Skip to main content

University Applications

Volume 546: debated on Monday 18 June 2012

1. What recent steps he has taken to increase the number of young people in state education in England who aspire to go to university. (111832)

Raising aspiration and closing the attainment gaps between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds lie at the heart of all our education reforms, including the academies programme, reform of the teaching of reading, and reform of the curriculum and qualifications. Only last week, many top-performing year 9 pupils visited Russell group universities as part of the new Dux awards scheme. We are also introducing in the performance tables two destination measures that show the destinations of young people after they leave school or college.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating Suffolk county council on its initiative to increase aspiration and attainment called Raising the Bar, which it launched last week. Does he think that we could go further by encouraging well-endowed universities to reach out to students, from where they gained their wealth, and encourage them to apply more—for example, in the case of Trinity college, Cambridge and Felixstowe?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Raising the Bar conference, which took place in Ipswich last week, is a good example of a local authority asking difficult questions about why some of our young people are leaving school without the skills they need to be successful in higher education or employment. As she says, it is right that universities are proactive in dispelling the myths around higher education and attracting students from all backgrounds into universities. Many universities are doing just that, including Cambridge with its summer schools for year 12 students. However, we also need more students from state schools to apply to Oxford and Cambridge—something that I have always promoted.

I wish the Minister would give up his obsession with the Russell group and with Oxford and Cambridge. We have over 130 fantastic universities in this country, some with many good Departments that are better than anything in Oxford and Cambridge and the Russell group. Also, could he not have mentioned, generously, the effort that the Labour Government made in raising the number of people who went to university and who before that Labour Administration had no hope at all?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have some of the best universities in the world in this country. However, what we have to do—this was not necessarily successful under the previous Labour Government—is to raise aspiration right across the board so that we do not end up in the position where too few students from state schools are going to our best universities, particularly children who are eligible for free school meals. I am sorry to mention Oxford and Cambridge again, but it is a disgrace that under his party’s Government, only 40 out of 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals achieved Oxbridge places.

The Minister, like all Ministers, will be very pleased that last year the number of people applying from underprivileged and poorer backgrounds was much better than the Opposition and others predicted, and in the end kept up the numbers from the year before. Can he assure me that mentoring and peer group support, with youngsters going back to the schools they attended a year or two ago, are absolutely part of the Government’s policy and that they will encourage every school to do that, so that every youngster has a mentor and every school has successful graduands going back?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that proposal. We need more of these schemes so that more young people are encouraged to enter universities. I am concerned that too few schools are entering our young people for the best universities and persuading them to apply to those universities—that must be an objective of all us.

Black and ethnic minority students are attending higher education institutions in increasing numbers, and that is obviously very welcome, but too often they attend the less prestigious institutions and achieve less good degrees. What specific steps is the Minister taking to improve the opportunities for BME students to do well at university?

It is about raising aspiration right across the board. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: too few young people from ethnic minorities are applying to our top universities, and that is an unacceptable state of affairs. We need to raise standards, particularly in the inner-city schools that BME students disproportionately attend. Getting better standards of education, aspiration and higher expectations in those schools is a key part of our education reform programme.