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Off-quota University Places

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills if he will make a statement on the proposals for students to buy off-quota university places.

Fair access to university is crucial for achieving equality of opportunity, and there is a clear issue of principle here. Access to a university must be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay. There is absolutely no question of wealthy students being able to buy their way into university.

As the coalition prepares its White Paper on higher education, we are considering possible ways to allow universities to recruit extra students in addition to their student number allocation. Any such arrangement would have to comply with the principle that access to university must be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay. That is why, in the Secretary of State’s speech to the Higher Education Funding Council on 6 April, he said:

“Another measure for the longer term could be to remove student number controls which inhibit universities’ ability to recruit students who represent no burden to the public purse. For example, I don't believe that universities should be prevented from expanding courses where employers cover students’ costs”.

We are considering two options: first, making it easier for employers to sponsor students at university; and secondly, making it easier for charities to sponsor students at university. Any such scheme would need to comply with the following conditions: the principles of fair access must apply; there would need to be genuine additional places; there would be no reduction in entrance standards; and, of course, rich individuals should not be able to buy their way into university.

Everything this coalition does is guided by our belief in the need to improve social mobility after it stagnated under the Labour party. We will set out our proposals in the White Paper, which will be published shortly.

In The Guardian and on the “Today” programme, the Minister set out plans to allow students who have access to private funds to buy their way into universities that they cannot get into on merit. Why was the House not told of those plans when we voted on tuition fees? How many hon. Members would have trebled fees if they had known that he planned to allow students to buy entrance to selective universities? Or has the Minister just made up this plan? He has cut 20,000 student places, lost control of fees, £9,000 is the norm not the exception and access agreements have no teeth. There is a black hole in his budget and threats to cut more student places or teaching budgets.

Given that mess, why is it that every time the right hon. Gentleman puts a sticking-plaster on the wounds that he has caused he makes things worse? Yesterday he launched the communications plan for the new fees system. Can he not imagine the dismay that he has caused for thousands of hard-working A-level students today? They now know that hard work, ability and ambition will not be enough.

Students from low-income homes want fairness, not favours. Does the Minister not understand that a few places will not soften the brutal message that, for this Tory Government, access to wealth and privilege will always trump ability and ambition? Poor families have no chance of buying their way in, but is this not also a cruel betrayal of middle England—those hard-working, middle-class, middle-income families who want to do the best for their children and face agonising pressure to take on huge private debts to remortgage their homes to make sure that their children get what the kids of the wealthy take as a right?

Does the Minister accept that although there is nothing wrong with employers getting universities to provide bespoke courses for their employees and nothing wrong with employers paying fees once the university has decided whom to admit, his plans will corrupt university admissions with a two-tier system—one for the best qualified and another for those with access to fatter cheque books? And who will pay? The Minister’s response was remarkable, because it is clear from his interviews today that he wants to allow wealthy families to buy places: he did not deny that in several interviews. Now incompetent Government Ministers are arguing about it in public. Where are these charities that want to pay £70,000 per student? Who are the employers who want to pay for the second best, not the best?

I am glad that the Minister has been forced here today. We will study his plans to see whether he really has climbed down, because if so, it is the most humiliating and fastest U-turn in the history of this discredited Government. This House needs what we needed last December—a proper White Paper to tell us how this whole mess is going to be sorted out.

The shadow Secretary of State clearly has not been listening to what I have been saying. He has invented a policy and then denounced it. He has no excuse for that, because in every public statement I have made, I have made it absolutely clear that we are looking at employers and charities. Those are the actual words that I used in The Guardian this morning when I referred to the current rules which, for example, limit the ability of charities or social enterprises to sponsor students.

Let me make the position clear regarding the two proposals that we are considering. First, Members in all parts of the House have endlessly urged us to do more to get employers involved in sponsoring students at university. Only 6,000 students out of well over 1 million in total are currently sponsored by employers outside quota controls. That is why, yes, we are looking at ways in which extra places outside quota controls can be made available for students sponsored by companies, but they must meet the conditions that I clearly set out in my earlier response.

