate from all parties. I hope that the Minister will begin, in his very fair manner, to give some indication of the Government’s thinking on this issue, and tell us what evidence lies behind it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) for securing the opportunity to debate this important issue. As he was so generous in what he said about me personally, let me reciprocate. I understand his personal commitment to what he rightly described as the principle of merit—meritocracy. I would argue that equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome, is a key principle that the Conservative party believes in and that is probably shared by all parties.

The question is about how we apply the principle of merit and ensure meritocracy. The argument that we in government have gone though is as follows. First, we would all accept that, when going to university, merit involves some assessment of potential, not just what has already been achieved academically. Let us put ourselves in the position of an admissions tutor at one of the universities that my hon. Friend mentions. Let us say that two 18-year-olds present themselves. One has had an incredibly tough upbringing and been to a rather mediocre school with low educational standards, the other has had every advantage in life and benefited from high-quality schooling, but they have the same A-level grades. We would probably all intuitively reach a judgment about who had the higher underlying intellectual merit.

We might go further and say that the student who had lower grades but who came from the tougher background might have higher potential than the other student. That is our starting point. I see that requests for interventions are already piling in. I will accept brief interventions.

My right hon. Friend is, as always, extremely kind. I say to him that as someone who was in that position—someone who came from a poor household—I was prepared to be judged on the marks that I got, even though people in competition with me went through, shall we say, more advantaged educational processes, because once we start monkeying around with the grades and saying that the person with the higher marks should not get the place, we are in very dangerous and subjective territory indeed.

I hope to show my hon. Friend that it is not subjective, but absolutely it has to be about merit. I am not aware of any major higher education system in the world that says that the sole criterion for getting in is the exam marks that a person has already achieved. I would be interested to know whether my hon. Friend even believes that our own universities have ever solely used exam marks already achieved, rather than considering merit by including some assessment of potential.

I see that a lot of Members want to intervene. There are nine minutes to go. I shall give way to the former Minister.

I just want to confirm what the Minister said. Entrance to university in this country has always been based on attainment and achievement, potential, and aptitude to perform. There is lots of academic evidence that children from poorer backgrounds who get to universities do better than those from independent schools.

My right hon. Friend is being generous. Is that not the point? No one could disagree with equality of opportunity. We are trying to assess potential. However, it is not for the Government to assess potential; it is for the universities to assess potential. That is the key point, and something that I think the Minister is missing.

I agree that it is for universities to assess potential. Let me take hon. Members through the next stages of the argument. There is a disagreement of principle. I am surprised that people could imagine that our universities have ever simply gone on academic marks already achieved. My understanding of how they have always operated is that they have tried to assess potential, and an understanding of merit does indeed involve consideration of the aptitude for future academic accomplishment. The question is how that should be done. Historically it has happened, but it has been done on a discretionary basis. We all have a picture in our mind of the elderly Oxbridge don sucking at his pipe as the interview candidates come through and assessing who might be best able to benefit from such an education, making an assessment that goes beyond simply the marks that they have already achieved.

However, it is very hard to operate a system on the basis of the personal discretion of the don or academic in a world in which, first, we are dealing with mass higher education; secondly, it is very important that those judgments be transparent and not be capricious, because otherwise they could be on the basis of personal bias; and thirdly, those judgments should be legally defensible. That is why it is very important that we have objective evidence.

Let me now turn to the legitimate challenge from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere: do we have any evidence? I shall cite two papers that try to get to the heart of the issue by assessing the relative chances of people getting a good degree when they go to university. There have been two recent studies, and experts will be able to assess their rigour. There has been a study of Oxford and a separate study in Bristol. Both examined the likelihood of getting a good degree, measured as a 2:1 or a first. We could apply what I would regard as a defensible, meritocratic criterion: we will accept students on the basis that they will have an equal chance of getting a 2:1 or a first. The studies found that students who came from schools where there had been particularly high academic standards got higher A-level grades relative to their chances of getting a 2:1 or a first than prospective students from other backgrounds.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will accept that, if we are to apply the principle of merit, one reasonable way of doing so would be to accept students on the basis that we are considering potential, based on an equal chance of getting a 2:1 or a first. Otherwise we would not be applying the principle of merit. We would be selecting students because they had good A-levels, rather than on the basis of their academic merit.

