HL Deb 01 May 2002 vol 634 cc731-72

5.22 p.m.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

rose to call attention to the work of universities in widening participation, as set out in Universities UK's report Social Class and Participation in Higher Education; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in introducing this debate, I want to bring to the attention of the House the wonderful work being done by universities across the UK to widen participation. In doing so, I should declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK. Perhaps I may say how much I appreciate the fact that many noble Lords will be speaking in the debate, many of them with extensive experience of higher education. I look forward to their contributions with anticipation.

In many ways, this debate follows up several of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, raised in his debate last week—in which I was unfortunately unable to speak. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for seeking to give higher education a second bite of the cherry so soon afterwards.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, I want to welcome the words of my right honourable friend the Chancellor in his Budget speech two weeks ago, when he acknowledged the need for investment in higher education. Universities UK hopes that when he announces the results of his spending review in July, he will follow up on his commitment with hard cash.

One specific area in which I know that my right honourable friend takes a keen interest and which is one of the top 10 priorities for the Government in their second term is widening participation. I want to talk today about the vital work done on that by universities. That work is highlighted in Universities UK's recently published report, Social Class and Participation in Higher Education. For both that report and its 1998 predecessor, From Elitism to Inclusion, we are indebted among others to Professor Maggie Woodrow. Professor Woodrow was a tireless campaigner for widening participation until her untimely death in October last year.

What does the report do? It identifies good practice and evaluates the strategies of both the higher education sector and the Government in widening participation. It provides hard evidence on what works best successfully to increase participation among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. By drawing on 23 case studies, such as the partners programme at the University of Newcastle, the report shows how targeted initiatives by individual institutions are contributing to the social inclusion agenda. Nine of those studies are entirely new and some concentrate for the first time on high-demand subject areas such as medicine and the creative arts.

Without exception, every university and higher education college in the UK is working hard to widen participation. We should be proud of their hard work. They have employed not just lone individuals but teams of dedicated staff on that work. It is not done as an afterthought but is a mainstream activity in all institutions.

Perhaps I may spend a few minutes explaining why that is so. For too long, not all those who could benefit from a university education have had the chance to go to university. That has been a tremendous waste of talent. That lack of opportunity has prevented both the individuals concerned from realising their full potential and the nation from tapping into that potential. As one of the academics at the launch of our publication, herself involved in a scheme in inner London, said, our report is, a celebration of unlocking the potential of many people who would not traditionally have accessed higher education". It is illuminating to consider some specific illustrations of what higher education institutions are doing. Nottingham Trent University has developed progression partnerships—a programme that featured in the first report. I am happy to say that its combination of compacts with local schools and support programmes in the Nottingham area has led to a demonstrable increase in recruitment from those same schools.

The Guy's, King's and St Thomas's School of Medicine is working to widen access to medical courses—an area where access for students from less affluent backgrounds has in the past been especially low. The school of medicine has liaised closely with local schools in south London; provided summer courses for new students; developed new course structures; and provided support to students.

That work is not confined to England, although in other parts of the UK responsibility for such activities is now devolved. For example, the Glasgow School of Art is aiming to increase by 10 per cent the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds that it recruits to study art—another area often perceived to be largely a middle class pursuit.

Universities are also working to ensure that the courses that they offer are relevant and exciting to students, which after all is vital if we are to persuade potential students that they have something to gain from university. I urge noble Lords not to underestimate the huge transformation in what employers, the professions and students now make clear that they want from universities. A good example is the degree in surf science and technology at Plymouth University, which is meeting the needs of local business—it enjoys sponsorship from industry to prove it—and produces graduates with knowledge of areas as diverse as oceanic science, materials technology and business studies.

I use that modern example deliberately, because it is precisely such degrees that are criticised and derided because they sound untraditional by those who hanker after some mythical golden past. Yet it is rigorously academically assessed, attracts excellent students and fulfils a real need. There are many similar examples. Noble Lords associated with universities will know from their experience how frustrating are such criticisms.

