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Higher Education: Universities

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2009


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether all young people who qualify for and seek a university place this autumn will be able to find one.

My Lords, there has been an unprecedented increase in applications to higher education, with a 45,000 increase this year from UK and EU-domiciled applicants to English universities. The Government are exploring all the options to ensure that as many students as are able and have the appropriate qualifications can benefit from a university education.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. As he said, there has been an unprecedented increase in applications this year and, as a result, many universities will not be offering many places in clearing after the A-level results come out. Is he aware that this is likely to leave as many as 30,000 qualified students without a university place? Why has the department so far refused to lift the cap on places when the cost of maintaining students at university is very much the same maintaining them unemployed, and many of these students will otherwise be unemployed?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right in her analysis. We have seen a significant increase in the number of applicants to university, and therefore clearing will be much more competitive this summer. As I said in my Answer, we are looking at what more we can do. Discussions are taking place at the moment. A number of proposals are being looked at, but we do not have anything specific or concrete that I am able to announce today.

My Lords, first, why is the Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, not answering this Question since the news he is conveying to the House is the worst news for universities for over 30 years? If the noble Lord was in the Commons, he would be at the Dispatch Box, but not in this House. Could someone tell the Secretary of State that he has a duty to answer to our House?

Does the Minister recognise that all universities recognise that between 30,000 and 40,000 youngsters will not be going to university this year, which will be a generation of stunted opportunity? That is an appalling indictment of the way the Government have conducted the public finances of our country.

My Goodness! My Lords, I will, of course, pass on to my noble friend the noble Lord’s comments, but I feel that that is a frankly ridiculous assessment of the situation. The number of students going to university this summer, despite the significant increase in applicants, will be another record and reflects this Government’s continued investment in university education and university places.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the A-level results of students from lower socio-economic groups may well be a little more marginal than those from other groups because of the disadvantage that they have had to overcome? Since the Government’s target for university applications from lower socio-economic groups is near to being reached, why are they making it much more difficult for those young people because they are the ones who will have to go through clearing and there will not be many places available?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s premise. Why should those students be more likely to be going through clearing? If we look at the figures, we can see that our agenda of widening participation has worked. Figures for state schools are up from 81 per cent in 1997-98 to 87.4 per cent last year. We recognise that, in part because of the global economic downturn, a more significant number of young and older people are applying to university this year. We are looking at what more we can do, but we have dramatically improved participation and access to universities over the past 11 years.

My Lords, does the Minister think that there will be particular problems for people of mature years or who have dropped out and want to come back to a more appropriate course? If he does, will the assessment that his department is making take account of the needs of these groups?

My Lords, we are looking very carefully because we are seeing a shift in the demographic, as the noble Lord said. We are seeing a greater proportion of people from older age groups considering applying to university. One of the other trends that we are seeing, which we regard as a welcome change, is an increased interest in studying stem subjects—it increased by 6.8 per cent last year—and we expect that trend to continue. In this environment, where we have a greater proportion of young and more middle-aged, if you like, people looking to go to university, we are also seeing what we can do to direct and encourage more of them to study the stem subjects that this country needs.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the Government have a long-term policy? Does he not agree that this Question is directly related to the first Question this afternoon in that if people are not going to get to university, that will have an effect on unemployment? Will he assure us that the Government are looking at the long term in this regard?

My Lords, I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are looking to this in the long term. This is a long-term policy, which we have followed through the years of really quite significant economic growth. We recognise the additional pressures that are being placed on the higher educational system, in part because of demographic change but in part because of the economic downturn. We are keen to learn lessons from the past and the experience of the 1990s, when higher education numbers were allowed to expand without sufficient resources being given to them by the previous Conservative Government. That meant that there was a significant drop in the quality of the student experience and backlogs in capital investment—two mistakes which we do not intend to repeat.

My Lords, has there been a similar increase in access to university among young people who have been in care and have been looked-after children? Is the Minister aware of the Frank Buttle Trust’s kitemark for universities, which demonstrates that a university offers support for young people who have been in care and that they can benefit from it to be successful? Is he also aware of the invaluable support that the trust has provided to care leavers at university to make their careers successful there?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising those important issues. I do not have specific figures on the number of applications from people who have been in care, and I will write to him with those numbers.