HL Deb 19 July 2001 vol 626 cc1580-3

3.21 p.m.

Baroness Youngasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they believe that all applicants for university places should be treated equally.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, universities are autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own admissions policies and procedure. These may take into account a wide range of indicators, including potential as well as prior achievement. We believe that all candidates should be treated fairly and that all admissions decisions should be taken properly and responsibly.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but does she not agree that if it is the intention to raise standards in what the Government have described as "bog standard" comprehensive schools, the way to do it is not by lowering entrance requirements but by encouraging the improvement of education standards in those schools? Does she further agree that it is very hard on able candidates who have scored top marks in their courses to be turned down? What is their alternative when they have done well? It is hardly an encouragement, either to hard work or to high standards.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the Government's policy is very much about raising aspiration and achievement. It is not about lowering standards. For that reason, we have introduced the excellent Challenge programme, which is worth million over the next three years, to help raise the aspirations and achievements of disadvantaged young people and to encourage applications for higher education from all.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, given the great need to encourage children from families who have no prior experience or knowledge of higher education, will the Minister join with me in congratulating the universities which are making such stalwart efforts to expand access? Can she tell the House what will happen this summer in the universities and schools which have set up partnerships to give young people a taste of what it is like to go to university?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, this summer there will be 65 higher education institutes involved in summer schools, with approximately 5,500 participants. This programme will be aimed at strengthening the relationship between universities and schools. It will build on the work with schools to help children from the age of 13 onwards to realise their aspirations and potential.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, while we on these Benches share the Government's aspirations to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, does the Minister really believe that the best way to do this is to enforce on students a regime whereby they will frequently incur debts of more than £15,000 a year? Do not the statistics on the Scottish system already show that that system is far more effective in encouraging students from poor backgrounds?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, 50 per cent of students this year will not be paying fees in the next academic year. That is precisely because their and their families' income is below the threshold to contribute. Low interest loans are available to help with living costs and we have introduced bursaries for mature students which will assist with childcare. We have also introduced 25,000 opportunity bursaries over the next three years worth £2,000 each for young students from low income backgrounds.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that my noble friend was referring to living costs rather than fees? Is she further aware that for many students admitted to university from poorer backgrounds—especially those who do not have the benefit of living rent free with their parents during vacations—the level of support is such as to subject them only to a torture of Tantalus? The Government could do much more to improve access to universities by putting that right than by preaching to universities about matters which are not under their control.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I referred to living costs when I described the low interest loans, which are a vital part of ensuring that students are able to survive within the educational system. But the Government are always keen to look at these issues over time and continue to keep them under review.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister is right, universities are autonomous bodies. However, does the noble Baroness agree that the Government are distorting that autonomy by providing considerable sums of money to widen access? Can the Minister give the House an assurance that, while the Government support a widening of access, they would not support the lowering of qualifications for getting into university by the use of that money? Does the Minister agree that a young person, from whatever background, should not be denied a place at university in order to allow someone with lesser qualifications to enter university because of the way in which government money is spent?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the postcode premium—to which I believe the noble Baroness was, in part, referring—is not intended as an incentive. It is a reimbursement of institutions for the additional resources they invest in recruiting and retaining students from lower socio-economic groups. We have announced increases in this premium over time. Institutions are not forced to lower entry standards as a condition of any funding. It is intended to address the specific question of access to institutions which have demanding entry requirements.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, contrary to the notion inherent in the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, if a university recognises that a young person who has been failed by the educational system has considerable potential, it would be irresponsible not to give that youngster an opportunity to make the best of university? It would also be an investment in the future of the country.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there are some extremely interesting examples of university admission practices throughout the UK, including Nottingham, Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge. Bristol, York and Sheffield. Without taking up the time of the House by describing some of the practices. they look at the different factors affecting the educational attainment and the potential of students for the future. That is extremely valuable. Early research carried out in Cardiff University, for example, is demonstrating that students arriving at university with "A" levels equivalent to those of students who come from schools that have a generally higher standard are performing better at the end of their degree level than those from elsewhere. We are looking with interest at these studies. We believe that universities should look in a broad way at the current attainment and the potential of all students.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, my noble friend referred to raising aspirations and reducing inequality. Can she tell us more about the Government's plans for mature students? I am thinking particularly of mature students with children who have some difficulty so far as concerns applications to universities.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we have introduced a generous package of measures to help mature students. In 2000–01 we introduced the £1,000 bursaries for mature students and a school meals grant for children of £245 or £265, depending on the age of the child. We have also introduced this year in connection with childcare costs a new childcare grant, typically 85 per cent of the actual cost. A total grant on known resources for a single parent student with two children could be as much as £17,425.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, does the noble Baroness consider that the decision of the Chancellor of the Exchequer publicly to castigate the admissions policy of the University of Oxford on the back of the case of the young woman from the comprehensive school in the North East was taken properly and fairly? Or would she have preferred that it had not been taken?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it raised an important debate. It is also fair to say that both Oxford and Cambridge use a greater flexibility when looking at students. They have always interviewed students as part of the process to ensure that their potential as well as their achievements so far are examined. I commend the universities for the work that they have done in this respect.