Perhaps I should return to the report. It makes clear that the goals of widening and of increasing participation are not necessarily one and the same. As the Government have made clear, it is not enough simply to increase the number of students entering higher education. It has been argued that the target could be achieved by attracting more people from the same sort of background as we attract at present. We must also target more people from less affluent backgrounds who have not previously believed that university was the right option—or even an available option—for them.

The report also makes it clear that the existing mechanisms for student support need review, a fact that the Prime Minster rightly recognised in his party conference speech last year. I am glad to say that he acted on the matter by setting up the current review. I hope that the results of that review will be known soon and that it targets support where it is needed—those who are the focus of the case studies in the report.

We all recognise that the key to widening participation lies in motivating and inspiring young people in our schools. That is why so many of our institutions have compact agreements and other close links with schools in their area. For example, the Government's Aimhigher campaign is an excellent initiative. It brings together schools and universities to motivate and inspire young people to think about the benefits of going to university. Our battle is in schools; we must win the hearts and minds of our young people.

It is also important that we do not forget the role of further education colleges. If we are to meet the 50 per cent participation target, the further development of links between universities and further education colleges is vital. It is through such links that many students will find their way through to higher education. People working in both sectors are striving to achieve that.

Your Lordships will have come to expect me to say that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Widening participation costs money. All those efforts are likely to produce at least 30,000 extra students each and every year. The 17,000 extra members of staff needed to teach the extra students must be paid. A report to be published next week by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association will set out in stark terms the costs of staff recruitment and retention in higher education and the cost of not meeting that bill. There is recognition in all quarters that to recruit and retain non-traditional students and transfer them effectively into work or further study means additional costs. Those costs make up a significant part of the total bid for the next three years—almost £10 billion—that we have submitted to the Government in this spending round.

I shall give your Lordships one example of those additional costs. The access premium and the way in which it targets resources are critical to change. We have argued in our submission to the spending review that it should be increased to at least 20 per cent. In fact, the results of a pilot study by Universities UK and HEFCE into the real costs of widening access, which are due to be published soon, show that the extra costs of widening access are about £1,500 per student for the two institutions featured. That is a cost premium for them of roughly 35 per cent, as opposed to the 20 per cent figure identified and recommended in a report last year by the Select Committee on Education and Employment in another place.

Of course, all universities are concerned to ensure that our students, whatever their background, have a high quality experience at university. That requires university teaching to be informed by research, provided by high quality and motivated staff. Students must work in buildings fit for the purpose and use equipment comparable to that found in their eventual workplace. We would not want to encourage more students from less well-off backgrounds to enter higher education only for them to be deprived of a first-class education when they got there.

The Government must invest in all those areas. As our submission to the spending review makes clear, it would be investment for success, not only success in reaching the 50 per cent target by 2010 or in widening participation, but the future success of an increasingly diverse student population. That investment will be worth it. The engagement of the students with the world as socially responsible, economically active and enthusiastic members of society will result in nothing less than the continued success of our civilised, knowledge-based economy.

Everyone is trying to reach out to those who, in the past, have not had a chance to benefit from higher education. Last century, the Swiss psychologist, lean Piaget, said: The principal goal of education is to create people who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done". It is vital that we do not make the mistake of earlier generations and fail to harness the full potential of all those who could benefit from going to university. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, it must be galling for the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, a devoted supporter of the Government, to find that many of the reports produced by her Universities UK do not support her as she might wish. Universities UK has identified a huge funding gap in teaching and research, and the Government have not filled it. The noble Baroness indicated in her concluding words that the document that she has produced today is a menu without prices. She expects a huge amount of money, but I do not expect for one moment that the Government will provide it.

The Government's policy for our universities is a mess. It is riddled with political correctness and hypocrisy, and it is beginning to wreak real damage on our universities. The first mistake was to set the target of 50 per cent participation by 2010. I set a participation rate of 30 per cent in 1990. I chose that figure because, in developed countries, the most effective universities are in countries with a participation rate of about 30 per cent. France is an example of how mass high education can make a mess of things. In that country, there is a participation rate of 58 per cent. That is why so many French students now come to British universities and why few overseas students go to French universities. There are classes of 500 and tutorial groups of 50. Half the students who go to French universities fail their first degree, and there is a huge drop-out rate.