Secondly, we are pursuing another objective that I thought was shared by Members on both sides of the House—encouraging greater endowments for our universities. Many people who are considering charitable support for our universities like to know that real individuals will benefit. At the moment, if they identify and provide for any places for poor students, they come up against a universities quota limiting total numbers. That deters charitable giving. So, again, we are investigating whether charities and social enterprises can support people at universities outside quota controls.

Whatever we do will comply with the fundamental principle that rich individuals should not be able to buy their way into university. Labour Members left the public finances in a mess. They left universities with a £1 billion deficit and in a straitjacket, they restricted places, they fined institutions, and they blocked ambitions. We are determined to reform Labour’s broken system.

Will the Minister again reassure the House that there will not be an uneven playing field for those from lower-income families? Will he ensure that we have fair and equitable access to our universities while ensuring that Labour Members do not stand in the way of employers and charities being able to make the maximum number of places available to everyone, regardless of background?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. The challenge to Labour Members is to join us in explaining to young people in schools and colleges across the country that none of them will have to pay up front to go to university. Under our proposals, the threshold for repayment is increased from the £15,000 we inherited from Labour to £21,000 now.

Consultation on our proposals will take place after we publish the White Paper. In a speech that I gave to Universities UK and in the speech that I quoted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to HEFCE, we made it clear publicly that this is the option we are looking at.

I have the great privilege to represent three great universities: the university of Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin university and the Open university. Will the Minister assure me that nothing he does in this or any other policy will force any of those universities to lower their standards for financial gain?

Yes. I have made it clear and am happy to confirm it again for the hon. Gentleman that there should be no reduction in entrance standards for our universities.

Was it wise of the Minister to give the impression on Radio 4 and in The Guardian that our universities are like easyJet in that people can buy their way to the front of the queue? He knows that our lecture halls, universities and university accommodation are only so big. Surely, if extra places are put on, places will be denied to those who want universal access.

We inherited from the previous Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was the Minister for universities, a system of student number controls so tight that he was fining universities for taking on extra students. There were students who wanted to go to university and universities who wanted to educate them, but he fined the universities for wanting to recruit them. We are trying to break free from the constraints that he placed on opportunity, while making it absolutely clear that people cannot buy a place at university.

I note my right hon. Friend’s comments on off-quota university places, and am reassured by his statement on the issue of standards and entry. However, is it not the case that across the HE sector, discussions about this topic are already taking place?

It is the case. I have read with interest the reaction to the speculation today. I was struck by a comment released today by the chief executive of GuildHE:

“Providing off-quota places can be socially progressive.”

He went on to say:

“This could give students of all backgrounds a wider set of choices, including whether or not to take out a long term loan.”

That gentleman is, of course, the former special adviser to the shadow Secretary of State.

Chaos on health policy; Ministers rowing in public about whether to abandon our carbon reductions; and now this, all in the space of 24 hours: is this not the most serially incompetent Government in living memory? When will the Prime Minister get a grip?

I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is getting quite so aerated about. The Government are committed to improving social mobility and to easing the controls under which universities function. We will put forward proposals in the White Paper to achieve precisely those objectives.

We welcome any measure to aid social mobility and increase fair access. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s ideas to increase the number of places by getting charities and businesses to sponsor degrees. Will he confirm that rich students will never be able to buy their way into university under this Government?

I am happy to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks. That is not the proposal that we will put forward in the White Paper.

Does the Secretary of State accept that it was he who started this hare running? The minds of those of us who want to be fair to him have not been put at rest by what the Minister has said today. We do not want a twin-track or two-tier system. May I add that, as the Minister knows, many of the leading public schools in this country are charities?

