HC Deb 14 December 1993 vol 234 cc813-5
1. Mr. Fabricant

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to encourage universities and other institutes of higher education to accept candidates with qualifications other than A-levels.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)

The Government have successfully sought to increase and widen participation in higher education. A range of entry routes is now available including GCE A-levels and AS examinations, advanced general national vocational qualifications and their precursors and access courses. The Government encourage higher education institutions to give all candidates for admission equal consideration, whatever their entry route.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend accept that while sixth formers now have more choice of examinations than ever before for entry into higher education, universities still press for A-levels? Does he agree that in the United States, where I studied, in France, in Germany and in Japan, people who want to go to university are not forced at the age of 15 or 16 to concentrate on just two or three subjects? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be advantageous to people aged 15 and 16 if they were able to study a far broader range of subjects?

Mr. Boswell

I am interested in the comments of my hon. Friend, but I do not think that the position is quite as he states it. For example, about 10 per cent. of entrants to degree courses hold the B Tech qualification alone, and entries to engineering courses include 20 per cent. of students who have come from so-called non-conventional routes. We do not control the universities or their admission policies, although we can issue encouragement to them and we have played our part by developing high-quality vocational and access pathways as alternatives to the A-level route.

Mr. Rooker

What actions are the Government taking in respect of professional institutions that are required to validate and accredit degrees from universities and to accept the quality of the output of degrees, as, in the past year, one institution removed its accreditation from three universities for an engineering course—not because of the quality of output of graduates but because of the qualifications that the students attained before going to university? That issue must be tackled by Ministers from the other side by seeking to put pressure on professional institutions to accept quality of output whatever the input.

Mr. Boswell

The hon. Gentleman raises a characteristically thoughtful point and we are certainly in consultation with the Engineering Council and the providers to look at that problem.

Mr. Alan Howarth

Have not A-levels become not so much a gold standard as a golden calf? Does my right hon. Friend accept that for our cleverest young people A-levels represent an absurdly narrow educational experience while for those less than the cleverest struggling for two years to secure, say, a D or an E grade is like stumbling around in an academic tunnel? Will my right hon. Friend continue to encourage schools and colleges to find better ways to combine breadth with rigour?

Mr. Boswell

The issue is to get all players—not just higher education institutions but employers, parents, teacher and students—to look for appropriate courses and pathways for the students involved. I agree that for some people who embark on A-level courses it may be much better to take part in one of the high-level vocational courses now on offer. I am delighted that such courses are now accepted and practised by some 80,000 people on the general national vocational qualification route. That provides an important pathway to the future that will involve at least a quarter of our young people in three years' time.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Actions speak louder than words. Have not the Government decisions ensured that whatever qualifications our young people obtain in their examinations in the coming year, opportunities for access to higher education have been reduced by Government funding cuts and all our students will find it tougher to get into higher education next year than they have this year?

Mr. Boswell

I was about to, and I still will, welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Labour Front Bench, but he will have to do better than that. British higher education has the largest graduate output as a percentage of young people in Europe. It has the highest graduate participation we have ever had in this country, and that percentage participation will be sustained on the back of the most generous settlement achieved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the public expenditure survey for the coming year.