HC Deb 04 July 2002 vol 388 cc379-80
4. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

What steps she is taking to increase numbers of students in higher education. [64399]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris)

By 2010, we want 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds to participate in higher education. We are particularly keen to encourage greater participation among lower socio-economic and other under-represented groups. The "Excellence Challenge" programme and the AimHigher roadshows are major initiatives funded by the Government to encourage that to happen.

Ms Drown

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will she congratulate the university of Bath on its work in Swindon? In two years, it has got 2,500 students into higher education. There are plans to expand that number to 8,000 in seven years, and that will help us to meet some of the skills shortages that exist in the town. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look favourably on bids arriving at her desk so that we can meet that expansion target? That expansion will improve vastly the opportunities open to people in Swindon, and help the Government achieve their target of getting 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education.

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education has visited Bath university and is full of praise for it. The university has an excellent reputation, and I applaud it for extending its work to include recruiting more students. The final decision about extra places is one for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as my hon. Friend will know. However, I am sure that she will be pleased that the Government's plans to fund extra places next year may well mean—who knows?—that extra places will go to Bath university.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

Bearing in mind her speech of last week, will the Secretary of State consider how much damage to the prospects of children from poor backgrounds entering higher education has been done over the years by failed socialist educational theory and policy, which she now spends her time apologising for? Will she ask the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education to stop berating universities and start trusting them to want the brightest and best from any background to benefit from higher education? The Government should focus on helping schools ensure that there is a stronger and appropriately qualified group of students from non-traditional backgrounds ready to benefit from higher education.

Finally, will she deny that there are plans to penalise, financially and deliberately, those universities that are unable to comply with the personal assessment of the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education of what their socio-economic mix should be?

Estelle Morris

The matter is more important than that cheap jibe suggests. Historically, our nation has never managed to break the link between poverty and educational attainment. That has never been achieved by either Labour or Tory Governments in the past. However, I applaud the work of many teachers and schools—and a lot of the schools to which I refer are very good inner-city comprehensives—in raising standards. They are enabling children to be the first generation in their families to go into higher education.

I have greater aspirations for our children, and we are nowhere near achieving them. We must use the strongest language to make our society understand that Britain is the only nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that retains a link between background and educational attainment. This Government are doing more than any other in that respect. The "Excellence Challenge" and "Excellence in Cities" programmes mean that children in years 11 and 12 from a third of urban schools this summer will have the opportunity to visit a university and talk to staff.

We do not have all the answers. This is about raising attainment rates at 16 and 18, and making sure that working class children feel that they can make the link between school and university. We are doing that; the Tory Government did not.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have had a letter from a head teacher, too? She told me that she was thanking the Labour Government for all the money that has been put in. I have to tell her something else as well. I listened this morning to that creeping Jesus from the Liberal party— [Laughter]—but one thing makes me sick—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That language will not do. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Skinner

Creeping; I withdraw creeping.

Estelle Morris

I am grateful for the support from the head teacher in my hon. Friend's constituency. I should be grateful if he would pass on my thanks and best wishes for the work that she does at the school and that other schools do in Bolsover.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

One of the important issues about participation in higher education is student finance. Last year the Government commissioned a review of student finance. When will we get the results?

Estelle Morris

In due course—when the review is ready. We rightly agreed to look at student finance and we will announce our findings. The figures do not support what I think the hon. Gentleman was implying. Last year there was more than a 5 per cent. increase in the number of students going to university—far greater than, for example, in Scotland where changes were made to how people pay fees. We will report in due course, but getting people from poorer backgrounds to university needs to be tackled on many levels.