HL Deb 07 June 2000 vol 613 cc1122-5

3 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to promote a reduction in the proportion of children from independent schools who are admitted to United Kingdom universities.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

The Government are committed to widening participation in higher education. The university funding system has been changed to give additional support for those students who are likely to need it most. We are financing summer schools to encourage young people to raise their sights, and we are supporting a variety of schemes to improve access to higher education. We want all young people with the potential to benefit from higher education to be admitted to university, whatever their background.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, does she agree with me that, in general, it is an infringement of academic freedom for the Government to interfere in university admissions? I say this particularly because every university in the country has said that it wants to admit able pupils of every class and from every school and has given great attention to widening the entry process. Therefore, why make the universities responsible for the weaknesses of a state education system?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government have been working with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and with the top research universities for some time to widen participation in universities. Our agenda is the same. I believe that it is accepted by many of my former colleagues in the CVCP that this is a challenge to all of us. There is no question of interference. The Government are perfectly well aware that admissions policies, their detail and how they are implemented are matters for the universities. Indeed, it was your Lordships' House—I remember the occasion well—that, rightly, made it absolutely clear that the details of the way in which students are admitted to universities is a matter for those universities. However, in the interest of promoting equal opportunities, it is perfectly right and appropriate that governments should provide incentives and encouragement to universities to deal with access problems.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister agree with me, and confirm, that 65 per cent of all students who gain three As at A-level come from the state sector and only 35 per cent from the independent sector, whereas figures for entry to Oxford are 53 per cent and 47 per cent respectively?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can confirm the figures just given by my noble friend. Indeed, they have been widely available in the public domain over the past few days. I applaud the work that Professor Colin Lucas, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, is undertaking in order to widen participation. In a report produced by the University of Oxford last year, it was made clear that this was a problem and one which the university wished to crack. The Government will continue to work with Professor Lucas and his colleagues in attempting to widen participation.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, Section 6813) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 forbids the Secretary of State to fund institutions on the basis of the "criteria" that they use for "the admission of students". In the light of the description of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of admission procedures at Magdalen College in Oxford as a "scandal", can the Minister say whether it is the Government's intention to reform the law in order to use funding to reward or punish universities?

Baroness Blackstone

No, my Lords.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister not aware of the inconsistency of the Government's stance on this particular issue? If the Government are genuinely anxious to widen participation and to reduce the access barriers to our top universities, why have they pursued a policy of imposing tuition fees and abolishing maintenance grants? And why do they now seem to be acquiescing in plans for top-up fees?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, perhaps I may begin with the point about top-up fees. The Government are not acquiescing. We have made the position absolutely clear; indeed, we legislated and took reserve powers to make it impossible for universities to charge top-up fees. We also made it clear that, if they did so, we would reduce their grants.

On the noble Baroness's wider point, I should point out to her—I am surprised that she is unaware of this—that there has been no reduction in the number of applicants and, indeed, in the number of students going to university from lower-income groups as a result of the changes in the student support regime and the introduction of tuition fees. Tuition fees are not paid by over one-third of young people; indeed, they pay no fees whatever. When the threshold is raised next year, that figure will rise to 40 per cent.

Lord St John of Fawsley

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree—

Lord Desai

My Lords, does my noble friend agree—

Noble Lords


Lord Carter

My Lords, I should remind the House that the time limit of 30 minutes for Questions has now expired.

Lord St John of Fawsley

My Lords, I wish to ask this question. It is a point of order. Is it in order to have premature interventions from the Front Bench which prevent Back-Bench Members of this House having a say on a vitally important Question?