The Secretary of State and I have publicly referred to this idea. I referred to it in a public speech to Universities UK and he referred to it in a speech to HEFCE. We both said that we were looking at ideas for off-quota places. We make no secret of the fact that we are investigating those ideas. I have also made it clear in every public remark that we are looking at employers and charities as the people who would sponsor such places.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s desire to create more university places? More sponsorship of students by businesses and charities would be very welcome to both students and universities, but does he agree that taking the Government cap off student numbers is the only real way to create a fully functioning market?

I share my hon. Friend’s dislike of the system that we have inherited. I deeply dislike a system in which universities are fined for taking on students who meet their entry requirements, but of course there are public expenditure constraints, because each student comes with a cost. That is why I am being perfectly explicit about the fact that we are considering ways in which it would be possible for students to be accepted into university outside the quota, under the conditions that I have clearly set before the House this afternoon. I hope that moves us some way towards his admirable objective.

I agree that that is very important, and that the principles of fair access must apply. When we produce our White Paper and our proposals are consulted on, that question will of course need to be properly addressed.

Will the Minister confirm that the policy of off-quota places can expand the opportunities of some people from all sorts of backgrounds to go to university, including those who would not normally have the opportunity to go, provided that they have the support of a business or charity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are trying to spread opportunity to go to university, even at a time when money is tight. That is what we are committed to achieving, and it is a great pity that the Labour party has completely failed to suggest anything that would deliver on our belief in improving social mobility.

Given his absence from the House today, can the Minister assure the House that this policy has the full support of his boss, the Secretary of State, and will continue to have it in the future?

I am setting out the approach of the coalition Government, and of course we will set out in the White Paper our proposals to deliver on the coalition’s commitment to improving social mobility.

Is the Minister aware of a scheme run by KPMG, which pays the fees for students who go on to work for it? Is he attracted to that model?

The KPMG scheme is an excellent example of exactly what we are trying to encourage. The trouble is that at the moment, so far as such estimates can be made, we believe that only approximately 6,000 students out of well over 1 million are benefiting from extra places sponsored by companies such as KPMG. That is far too low, and we are considering ways in which we can encourage more such schemes, because we believe they are a way to spread and improve opportunity in this country.

Affluence is influence, and this is a triumph of affluence over ability. The Government have to recognise that it is social networking that leads to people accessing this type of support to go to university, so it will not be directed at the poorest people from our constituencies. It will be an opportunity for those who do not meet the criteria for entering university to get in by the back door because they have access to private finance.

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is more interested in fighting class war than in considering practical proposals to improve access to university. Not only are the particular conditions that I have set out to the House today intended to ensure that his concerns do not come to pass, but in general, I believe that the expansion of higher education places is of itself a good thing for social mobility and opportunity in this country.

Is it not the case that quotas and rationing have served low-income students very badly? In Britain, only 19% of low-income people go to university, which can be compared with more open systems such as those in Australia, which has 30%, and America, which has 50%. Does that not show the poor record of the previous Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a problem. We are restricting access to university, and social mobility in our country is far too low. This Government are looking at how we can tackle that problem, but all we get from the Labour party is completely wilful misrepresentation of what we are doing, and no practical proposals whatever.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has pointed out, public schools are charities. Will the Minister unambiguously rule out that his proposals would allow any public school to buy places at any university?

It is absolutely not our intention that such purchasing of places at university should happen. That is why the criteria that I have set out are absolutely clear on fair access. People should not be able to buy places at university. We are not proposing what the hon. Gentleman claims.

Employers, among others, benefit from well-educated students. Is it not right that if we can find a way for them to share in that burden, we should use it, rather than jumping in and getting over-excited at the mere mention of them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, the previous Government, towards the end of their time in office, produced a report, “Higher Ambitions”, which on page 47 specifically calls for employers to be more engaged. It says that

“businesses have a crucial role in the funding and design of programmes, in the sponsorship of students”.

We are trying to ensure that more employers have the opportunity that was talked about by the previous Government, but which, not for the first time, they failed to deliver.

