HC Deb 06 July 2000 vol 353 cc413-5
10. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What steps he is taking to improve access to higher education for students from lower socio-economic groups; and if he will make a statement. [127929]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

Our concern is clear: all those who have ability should have access to universities, including the top ones. We are tackling that in a number of ways. Through the Higher Education Funding Council, for example, we are providing £24 million in respect of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which recognises the extra work in recruiting and retaining students from that group. The Higher Education Funding Council will be developing that work.

Helen Jones

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that as almost 66 per cent. of students who achieve three grade As at A-level come from schools in the state sector, it is time that some of our leading universities looked seriously at the way in which they set out to attract those youngsters, and at their admissions procedures, to ensure that they are fair and really based on merit, rather than on the schools that people went to. Does he agree that it is scandalous for the Opposition to defend the privileges of the few rather than ensuring that all our youngsters have a proper chance to develop their full potential?

Mr. Wicks

We should certainly acknowledge the fact that many comprehensive schools now enable very bright youngsters to get first-class A-level results, and we should pay tribute to the comprehensive system. We are now working with universities, including Oxford university, through summer schools and the rest, to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to university. As for the Opposition, by their interests they shall be judged. Today they have spoken about selection, grammar schools and elitism. Our interests are rather different. We are concerned with all children, all schools and fair access to universities.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who spoke about elitism in universities. That was his obsession and no one else's. What has the Minister to say about the evidence that the vice-chancellor of Oxford university gave the Select Committee on Education and Employment yesterday, when he said that the Chancellor's attack was ill informed and might have damaged Oxford's efforts to attract the greatest possible number of the brightest and best, wherever they come from?

Mr. Wicks

Oxford university's own working paper on the subject many months ago recognised the problem that, for different reasons, many able boys and girls from state schools, who have good A-levels, are not getting into our top universities. Now, instead of just having a row about it, we must move on to remedy the situation, and that is what we are doing. I predict that in future more able boys and girls from state schools will go to our top universities. That will be the test, and I am confident that we will succeed.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor's introduction of education maintenance allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds will probably be the best legacy of this Government's first term, as it will enable more young people from lower socio-economic groups to get into university? Will the Department encourage the Treasury to extend that scheme universally?

Mr. Wicks

Yes. We thank the Chancellor for many things, not least for funding the education maintenance allowance schemes. The schemes are already successful and more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are staying on in further education after the age of 16. That will help us to ensure that those bright boys and girls have a fair chance of getting into university. We are motivated by the values of equality; the lot opposite are more concerned about elitism.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Is the Minister aware of evidence given to the Select Committee by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service, the Higher Education Funding Council, the Sutton trust, the Independent Schools Association and universities, suggesting that a barrier that prevents people from less well represented areas and poorer backgrounds from applying to universities is fear of debt? Can he explain to the House how the removal of maintenance grants from the poorest students helps them to access higher education? Is not the student support scheme that he introduced making students from poorer backgrounds still poorer, and will that not be the legacy of this Government that people remember?

Mr. Wicks

I think that the answer to that long question is no. We are introducing opportunity bursaries so that students from poor backgrounds have an opportunity to go to university; 40 per cent. of university students do not pay tuition fees, and the number will increase. The student finance system is fair. We are increasing the number of our young people who go to university, while maintaining quality. Under the previous Administration, unit funding per student declined. We will not tolerate that. We are maintaining quality as well as quantity. There was a time when the Liberal party attacked elitism rather than defending it.