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Universities: Admission

Volume 728: debated on Monday 20 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they have put in place to ensure that people from ethnic minority backgrounds achieve admission to top universities.

My Lords, universities are responsible for their own admissions policies and decisions. The Government are establishing a new framework with increased responsibility on universities to widen participation, including to the most selective institutions, as set out in our guidance to the Director of Fair Access. Ethnicity is one factor which will be considered in access agreements. The proportion of black and minority-ethnic undergraduates in higher education has grown from 16.4 per cent in 2001-02 to 20.4 per cent in 2009-10.

I thank my noble friend for that encouraging Answer. I am sure he will agree with me that many more children from BME backgrounds, and white working-class boys, need to be encouraged to start thinking of their education path to top universities from as early as primary school. The numbers of BME students going to university have increased, but research by the Runnymede Trust has shown that BME students predominantly do not apply to the top 20 leading universities.

At the University of Exeter, where I am chancellor—I declare an interest—very few British-born BME students apply. Research shows that only 8 per cent of BME students who do go to university attend Russell group universities, resulting in less prestigious degrees and lower employment opportunities. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what is being done proactively by the Government, by schools and by universities to inspire BME students to apply to top-class universities, as exemplified by Michelle Obama during her visit to Britain last month?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the process ought to start at the earliest possible stage, at primary schools and throughout schooling, to encourage all children to consider this option. I am also grateful to my noble friend for mentioning that other group who ought to be addressed—white working-class males, who are again, sadly, very badly underrepresented.

I would not entirely accept her figures for the more selective universities. The figures I have for the Russell group show that something like 14 per cent of those attending come from an ethnic minority background. Obviously that varies from one institution to another: for fairly obvious reasons, at Queen’s University Belfast it is as low as 2 per cent whereas it is over 50 per cent at the London School of Economics. It varies throughout, but the overall figure for the Russell group is some 14 per cent.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a professor at Imperial College London. Is the Minister aware of the outstanding work done in getting children from ethnic minorities and impoverished backgrounds into that university, a Russell group university, in particular the work of the Reach Out Lab, which allows children aged seven to 18 to do practical work in all forms of science as a way of training them to think about aspirations for a great university? Does the Minister agree that universities could do more to make the relationship between schools and universities seamless by opening their doors and making this kind of work possible across the country?

The noble Lord answers his question for me. The institution to which he refers and to which he is attached has a very good record indeed. I have the figures in front of me: the figure there is some 45 per cent. We offer congratulations to Imperial College on what it is doing. What he said about the work that the higher education institutions themselves should do plays very strongly indeed and I would commend his words to the House and to the entire higher education sector.

To put the answer that my noble friend has given in context, could he very kindly tell us what is the proportion of the population formed by ethnic minorities in the same definition that he has used in relation to the academic world?

It depends what you mean by the same definition. If one takes the general working population, the figure is some 11.1 per cent, compared to that 20.4 per cent that I gave; if one just takes the under-30 age group, which is obviously nearer to those who are at university, the figure is 13.4 per cent. I am afraid I cannot break the figures down any further.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s recent campaign to inform people of the exact nature of the new fees system and the help that will be available to students. However, it would be helpful to know what steps the Government will be taking to assess how effective that campaign has been in reaching all sections of the community, not just ethnic minorities but other unrepresented groups as well, and what steps will then be taken to communicate with those found not to have been reached by the recent campaign?

My Lords, we accept that many people have not quite understood what the Government are proposing. We wish that they would and we will try to educate them in that process, so that they understand that eligible students will not be paying upfront or paying more than they did in the past. They will pay for longer but they will not pay more per year. Obviously, we will do research into what we have done to see just how effective that has been.

Your Lordships’ House will recall that the recent report by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Madingley, recommended that graduates would begin to pay their loans back only when their earnings reached £21,000 and that interest would be charged at the cost of borrowing to the Government. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are now proposing that the interest rate to be charged after earnings reach £21,000 will be as high as 3 per cent plus RPI? Will he indicate what studies have been carried out on the impact that this will have on admissions from people from ethnic minority backgrounds?

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a large number of questions, which I propose to answer simply. We have broadly followed the recommendations by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, but not entirely, and we draw our own conclusions. But he is quite right to say that we decided that no one would pay until they were earning at least £21,000 a year and that there should be an appropriate level of interest beyond that rate. That was set out in a Statement some six months ago, which was repeated in this House, and is what we shall be ensuring comes to pass with the passage of the relevant clauses in the Education Bill. The noble Lord can also wait for the introduction of the higher education paper which will be published shortly.