Mass higher education inevitably means massive drop-out rates. It is already happening in the UK. There was a drop-out rate of 41 per cent at the University of North London last year, 33 per cent at Thames Valley and South Bank and 31 per cent at Bolton. Why is it happening? It is too easy to say that it is because students must contribute to the cost of their education. A really committed student will stick to the course. Our clearing system pushes many students who do not get onto the course that they had wanted into undersubscribed courses that they do not want. It is little wonder that so many leave. As the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said in his debate the other day, we need a massive expansion of further education in this country—as the noble Baroness said, it could be linked in some cases to higher education—to produce practical, vocational training. Thus we will avoid the drop-out rate.

The Government's policy is hypocritical. They have decided that more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds should go to our leading universities. I do not object to that as a social objective, rather than an educational objective. I was the first generation of my family to go to university. However, we should recognise what Oxford, Cambridge, University College, Imperial College and the LSE are doing to attract more disadvantaged pupils.

The Government should not ask why top universities do not take more students from disadvantaged backgrounds: they should ask why so many secondary schools fail to produce students with the right qualifications and ambitions who want to go to those universities. Graduates and undergraduates are not created by government decree or by bullying; they are created by the quality of the education that the child experiences from the age of five. That is where the Government so frequently fall down. The universities have not failed. They should not be named and shamed by Margaret Hodge and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Graduates are not made by government decree; they are made by improving the system of secondary education.

Margaret Hodge, Minister for Higher Education, recently said that she wants the top universities to take in students even if they do not have the appropriate qualifications. I am only pleased that Margaret Hodge is not in charge of the selection of the English soccer team! As your Lordships know, the English Soccer team is totally socially unrepresentative of our country. There are no pupils from private schools, grammar schools or city technology colleges in the team. Why should they not be put there in order to give them the opportunity to represent their country and to earn massive sums of money? Fortunately, that will not happen but it is the read-across to another area of activity.

It is ironic that only this week the universities of Manchester, Birmingham and Warwick have opened up a selling office in Seoul, South Korea, in order to attract more overseas students from that country. The Government fully support that policy because there are 17,000 South Korean students at our universities. However, let us think for a moment what that means. Parents from South Korea will be able to buy places for their children at British universities. Those children do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds but from highly privileged backgrounds, fully supported by the Government. Provided that one is not British, if one can afford it one can be asked to pay. Therefore the parents in South Korea are to be given the opportunity denied to parents in Southend, Southport and Southampton. Therein lies the hypocrisy of this Government.

A fundamental review is needed of the funding of universities. I want to see the return of our universities being genuinely independent private institutions with little or no government interference. That means top-up fees and substantial tax breaks to establish scholarship funds. However, I would like to see those return because I would trust the universities to make a better job of running themselves than the Government running them.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that as soon as "5" appears on the clock the time is taken and that there are many speakers on the list.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, this morning at the LSE's open day I spent two hours talking to potential students and came face to face with the sensitivity of this issue. I was asked by a suspicious young man whether it really is true that my department offers A, B, B as its conditional offer. With 20 applications per place, clearly many students did not believe that. We do that because we like to have good students from state schools who may not have been as well taught as the many students from private schools who apply.

I stood there looking at 200 students, many of them from private schools and extremely self-confident. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in saying that many of them were children of the international élite, born elsewhere, and sent at the age of 16 to English public schools to attain the A-levels or international baccalaureate which will get them into British universities. I recognise that we are in a highly competitive world. Indeed, we are operating against the whole bias of a British school system in which middle-class parents invest between £50,000 and £100,000 in their children between the ages of five and 18 in order to get them into good universities. The people who do that are precisely those middle-class Mail and Times readers who are the target voters for new Labour.