The Minister has categorically refused not to rule out private schools buying places for their students. Is this yet another idea dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton?

Access to Russell group universities from the lowest income groups has abysmally flatlined over the past 20 years. Ideas such as allowing companies and charities to create social mobility and greater access should be debated. They should not become the subject of scaremongering and misrepresentation. It is a shame that the Opposition have done that with a cynical letter to The Guardian in support of its scaremongering headline.

Not for the first time, my hon. Friend is a voice of sanity in this debate, and I completely agree with his point. Government Members are engaged in improving social mobility and people’s opportunities to go to university, while making absolutely clear the principle that nobody should be able to buy a place at university using their personal wealth. That is the principle we are applying, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.

When I read this story in The Guardian, my first inclination was to check the date, but it clearly could not be 1 April, because we have had May’s elections, when Labour took Keele university from the Liberal Democrats because of broken promises on tuition fees. I then thought that the story must be a clever wheeze by plotting Conservative Ministers, who are thinking, “What can we do to make Vince Cable, the Secretary of State, finally jump ship?”

The Minister has clearly not told colleagues and the House in his responses how he would discriminate between different charities: which would qualify, and which would not?

I am afraid that I have made absolutely clear the principles that will guide our policy. It is not our intention that schools should be able to buy places at university.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on the help and support that he has given to mature, part-time students—students who did not do well at school first time around, but who in their 20s and 30s decide to be socially mobile and to get qualifications and further education.

My hon. Friend is right. That is one reason why one proposal before the House is to extend loans for fees for the first time to part-time students, many of whom are mature students, which will enable them to take the opportunity of going to university. Our central objective is to give that opportunity to as many people as possible who have the ability and commitment to gain from it. That admirable objective is what drives the coalition.

Will the Minister assure the House that there is no truth in the rumour that this policy was announced today to add the final humiliation to the Lib Dems and precipitate a general election?

This policy has been referred to in speeches by me and the Secretary of State. [Hon. Members: “When?”] In speeches we gave to Universities UK and the Higher Education Funding Council. The policy will also be set out in the White Paper, after which I look forward to debating it further in the House.

Given the constraints on public spending, allowing businesses and charities to provide additional places at no cost to the public purse is, in principle, a good idea, but can my right hon. Friend tell the House exactly how the Government will ensure that no university in this country will have different entry criteria for quota and off-quota places?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that important principle. I hope that I made it clear earlier that there should be no question of sacrificing university entry standards. We are not considering that.

The Minister will want to confirm to the House that university education in Scotland is fully devolved—thank goodness—but will he also confirm that should this extraordinary plan ever see the light of day, it will apply to English universities only, and that there will be no requirement to roll it out in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman says, “thank goodness”, but hon. Members on both sides of the House are still looking forward to hearing the Scottish National party’s long-term plans for the financing of universities in Scotland. We have set out our proposals to ensure that universities in England are well financed and able to offer to our students a high-quality education. I hope that that opportunity is also available to students at Scottish universities.

If the Minister intends to allow charities to sponsor university places, can he explain to the House what amendments he will introduce to change charity law so that public schools are not counted as charities for that purpose?

After the White Paper, we will—with the consent of the House, I hope—introduce legislation that will provide the framework within which all the assurances I have given today can be met.

How can it be socially progressive to devote time and energy to facilitating access for students from better-off backgrounds at the same time as the Government have axed Aimhigher, which means that projects in my constituency to reach out to poorer students will run out of funding by October this year?

It is socially progressive to consider how to provide more opportunities for people to go to university and whether they can be sponsored by their employer or whether that can happen as part of a charity wishing to endow a university. That is socially progressive, which is why these proposals will help to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing Britain today—our very low levels of social mobility.

Twenty-six per cent. of young people in Rochdale get the opportunity to go to university, compared with the national average of 31%. That gap narrowed under the previous Government. Instead of coming up with fanciful policies that will help his wealthy mates’ kids get into university, will the Minister start helping youngsters in places such as Rochdale?

