HL Deb 08 November 2000 vol 618 cc1525-7

Lord Paul asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of recently published key performance indicators for universities, whether their policies have been effective in widening participation and achieving greater social inclusion.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, performance indicators for higher education show a history of under-participation by some parts of the community. This must change. We have made widening participation central to our vision for the future of higher education. To this end, we recently announced the Excellence Challenge for a £150 programme to enable schools, colleges and universities to encourage applications from disadvantaged young people who have the potential for higher education. We have also put in place a substantial package of support for mature and part-time students.

Lord Paul

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that very encouraging reply. I declare my interest here as Chancellor of Wolverhampton University, which has an excellent record of widening participation and has exceeded all the bench-marks. Universities that provide opportunities for disadvantaged groups have experienced an increase in withdrawals, and students are suffering financial hardship. With the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of fees, many students, especially those from the minority communities, now combine full-time study with near full-time work, while others experience the burden of debts. Can my noble friend say whether these policies are consistent with the desire to provide equality of opportunity for all the benefits to be derived from higher education?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am well aware that Wolverhampton University has an excellent record of widening participation in this respect. Indeed, I congratulate the university on that fact. However, if we take universities as a whole, there has not actually been a deterrent effect: there has been an increase of over 6,000 students—nearly 2 per cent—being accepted for entry this autumn, as compared with last year. As far as concerns the effect of fees, my noble friend will be aware that we raised the threshold for relief from fees so that, now, 50 per cent of all students, including, I believe, all of those to whom he refers, do not pay fees.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will know that there has been a reduction in applications to Cambridge University this year, which may well be as a result of the remarks made last year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In response to a Question on 7th June of this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said that the Government had no intention whatever of using funding in order to interfere with admissions to university. Therefore, does the noble Lord agree that expecting universities to set targets for their admissions in return for funding is in fact illegal under the higher education legislation of 1992?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on the noble Baroness's first point, I can say that there has been a reduction in admissions to Cambridge. However, there has been an increase in admissions to Oxford, which rather diminishes the value of the noble Baroness's point about the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As to the issue of interference in selection processes, there has never been—indeed, there is no intention—to interfere with the selection process. The Excellence Challenge programme has more than half of its expenditure in schools and FE colleges. It is designed to increase applications rather than to influence the selection procedure. Universities are happy with that and are content to collaborate with the system, because it is clearly to their advantage.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, we on these Benches should like to remark that inverted snobbery can be just as destructive as old-fashioned snobbery. The question here is more about Robbins' vision of helping to transmit a common culture in universities. In their possible review of these key performance indicators, which are not working as well as they should be, would the Government care to look at that original vision rather than at education as conveying a series of mechanical skills?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I certainly agree with the right reverend Prelate about what Robbins said. Indeed, when I considered the way in which this Government are approaching the issue, I was reminded of Robbins' original words, which assumed, as an axiom, that courses of higher education should be available for all those who were qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wished to do so. I believe that that expresses better than government these days the fundamental principle behind our approach to universities and to widening access to them.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the two main deterrents to participation in higher education by those from less advantaged backgrounds are cost and lack of appropriate qualifications? Is he also aware that only 800 students from social class five acquired 21 A-level points last year? If the Government are really anxious to encourage participation by such people, is it really sensible for them, first, not to extend the right to free tuition up to A-level equivalent qualifications for 19 to 24 year-olds, instead of just up to the age of 19; and, secondly, is it right to exclude part-time students from most of the schemes aimed at helping mature students meet the cost of studying? Finally, are both sides of the DfEE really working to the same agenda?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I thought that I had made it clear that a very substantial part of the Excellence Challenge programme is devoted to the exact aims that the noble Baroness wishes to promote. Indeed, we entirely agree with her. As for part-time students, when we introduced tuition fees in the first instance the House will recall that part of the deal was that there would be substantial additional funding for mature students and for part-time students. Both groups have been made eligible for loans as part of that deal.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that in the past 10 years universities have dramatically increased the participation in higher education of mature and part-time students, as well as women and ethnic minorities? In declaring an interest as the chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, I draw to the attention of the House the concordat recently signed between representative bodies of universities and schools. Does the Minister agree that one of the key issues is raising the aspirations of state educated children who currently do not apply?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that one of the most important things—in fact, probably the most important thing—is to raise the aspirations of those in state schools who do not currently apply. I congratulate the noble Baroness and her organisation on the concordat. But we must get away from the idea that the Government are trying to impose targets. What we are doing is indicating bench marks against which the universities can judge their success in attracting applications from a wider range of potential students.

Back to