I remember that when I was teaching at the University of Oxford The Times published an article on Oxford attempting in its application process to take into account the nature of the school students attended. I remember being almost physically attacked by one of the people living in my street who was paying a great deal of money for his children to attend St Paul's and who thought that the measure was a gross invasion of the investment he was making and that it was being denied by government policy.

Let us recognise that part of the problem of social balance, particularly in our better universities, is that we are trying to swim against a very strong tide. I agree that universities should pursue an active policy of attracting students from disadvantaged groups and I am happy that the London School of Economics does so, among other things. We have Saturday schools and links with special schools and we attempt to look out for bright children from disadvantaged regions as we go through our applications.

My doubts about what the Government have been doing relate to the multiplication of targets and special funding schemes and envelopes which make university funding and management more complex. I remember the vice-chancellor complaining two years ago about receiving an invitation to apply for a competitive scheme to run summer schools with a six-week deadline before it closed and having to ask himself whether it was worth devoting a huge amount of resources to a competition in which half the applicants would fail. That is not sensible. Universities are promoting a range of schemes: summer schools, Saturday schools, links to schools in target areas, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges.

We should also recognise that the suggestion that we may move towards a comprehensive university in which FE colleges and universities may merge—the universities of Bradford and Central England are discussing that at present—should help considerably in breaking down some of the barriers between sixth-form colleges, further education colleges and universities.

However, we must recognise the diversity of universities and the role of local and regional universities which are, as one of the studies indicates, attracting students who are more likely to go to universities if they can stay at home, particularly if they are young Asian women, than if they are asked to travel abroad. I suggest that universities need to be encouraged to develop their own scholarship and bursary schemes. I regret that for so long the Treasury rules limited the ability of universities to award scholarship funds to students from poorer backgrounds if they were not to lose their Treasury-assisted means-tested grants.

I encourage politicians of all parties to remind successful graduates that they have a moral responsibility to contribute to their universities for funds for those who would like to follow. However, there are limits to what universities can do on their own. Time and time again we find ourselves making remedial work for failures of under-funded schools. I note from the Birmingham report that the university recognises that achievement cannot be measured in isolation from environment. It is stated at the beginning of the report that: The raising of aspirations is an important component of widening participation. Years 11 and 12 in school are relatively late". Many of the problems we have of widening access to universities lie in our schools—in our sixth-forms and earlier—and not in our universities.

I saw that clearly in the state school which my children attended in London and I have seen it time and time again in schools in Bradford. The most important issues are the low expectations of young students and poor attitudes to learning. The answers lie in improving access not only in the universities but in the foundations of our state school system as such.

5.47 p.m.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, I congratulate Universities UK on producing the report on which we base the debate. When the committee I chaired on higher education reported in 1997, its first recommendation was to expand higher education, particularly in institutions of further education. We saw that as the core of the matter. Its next five recommendations were about widening participation because we felt it was right socially to do so and because we are aware of the low levels of participation.

I am pleased that much has been done to encourage wider participation, notably by the universities and of course by the Government. However, despite all that effort, I read in a report published by the National Audit Office only a few months ago that, increases in participation by all social classes have left the poorer social classes filling the same share of the student population". We have run hard to stand still.

The primary obstacles to wider participation identified by the National Audit Office are early disengagement with education and an associated lack of entry qualifications; poorer educational opportunities; a lack of confidence that higher education is the right course for the students; and difficulties over financial support. In short, we must surmount the problem by raising achievement and aspirations and overcoming the financial hazard. In that respect, I return to the report of Universities UK in which we see that, Changes in student support have been regressive, and a disincentive to participation". That relates to the decision taken in 1997.

Earlier this year, the Cambridge University Press published an article by Professor Claire Callender of the University of the South Bank on the subject. Again, I shall quote from it because these figures shook me: Between 1989 and 2001, the amount of state subsidy going to a low income student fell by about 35 per cent, but only by 2.5 per cent for a student from a high income family". I commend those figures for consideration and verification by the Government.