It is important to help young people in places such as Rochdale through educational reform and raising school standards. However, in the many debates on higher education that I have attended in the House over the years, hon. Members on both sides have called for greater employer involvement in course sponsorship, and for greater endowments and charitable giving to universities, yet as soon as we introduce practical ideas to achieve these objectives, Opposition Members suddenly no longer support principles that I thought were widely endorsed on both sides of the House.

The key point is that people have to get into university first and then get the sponsorship from outside, otherwise the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) will be right: this will be a charter for extending access to universities, because more thick rich people will be going to university.

That is why we have made it clear that there should be no reduction in entrance standards, and that in no circumstances should rich individuals be able to buy their way into university. I have made that clear to the House all afternoon, and it has been made clear in every statement on this matter from me and the Secretary of State.

I say, Mr Speaker, there might be many on the Tory Benches who think it an absolutely spiffing idea to allow mummy and daddy to purchase privilege through this toff quota. Should this principle be extended, perhaps to allow mummy and daddy to purchase a parliamentary seat, the odd ambassadorship or even, dare I say it, a top judge’s job?

If that constitutes the Labour party’s response to our proposals, we can understand why our party is serious about improving conditions in our country and Labour is not.

What consultation did the Secretary of State have with UCAS before launching the policy, and what was its response? Will he clarify what the range of fees will be for students who try to jump the queue?

As I have said, the idea was mentioned in public speeches to Universities UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The proposals will be further set out in the White Paper, after which there will be further consultation.

Wealthy families often set up charitable trusts for themselves. How will the Minister prevent family-run charitable trusts from circumventing his rules and buying places, given that they are governed by exactly the same charity legislation as the other charities to which he has referred?

It is very important that endowments for universities absolutely meet the criteria of fair access, and that there should be genuinely additional places and no reduction in entry standards. It is the university that will decide who is admitted, and it is essential that we do not compromise on that principle.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s reassurances to the Chairman of the Education Committee. I also listened to his accusations of class war against the Opposition, but I wonder whether there has been any cross-departmental collaboration to ensure that social mobility will come about under his policy. Has he consulted the Secretary of State for Education about his policy, which has seen 500,000 youngsters receiving education maintenance allowance at the higher level to get into further education reduced to 12,000 receiving bursaries under the new scheme?

The Secretary of State for Education, just like me, is trying to deliver improved education opportunities after inheriting a total mess in the public finances from Labour, so we have to take tough decisions. We are trying to save money, but at the same time we are delivering reform of schools, improved access to universities, a better way of funding them in future and the freedom for them to escape from student number controls, albeit under carefully controlled conditions and with clear principles. That is the way to improve education standards in our country, even when money is tight.

Will the Minister tease out for us the conversations he has had with his adviser on fair access, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)? Has not this whole problem arisen because of the ideological experiment that the Minister is conducting with our universities? What is wrong with the state and the private sector working together, rather than this neo-liberal vision that he has for our universities, undermining their integrity and world-class reputation?

We absolutely do want the public and private sectors to work together. That is why we do not like the regime that we inherited from the previous Government, which had what are called “closed places”—that is, specially restricted places that are the only off-quota places that employers can sponsor. I very much value the advice of the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)—who, if I might say so, made a powerful intervention in a previous debate in this House on higher education, only last week or the week before, about how our student finance reforms will work, which was exactly the right way forward for student finance in this country. [Interruption.]

Admission to university is determined by the university. It is the university that has the admission standards, which cannot be compromised, the university that does needs-blind admissions, which cannot be compromised, and the university that is bound by the clear conditions I have set out. Of course there is no suggestion that anyone other than the university looking at who can best benefit from a course should be deciding on admission to university. After our White Paper, when we have a further opportunity to debate our proposals, I very much hope that it will be possible to carry forward these exchanges, to show that we on the Government Benches remain committed to expanding our universities and improving social mobility in our country.