HL Deb 26 October 1988 vol 500 cc1605-8

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to increase access to higher education in the context of declining numbers of 18 year-olds.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Government's policies for better schools and greater flexibility in further and higher education are each contributing to increased participation rates both among school-leavers and adults, building on the 20 per cent. growth in student numbers already achieved since 1980.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, but is he not aware that an increase to 20 per cent. does not represent an improvement in the overall numbers in higher education? In the circumstances should not the Government be taking far more positive steps to expand overall numbers, and in particular the participation of those who are currently underrepresented in higher education?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I should have thought that 20 per cent. is quite a substantial increase. A higher proportion of 18 and 19 year-olds are each year qualifying for higher education and an increasing proportion of those qualifying, especially women, are being admitted. The Government's policies assume continued growth in the age participation index and in participation by mature learners.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that one of the ways to improve intake into higher education is to relax the two A-level requirement in colleges of further education? Does he not agree that we should allow children who have not been able to get the education they should have had in secondary schools to have another chance and get a year's remedial training in a higher education institution? However, after that year, if they do not then show ability, it is a question of disce aut discede.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I certainly take note of everything the noble Lord says and I shall pass on his comments to my right honourable friend. The Government are encouraging increased acceptance of vocational qualifications as a route into higher education. They are funding action research in means of increasing access at Leeds and Bradford Universities. They are encouraging better links between further and higher education through open college federations and improvements in the availability and quality of access courses and in the assessment of students with non-traditional entry qualifications.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, are the Government considering being more generous in making discretionary awards for part-time education? Lack of such awards can be a great obstacle to women returners. Industry is constantly saying that skill shortages are the largest obstacle to prosperity. It would be a help if my noble friend could do something in the way of greater generosity in discretionary awards.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I take serious note of what my noble friend says. The continuing growth in part-time student numbers in higher education does not suggest at the moment that tuition fee relief for these students would be an effective use of scarce public funds. However, I shall tell my right honourable friend what my noble friend has said.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that the financing of students is a serious issue? Will not the Government's proposals on fees and on the question of loans make this position very much more difficult? As the Government are so keen to encourage industry to make a bigger contribution to higher education, and indeed of many other good causes, will he look again at the system under which scholarship funds set up by companies to help their employees' children to go to university are taxed? That used not to be the case. In line with their policy of urging industry to spend money on causes such as this, can the Government consider whether that tax position could not again be reviewed?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the noble Baroness's question is slightly outside the scope of the Question on the Order Paper, but I am sure that it is one which deserves consideration. I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, will the scrapping of British A-level and the introduction of baccalaureate A-level for entry into university improve the situation?

Viscount Davidson

I have no idea, my Lords. The noble Lord is much more familiar with this than I am.

Lord Peston

My Lords, in considering the question of increased student numbers, has the noble Viscount seen the recent statement by the chairmanin-waiting of the University Funding Council, who is a Member of your Lordships' House but is not in his place? It says that places in higher education should be reserved largely for those students who are willing to pay for them. Do the Government have a view on that?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, there is a vigorous debate taking place in university circles and elsewhere about fees, vouchers and other means of increasing the purchasing power of students with a corresponding reduction in block grants to universities. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science told the vice-chancellors on 28th September that the Government wanted the debate to mature. They will not reach a particular view and follow that up with concrete action without very full discussion with the new funding councils and the leaders of universities, polytechnics and colleges.

Baroness David

My Lords, as the Government are apparently so keen to increase the number of students in higher education, will the Minister agree to make it possible for those 16 year-olds in various local authorities in the north of England who have good O-levels—say, five subjects—and who are leaving, to stay on at school? In fact, 20 per cent. of those with five O-levels are leaving. Is that not a terrible waste? Are the Government prepared to help such young people to stay on at school?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I shall certainly pass the noble Baroness's comments on to my right honourable friend.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that increasing the age participation rate can be achieved without any increase in the overall numbers because of demography? We must therefore try to expand the numbers by bringing in more mature students. In those circumstances, surely the Minister will want to say something positive about how we can encourage mature students rather than discouraging them, as we do at present, through charging fees.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Government are encouraging more people to go into higher education. However, the Government can do nothing to prevent the fall in the numbers of young people which demography tells us we shall see over the next few years. Our policies for schools are designed to improve standards of achievement for all pupils at all levels. That should feed through to increased participation in post-school education, including higher education.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in view of the inevitable shortage of skilled youngsters in the next few years, will my noble friend consider offering higher education and training to youngsters from third world countries on the condition that not only would they there after work in this country for a period of time but also that they would ultimately return to their own countries taking those necessary skills with them?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend's imaginative proposal has implications well beyond that of higher education. Nevertheless, I am sure that the departments concerned will take note of what he has said.