One of the strengths of our universities, identified in another report from the National Audit Office, is their low drop-out rates. We must sustain that record. But there is a close correlation between drop-out rates and entry levels of achievement. We cannot solve the problem of widening participation at the expense of diminished preparedness to engage with the cost of drop-out rates of, say, 20 per cent. That is not the answer.

The main answer to the problem lies in raising achievement before the student applies for a university place. I want to make one major point about this. For many years we have traded—I use that word with some anxiety in front of the economists present in the House—on a falling marginal cost curve. The unit-of-resource cost has fallen by 40 per cent. However, that curve is now moving upwards, as one expands production and begins to use resources that are less well prepared; in other words, in the effort to widen participation, we are now taking into higher education those who are less well prepared. There is a cost to be met. The Government must grasp the point that the cost curve is rising and that increased participation cannot be done on the cheap.

I do not wish to undermine the vigour of my remarks by making the hundred other points that could be made on this subject. I rest my case.

5.52 p.m.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, the document from Universities UK tells a powerful and moving story. It made me feel proud to be a university teacher; I have been one all my working life. The report covers an enormous range of institutions, some research orientated and some situated in the inner cities. However, what all those institutions are trying to do is to assess the potential of their students. In my view, that is why the comparison made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, between Margaret Hodge and Sven Goran Ericsson is not particularly sound.

A number of features in the report struck me. First, the idea of access is being built into the corporate approach of all the universities. That idea is as important as the idea of enterprise, which was being built into the culture of universities when I was a vice-chancellor. A positive approach to wider access should be taken up by all vice-chancellors, by members of staff, who should not be afraid of lowering standards and, indeed, by students. It is worth noting that the students themselves can play an important role in encouraging access to, for example, the Oxford Target scheme.

Secondly, the report highlights collaboration between universities and other institutions. In the past our universities were far too isolationist. Now we have examples such as the Medway campus, created by the University of Greenwich and neighbouring institutions. It is a splendid initiative. However, when turning to the position in Wales, the notion that the University of Wales, which facilitates co-operation, should in any way be broken up or defederated strikes me as being totally reactionary.

Thirdly, increased access must be seen as a long-term strategy. My noble friend Lady Warwick pointed out that the work must begin in the schools, such as in the Compact programmes being run in Swansea and Glamorgan, where the aspirations and progress of 13 and 14 year-olds are studied. A prolonged process of special tuition, special monitoring and special counselling has been instituted. However, as other noble Lords have pointed out, there is a problem of retention as people lose their way and their motivation.

A further inevitable consequence is that there will be increasing costs. I hope that the Government will take seriously the call made again by my noble friend Lady Warwick for extra payments. Increased university access is a special need that requires special funding. I know that the University of Glamorgan spends £1 million on premium funding, along with a further £630,000 on widening access. That university has received Special Objective 1 funding from Europe; not all institutions will enjoy that particular benefit.

The report also points out how we should look sympathetically at what the universities are trying to do. Many institutions have to deal with extremely difficult social problems which go far beyond the scope of university life. We read of the London Guildhall University in the City of London, which has introduced a special scheme to increase recruitment among the Bangladeshi, Turkish and Somali communities living in situations of long-term environmental and social decay in that area of London. Many such universities are precisely those suffering from financial difficulties. They are heavily in debt. Indeed, the London Guildhall, even with its outstanding vice-chancellor, will have to cease functioning in its present form and merge with the University of North London. However, one hopes that that move will release extra resources.

Other organisations must respond to what the universities are doing. The Universities UK document indicates that employers have been slow to respond and that the same is true of professional organisations. The buck has to stop with those groups as well; it cannot stop with the universities alone. Of course the Government must help. We have heard about the need for extra funding and the need to address issues on student finance. Funding councils certainly have to change their approach. We are told that we have a diverse university system, but the funding system for higher education tends towards uniformity and thus places a huge burden of debt on the new universities, many of which are making a special and distinguished contribution to wider access.

