HC Deb 25 April 2002 vol 384 cc454-7
5. Tony Cunningham (Workington)

What steps she is taking to encourage university applications from pupils from lower socio-economic groups. [50350]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge)

My Department's excellence challenge will encourage applications for higher education among young people in many of the country's most disadvantaged areas by raising their attainment and their aspirations. In addition, through its postcode premium, the Higher Education Funding Council for England supports universities in meeting the additional cost of recruiting and retaining students from those groups.

Tony Cunningham

I thank the Minister for that reply. For about 11 years, I taught in Netherhall comprehensive school in my constituency. It was attended by many talented young people who deserved to go to university but did not, because their parents, grandparents and friends had never been. There is a lack of expectation and aspiration. Will my hon. Friend share her thoughts on how we can improve and increase the expectations and aspirations of those children, who deserve the opportunity to go to university?

Margaret Hodge

I share that view and that desire to raise aspirations and prior attainment levels among children, especially from the lower socio-economic groups, so that there is equality of opportunity for our young people. Raising aspirations is a long and slow process. It is shocking that almost half of young people from the lower socio-economic groups never hear about university as an option for them during their school years. We need to tackle that problem by working with those children from a young age, with their teachers and career advisers and with their families. Many of our programmes are intended to do that.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

Does the hon. Lady accept the fact that her attempts to achieve the laudable aim of widening access have so far been monumentally ham-fisted? She said that in some cases, universities should not award places on the basis of A-level results. What would she say to an applicant who had worked hard and obtained good grades but was denied a university place because the Minister's political interference meant that the university gave it to someone with worse results?

Margaret Hodge

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the difference between this Government and the Conservative Government is that for generation after generation the Conservatives denied good quality education to the many and focused opportunity only on the elite, whereas we are determined to change that. I would then tell him that we want the very best brains to have the opportunity to go to our best universities. The issue that I raised was that many of our universities need to think about how they recruit and assess potential in selecting their students.

I would draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention three studies carried out by three universities—Bristol, Cardiff and the department of economics at Warwick—all of which say the same thing, which is that applicants accepted from comprehensive schools do better than those from independent schools with the same A-level points score. If three studies show that, universities need to become more sophisticated and ensure that they pull out the best potential when they select their students.

Mr. Green

Clearly the Minister has nothing to say to the applicant whom she has unfairly excluded. She said that the Government were manipulating the money for universities so that applicants from certain postcodes were favoured. Surely the basis for university admissions should be what young people can learn, not where they come from. Just as it was wrong 50 years ago for crusty dons to prefer good chaps from their old school, it is wrong now for Ministers to impose political tests for university admissions. Does the hon. Lady not accept that the way to widen access is to improve the schools, not to bully the universities?

Margaret Hodge

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that universities control their own admissions. The additional resources that we give to universities for taking in students whose parents are unlikely to have attended university reflects the additional teaching and support that those students may need to get the best out of their university experience. It is our desire to ensure that we stop focusing on the elite, and provide opportunity for the many. That is what governs that funding. For the hon. Gentleman to pretend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister has done well in that reply. I call Mr. Harry Barnes.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Young people from lower socio-economic groups who miss out at school can be picked up by the adult education system at a later stage. Some do not take advantage of that opportunity because they are late developers, but others do not because their home life has not provided the necessary knowledge, understanding and encouragement, although they can become amenable to such influences at a later stage. What is being done to improve access for adult students who may not have prior qualifications?

Margaret Hodge

I agree entirely with those who say that we should open opportunities not just to young children, but to those who perhaps did not have a proper chance at the beginning of their education. One purpose of the reform agenda for the further education sector is to ensure that the quality of education offered will provide the sort of progression to which my hon. Friend refers. The introduction of foundation degrees—many of which will include work-based experience, leading to the higher education qualification—is another initiative in that direction.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

In the 1960s, 70 per cent. of students at Oxford and Cambridge universities came from a state school background. These days, the figure is much lower; indeed, it has declined over that entire generation. In the Minister's opinion, what is the reason for that, and is there a connection with the ending of grammar school education throughout most of the country?

Margaret Hodge

The current record of Oxford and Cambridge—which is measured not by us but by the Higher Education Funding Council for England—shows that they are not yet meeting the HEFCE benchmark for entrance from state schools. In my view, the reason for that is being addressed in part by the universities themselves. Although we must raise aspirations and the prior attainment level, universities must reach out to other colleges. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the arrangement made by Pembroke college with a particular student demonstrates that there is probably a long way to go in ensuring that universities themselves have fair admissions systems.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

May I turn my hon. Friend's attention to Anglia Polytechnic university, the other university in my constituency, and the huge problem that many of its students experience in finding reasonably priced accommodation? That is a common difficulty in constituencies such as mine, which have very high housing costs. Has my hon. Friend carried out an assessment of the cost of accommodation for students in such constituencies, and does she consider that such costs might deter some students from poorer backgrounds?

Margaret Hodge

Most of the analysis that we have undertaken suggests that the level of loan is sufficient to cover students' basic accommodation and living costs. However, we are anxious to ensure that the costs associated with attending university do not become a deterrent to students' deciding to move on to higher education. The purpose of the student funding review is to address issues such as those raised by my hon. Friend.