HL Deb 24 July 2001 vol 626 cc1840-3

11.33 a.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of the appeal of Worcester College, Oxford.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what discussions they have had with the University of Oxford about removing financial barriers which might deter bright students from applying for a place.

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

My Lords, removing barriers to study for the brightest students is an important priority for the Government. Our £190 million "Excellence Challenge" programme is designed to address the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education. Within this, we have set aside £36 million over the next three years to award 25,000 opportunity bursaries. I welcome the steps that Oxford University has taken to widen access, including the recent launch of its new bursar scheme.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I welcome the support that she gives to the new bursary scheme that the university will be introducing in October next year. Is my noble friend aware that the proportion of students from maintained schools who won places at Oxford this years has now risen to 55 per cent, compared to 48 per cent 10 years ago? Is she also aware that the standards of academic attainment that these students are achieving is higher than it has ever been? Further, will my noble friend support the university's efforts to reach out to schools all over the country in the state sector, encouraging pupils to apply, and will she endorse the vice-chancellor's statement that there has never been a better time to apply to Oxford?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the statement of the vice-chancellor, Colin Lucas, was welcomed by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I should pay tribute to what Oxford is seeking to achieve. In so doing, I recognise the work that it has carried out with summer schools this year which was funded by both the HEFC and the Sutton Trust, as well as the links that have been made with local education authorities and schools, including six east London boroughs and numerous other links made through the "Excellence Challenge" programme. There are also visits to schools and those from schools. The university has been working with other teachers, especially during the Sutton Trust teachers' in-service week, and there is also student mentoring and tutoring at state schools. I believe that all those efforts contribute to the increasing numbers of students entering Oxford from state schools.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that financial barriers are not confined to the personal circumstances of the applicant? Is she further aware that university teachers—I declare an interest as one—frequently have to attempt to assess the ability of people who know nothing of the subject that they are supposed to have studied, except what the teacher has told them? Does the noble Baroness understand that this is as difficult as assessing the political ability of someone who has read nothing on the subject save a Millbank briefing? Does she further agree that putting this right is the responsibility of government, not of universities?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Oh for a Millbank briefing, my Lords! As always, the noble Earl makes an incredibly important point. By making that slight joke, I would not wish to disparage what he says. I know that my honourable friend Margaret Hodge, who has responsibility for this area, is looking into the matter. Perhaps I may pass on the noble Earl's comments to her with the request that she contacts him directly.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I join with the Minister in commending Oxford on the excellent work that it has carried out in this respect. However, would the noble Baroness like also to commend Cambridge on its bursary scheme, which was actually introduced in 1988 and which will next year provide for students in hardship to receive up to £1,000 provided that they qualify for fee remission from their LEAs? Further, does the Minister share my dismay that universities are now having to spend so much of their money providing for student hardship created by the removal of the maintenance grant by this Government, and by the introduction of university fees?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I commend Cambridge, and other universities, which are accomplishing great work in terms of developing their admission policies and bringing in young people. As the noble Baroness will know, we have a target of 50 per cent as regards getting young people through higher education by the time they reach the age of 30. That is a target that we should all acclaim.

As to student hardship, the noble Baroness will appreciate that we are looking constantly at the balance between the needs of students, families and taxpayers. There is no evidence to suggest that the number of students applying from different backgrounds is falling. However, that does not mean that we are complacent because we are also looking to increase the number of students who apply. We are always looking at the arrangements that we have in place, but we have tried to balance these arrangements.

As the noble Baroness will know, tuition fees are not paid by 50 per cent of students. There are access and hardship funds to the value of £93 million available at present, which is four times the amount available in 1997. For mature students and student parents, we have specific grants, bursaries and new childcare grants, the total of which can amount to as much as £17,425.

Lord Butler of Brockwell

My Lords, in declaring an interest as head of an Oxford college, can I ask the Minister whether she is aware that it is a commonly held but false belief that it is more expensive for a student to attend Oxford—or, indeed, Cambridge—than other universities? Will the Government do their utmost to help both Oxford and Cambridge counter that belief, which may well discourage students from poorer backgrounds applying to those universities?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we should be very happy to counter that belief. However, there is an additional issue; namely, the concern that schools do not perhaps recommend to their students that they might apply to Oxford and Cambridge. We still have many barriers to break down in terms of the assumption that Cambridge and Oxford are only for pupils of certain schools and for certain kinds of students. To me, that seems to be a much more crucial barrier and one that we must consider. We know that some schools simply do not recommend that approach; that students do not aspire to it; and, indeed, that their backgrounds are not such as immediately to lead them to consider either Oxford or Cambridge. We need to do much more in this respect. That is why the outreach work from Oxford, Cambridge and other universities is of vital importance.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that many universities have been innovative in trying to recruit students from social groups which do not normally think in terms of university education? The University of Bradford, for instance—and I declare an interest as its Chancellor—pioneered summer and Saturday morning university places directed largely at ethnic groups within its local community. Does my noble friend also agree that such activities put an additional strain on universities, both financially and in terms of manpower? Will that factor be taken into consideration in the next financial round?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I again pay tribute to Bradford, Nottingham, Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, York and Sussex universities. As noble Lords and I have mentioned, some extremely innovative practices are taking place. I stress that they are not about lowering the requirements of students; they are about looking more broadly at applicants, their abilities and their achievement potential.

As I mentioned to the House on another occasion, research is beginning to suggest to us that the young people who come to university with similar A-levels, but from schools which have traditionally had lower levels of achievement, do better than their counterparts. That is an interesting subject that I know noble Lords will want to hear more about. "Excellence Challenge" is part of our thinking about how to support universities and we will keep the matter under review.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, with reference to the Minister's remarks about access to Oxford, would she not concede that her right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer did great disservice in that regard with his remarks about Laura Spence?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, on the previous occasion I replied by saying that my right honourable friend the Chancellor raised an interesting debate. I stand by that reply.