The last point I wish to make in the time available is simply this: access depends on university staff. It is crucial that they should be encouraged. They should not be treated in the way that other public sector workers have sometimes been treated: chastised by Thatcherites for being unproductive and chastised by New Labour for being elitist, a term which I hope will now disappear into the dustbin of history for all time.

On page 8 the document mentions the Laura Spence affair. That is a gross calumny on my university, the University of Oxford, on Magdalen College and on the medical faculty. There has been no adequate apology at all. The Minister is a distinguished educationalist and I hope that he will acknowledge that this is quite untrue. University lecturers perform a crucial role. Without them, we shall have an under-educated and divided society.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate. I should declare an interest as an academic. I wish to touch briefly on what my own university, the University of Hull, is doing to widen participation—drawing on the points made in the Universities UK report—before addressing the wider implications for higher education of increasing student numbers. In particular I wish to reiterate a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, himself a distinguished graduate of the University of Hull.

My own university has adopted a whole-institution approach in seeking to widen participation. It has involved members from the senior management down. It has established a Learning Partnerships Office to work with partners within and beyond the university. It has developed various programmes and initiatives to raise aspirations. We run summer schools. We lay on ACE days—Aiming for a College Education—bringing over 2,000 local school children on to the campus to address misconceptions about higher education and to encourage continuation in education.

We work with others such as Excellence in Cities to provide the Achievers in Excellence programme for gifted and talented children. A number of departments, including my own, lay on conferences, targeting participation from individuals or schools from Widening Participation postcode areas or with low attainment levels.

The university has also placed an emphasis on student retention and meeting the needs of nontraditional students. Our experience reinforces that of the case studies set out in the Universities UK report. We have found that students from less well-off backgrounds have similar needs to traditional students. However, where those needs differ is in respect of other non-traditional students such as mature students. We have created posts to assist with the needs of part-time students as well as providing flexible learning opportunities. I should add that we are already very successful at retaining students. As the Minister will know, the University of Hull is among the top four universities in terms of student retention.

That is a very brief summary. I relate it in order to establish that the university takes widening participation extremely seriously and is devoting substantial resources to achieving it.

However, the more one widens participation, the greater the burden placed on universities. Over the past few years more students have been admitted while demand for places has decreased. There is consequently a qualitative as well as a quantitative change in the student body. It is not only a question of numbers but also the type of education that is provided. There are significant resource implications. Universities are being asked to do more but without being provided with the resources necessary to maintain standards of excellence. This is clear from the report and from what has been said already in the debate.

However, there is a danger of seeing the problem in isolation. The burden on universities has to be seen in the context of other demands being made of them. I have drawn attention before in your Lordships' House to the growing burden of bureaucracy. Academics are finding that they have less time now to research and to teach. They are drowning under a sea of paperwork. Academics are now over-regulated while, at the same time, being under-valued, under-paid and under-resourced. It is no wonder that morale is at such a low point. There is a problem not only of student retention but of staff retention.

There has to be a fundamental review of student finance. The present method is deterring students from all backgrounds. However, there needs also to be a fundamental review of the relentless growth of regulation and the under-resourcing of universities that is undermining our capacity to deliver a quality education. If more and more students are to receive a good education, of the kind that we have been able to provide in the past, we have to ensure that universities have the capacity to deliver it.

I conclude by putting two important questions to the Minister. First, what does the Minister think should be the basis on which more students are admitted to universities? Should it be the achievement of a certain minimum qualification or should it be on the basis of what benefit the student will derive from higher education? Secondly, what are the Government doing to look holistically at the problems facing our universities? Both, in different ways, are fundamental questions and I look forward to the Minister's response.

6.2 p.m.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Warwick, both for initiating the debate and for the excellent report which got it under way. I begin by declaring an interest: I have, for a number of years, been privileged to serve as Chancellor of the University of Sunderland.

During last Wednesday's debate on education my noble friend Lord Bragg referred to the fact that, universities are now a major driving force in increasing the competitiveness of this country".—[Official Report, 24/4/02; col. 288.] I unequivocally share that sentiment. As I said at the time, we find ourselves operating in a globalised economy in which, if we are to have any chance of remaining competitive, we have to invest in people—that is, the professionals, supported by technology and other expertise, who will help deliver the quality of graduates that we so desperately need.

