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Young People from Deprived Backgrounds: Access to Higher Education

Volume 710: debated on Monday 14 March 2022

We have asked the Office for Students to refocus the access and participation regime on real social mobility by getting students on to courses that they complete and that lead to graduate jobs, not just getting them to the door. We have also committed up to £75 million to a national state scholarship to support high-achieving disadvantaged students.

In the Secretary of State’s statement on the Augar review last month, he said:

“Access to higher education must be dependent on attainment and ability to succeed, and not inhibited by a student’s background.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 489.]

Will the Minister expand on how the Department will ensure that that is the case, so that we avoid the situation overseen by the Scottish Government where people from a deprived background are now less likely to enter higher education than when they took office?

Under our Government, disadvantaged 18-year-olds in England are now 82% more likely to go to university than in 2010. We want universities to play an even greater role in improving access for those who are disadvantaged, however, so we are asking them to raise standards in schools and colleges; offer flexible and skills-based courses; tackle drop-out rates; and support students throughout university and on to graduation.

Whether we look at the national tutoring programme, which is failing to reach disadvantaged children; qualification changes that Ofqual admits will hamper progress to HE; the disparaging of university courses with higher numbers of deprived students on them; or the falling apprenticeship numbers, the truth is that this is a “Get back in your place” Government who stand as a barrier to aspiration for deprived students. Does the Minister not realise that the Government have not a shred of credibility on this subject? Their policies are the barrier to working-class aspiration, not the solution.

It is a desperate time when we have a question such as that from the Opposition, which is not even really a question. The Government are delivering on our manifesto and enhancing quality, and have aspiration at the heart of everything we do.

Order. I think I will decide whether something is in order or not, but thanks for that little lesson for me. Just to say, I do laugh when you talk about policy when the Government have been in power, so I try to balance out the political issues and objections on both sides.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is one of the most important Bills now before Parliament. When does my right hon. Friend expect the Bill to come back before the House?

I can inform the House that the Bill will be back in due course, and we can guarantee this Government’s commitment to honour our manifesto pledge to strengthen free speech in our universities, because of how important we believe it to be.

According to the Government’s own equality analysis of their reforms to student finance, those likely to see a negative impact, with increased lifetime repayments, include female graduates and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Male graduates and those from more privileged backgrounds will benefit more than average from the changes. Can the Minister explain why policies that will hinder social mobility and undermine equality of opportunity in higher education have been introduced?

Fairness is at the heart of our announcement that no student will pay back more in real terms than they borrowed. It is also about rebalancing for the taxpayer, as every pound that is not paid back by a student is paid back by a taxpayer.