My right hon. Friend was kind enough to supply me with a copy of a speech that he had already made in which he referred to that evidence. He drew certain conclusions from it, which he has just referred to. The three authors of the report were called Ogg, Zimdars and Heath. Has my right hon. Friend read the whole report?

I confess—it may be a rather sad confession—that I have read the whole paper. Of course, there will be continuing dispute about its content, but I have read it. The question is, having gone this far—

I will give way, but we have only four minutes left and I want to respond to another challenge; I am getting behind on the challenges.

How does my right hon. Friend square what he has said with the conclusion of the report, to which he did not choose to refer? The authors of the report said that there was a slight difference between state and independent schools and it ought to be taken into account. However, it already was taken into account by academics in the admissions process. The report says that

“according to earlier research using the OAS data set, the selectors at Oxford in fact appear to already discount the GCSE grades of private school students…One might therefore be tempted to suggest that the selectors at Oxford have done their job of getting the best students to Oxford fairly well.”

The authors go on to say that there is no evidence of under-performance by private school students.

The crucial thing is that what universities have said they expect of us, quite reasonably, is a framework for their decisions that is—I shall quote our letter to OFFA—“fair, transparent and evidence-based”. Let me turn, in the few minutes left, to the crucial issue about universities. I value the autonomy of universities. We are not telling universities whom to select. We operate within a legal framework that goes back to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which makes it absolutely clear that it is not for Ministers and the Government to determine the admission of students. What we are trying to do is, quite simply, ask universities to choose and set out for themselves the criteria that they will use to ensure that we are not wasting talent in this country because there are children whose underlying abilities are being hidden by bad education.

Of course we hope that in the long run our school reforms will mean that that problem disappears, but as a Conservative I have to deal with the world as it is, and teaching standards in secondary schools diverge. I hope that when teaching standards in all secondary schools are the same, these types of exercise will not be necessary, but while teaching standards in secondary schools diverge, the assessment of potential cannot be based simply on the points that someone has achieved in their A-levels or elsewhere. Universities have to be able to exercise that judgment. They ask, quite rightly, for a framework from us, and we make demands of them. We agree that the criteria should be fair, transparent and evidence based. There will not be quotas. There will not be a specific requirement on a university to select people on a specific basis.

However, universities will have to show what they are doing to broaden access so that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are clearly under-performing when it comes to getting to our most selective universities, have a fair opportunity to go there. Otherwise, we will not be delivering meritocracy. We will be rewarding the people with the best A-level grades; we will not be choosing the best and brightest to go to our research-intensive universities. That is morally wrong; it is not the principle of meritocracy and it is economically wasteful.

We can no longer rely on the old discretionary procedures, because they would be too capricious and they would be subject, rightly, to legal challenge. We have to have mechanisms, put forward by universities, that are fair, transparent and evidence based. Universities tell us that they understand that and welcome the fact that we are providing guidance and that they will not have to impose quotas. They will ultimately be deciding, on a case-by-case basis, on the merits of the individual person. However, that judgment must be based on assessment of potential, and assessment of potential can no longer be done on the basis of personal whim and discretion. They have to have something that is defensible to all of us as fair, transparent and evidence based. That is what our letter to OFFA is about. I believe that it passes the tests that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has set out. It is consistent with the principle of merit; indeed, it is necessary to deliver the principle of merit. It does not intervene in the individual admissions decisions of universities and it is evidence based.

I look forward to continuing these exchanges with my hon. Friend, because I fully understand his passionate commitment to equality of opportunity. That is a principle in which all in our party believe.