But as well as investing in people and resources we also need to ensure that we are drawing on all the talents of all the people of this country, whatever their social class, whatever the income of their families, whatever their cultural background. That is one reason why the Universities UK report is such a genuinely important document.

The University of Sunderland has been a pioneer in attempting to widen participation. As such, we enthusiastically endorse and promote the Government's broad ambitions. But we do not delude ourselves of the seriousness of the problems faced by all the universities in this country in seeking to deliver a sustainable widening in participation.

It is not only in this country that the problems are evident; other developed nations face remarkably similar challenges. The commentator, Will Hutton, in his latest book, The World We're In, sets out the situation in the United States. He states: In 1979, a student aged between 18 and 24 from the top quartile of income-earners was four times more likely to obtain a degree than a student from the bottom quartile. Yet by 1994, the latest year for which figures are available, the student from the top quartile was ten times more likely to obtain a degree. Given the trends in inequality, college costs and falling state support, this already disastrous ratio can only have got worse over the last eight years". Surely any self-respecting nation believes that education should be about equality of opportunity, but, in the United States at least, inequality is hardening. There is a real danger that if we do not act, and act soon, the same is likely to happen here.

At the University of Sunderland our opportunity bursaries have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that whenever support for students from poorer backgrounds is available they do come forward. Unsurprisingly, our bursary scheme is heavily oversubscribed and we are faced with a level of expectation that we are unable to support.

The Universities UK report highlights the widely held view that the changes in support for students adopted post-1997, have been regressive, and a disincentive to participation". It is especially depressing that this situation is being felt most keenly by those institutions with wider participation at the very centre of their mission—universities such as Lincoln and Liverpool John Moores.

Moreover, there is increasing evidence that the Excellence in Cities Gifted and Talented Initiative is largely benefiting young people who already have higher education firmly in their sights. Gifted young people from the low HE participation sectors of the UK—many of whom lack family aspiration and adequate support mechanisms—are still, I am sad to say, slipping through the net. This has to change, and we at Sunderland are developing specific proposals to address this.

The report also concludes that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds would not, as had been suggested, prefer to study in some form of flexible mode alongside employment or benefit". Unfortunately, the facts of life for most of our students at Sunderland mean that, whatever their preference, they do find themselves studying and in employment at the same time. More than 60 per cent of our undergraduates are part-time workers. The university recognises that unless changes in the funding system emerge we will have to find the means and stratagems to fit the study and work patterns into which they are forced into an achievable whole.

Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that when financial problems and unfamiliar learning styles combine, it is the students from poorer backgrounds who find it hardest to cope. They face the task of simultaneously earning a living and coping with an ever more challenging curriculum with the very minimum of external support. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, suggested, a lack of grit; but it may well be a lack of self-belief.

Our strategy at Sunderland is to work with schools, colleges and other partners to address the underlying issues which at present result in low participation among disadvantaged families. We do not believe that any lasting change in patterns of participation can possibly occur in isolation.

To sum up, the choice for the nation as a whole is a stark one. Do we try to pretend that having an educated middle-class elite—10 or 20 per cent of the workforce—is somehow an adequate response to the challenges of global competition, or do we face up to the realities of that competition and find and fund new ways to harness the talents and skills of all of our people so that we can be reasonably confident of remaining, in every respect, a significant player on the global stage? There is no question in my mind which course of action is the right one.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and I thank the noble Baroness for initiating it. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who has made a great personal contribution to both standards and innovation in British education. I declare an interest as Chancellor of the University of Greenwich, a new university, albeit one which is housed in historic splendour.

