HC Deb 11 June 1998 vol 313 cc1182-3
7. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

What assistance he proposes to give to those universities that wish to increase the numbers of students from mainstream comprehensives. [43760]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

From this autumn, we are doubling access funds and, from September, universities will be able to use a proportion of those funds to provide support and help for new access, and not merely for hardship among those who are already at university. We are also working with the university sector as a whole to link individual universities with schools and their communities, so that pupils can experience university life well in advance of deciding from the options available.

Mr. Sheerman

That is quite a good answer, but my right hon. Friend could do better. We need to acknowledge the seriousness of the fact that the best universities for teaching and research are dominated by entrants from the private sector, from the best grammar schools, from comprehensives in affluent areas of the country and from sixth-form colleges. In the top 40 to 50 universities, the continued exclusion of students from average comprehensives who get three As at A-level is a national tragedy and a scandal. Will my right hon. Friend put the profile on the matter and make it a top priority to get something done about it?

Mr. Blunkett

I shall try to do better, and will do so by following what we are already doing, which is holding detailed meetings with the university sector and the Higher Education Funding Council to achieve precisely what my hon. Friend rightly wants. It is true that in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in which his constituency used to be incorporated, more students from comprehensive schools went to Oxford and Cambridge in the days of Alec Clegg than do so now. The way to achieve a real transformation is not only to increase expectations and get the universities to be more embracing in their admissions policy but to transform the standard of education in schools so that every child has that chance.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Is it the right hon. Gentleman's view that more students will go to university from mainstream comprehensives as a result of the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant? On reflection, does he not bitterly regret that it is under a Labour Government that our state education system will become no longer free at the point of access?

Mr. Blunkett

I bitterly regret the fact that the Conservatives put a cap on entry to higher education; that they cut the unit cost by 40 per cent. and reduced quality; and that they did not concentrate on lifting standards for all children in our schools to get them into university. I am pleased that, from this autumn, an extra 1 per cent. of those leaving school—comprehensive or otherwise—are taking up higher education. We have every intention of extending that in future.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating King's college, Cambridge, which admits more than 90 per cent. of its students from the state sector? Does he welcome Cambridge university's advertising campaign to encourage more students from the state sector to apply?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I applaud what is being done by King's college and by students at Cambridge, who are reaching out—visiting, linking with and mentoring students in schools across the country. I just wish that it were happening in all colleges and all universities.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

May I tell the Secretary of State that my book, "Why Vote Conservative?" has a companion volume, "Why Vote Labour?", which has much less to say about raising educational standards? Following his letter to me yesterday about university applications, will he confirm that, during the debate on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, Ministers deployed statistics that were embargoed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and showed that the proposed introduction of tuition fees is having a significant impact in reducing applications to Scottish universities from English students?

Mr. Blunkett

I am inclined to read from another of the hon. Gentleman's books, "Is Conservatism Dead?"—the answer to which is yes. The answer to his question is no. Ministers did not use embargoed information. As I told him in the letter, the information was not made available until 4.30 pm on Tuesday, so Ministers could not have used it.