We have achieved very high levels of participation and social inclusion, with a 95 per cent intake from the state sector, with 34 per cent from the three lowest social classes, with more than 25 per cent from those whose ethnicity is other than white, and a substantial and growing group of mature students. The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, was kind enough to refer to our new experiment at the Medway campus as a joint project with the University of Kent. Yet, as a new university in a relatively run-down part of south-east London, we have managed to combine that level of inclusion with a Queen's Award for Research last year and some valuable research specialities.

That experience leads me to ask the Government two questions. First, may we have a commitment that the Government and the department are not heading for a two-class university system in their search for the twin goals of excellence and inclusion?

We need diversity across the unified standards and experience of the British university system—in the expression used in the American Constitution, "E pluribus unum". We certainly do not want a reversion to the dreary British class system from which we all hoped that we were escaping. Yes, that may, and should, mean more state pupils at Oxbridge; but it also means that growth points of special research excellence at non-Russell Group universities should be sustained rather than moving to any sort of teaching-only model.

Perhaps I may quote briefly from one of the conclusions in the report of the Science and Technology Committee on the research assessment exercise that it carried out. In paragraph 51, on page 23 of the report, the committee states: 50% participation is an admirable ambition but not if only 5% get an education of the highest standard … We are supportive of high-quality teaching in a high-quality research environment and find it hard to see how this can be reconciled with the concept of a teaching-only university". My second question to the Government is this. Do they understand that expansion to 50 per cent—particularly if it is combined with greater measures for social inclusion, which as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has pointed out, does not necessarily go with a 50 per cent expansion, and hitherto has not—means, first, a long developmental process, possibly lasting five or six years; working with schools or colleges of further education to identify talent and develop it? Secondly, it means building motivation to apply to the universities, remembering that those from the poorest socio-economic groups are far more reluctant to get into debt—they have less experience of mortgages and less realisation of the potential lifetime benefits of a university education to sustain them in taking what is a very difficult personal decision. Thirdly—carrying on with the development of a mental model—it means nurturing performance at university and, fourthly, providing sustaining help and encouragement. Unless those factors are present in a sustained way over a period of years, we see the results in deplorable levels of retention of students. We have far too high a dropout rate, as other speakers have said.

To provide that kind of intensive, sustaining developmental model to promising students is very expensive—which brings me to my final point. I hope that the department and HEFC understand that there is now a significant double bind on the newer universities. The dulcet voice of Jacob speaks of participation and excellence, and the hairy hands of HEFC are squeezing us until the pips squeak., for one, have expressed the hope—and I should like to hear this from the Minister when he replies—that some of the extra funds devoted, thank goodness, to education in the Chancellor's Budget will end up allowing newer universities to achieve both those admirable aims.

6.13 p.m.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, on introducing the debate, on initiating an excellent report and on being such an effective champion of universities. I look forward to the Minister's reply to the points that she raised.

I declare an interest. I am sorry that, after hearing speeches from two university chancellors, I cannot claim to be a third. However, I declare an interest as a member of the council of the University of Sussex (a more modest occupation) but also as the director of an educational charity which works with schools throughout the UK to raise achievement. It is from those joint perspectives that I express my views on the issues raised in the report. I see matters from two vantage points. I see the difficulty of keeping students in education in the first place; and then the difficulties for the university in persuading them to take the next step.

It is important to contextualise the debate snore widely. The Times Higher Education Supplement recently reported that there are presently 10,000 empty places in 50 universities across the UK. Many are in areas where there are already critical skills shortages. At the same time, the NFER which is sponsored by the Sutton Trust and has done a great deal of pioneering work, has proved that 20,000 bright sixth formers are lost each year to university, principally because they are worried about funding. I do not want to make a simplistic link between the two matters, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for a wider debate in this House on the links between effective education, which is at the heart of the debate, skills, and the needs of a knowledge-based economy.

Many of the case studies in the Universities UK report indicate that those links are being effectively made, and I have seen at first hand what it can mean. I have, for example, visited Youth Culture TV, which takes students who know about television and who are passionate about it. It gives them the opportunity to build skills. It passports them into further and higher education, and they collect a career for life. It is extremely effective. It creates opportunities which those students want and on which they can follow through. That capacity for motivation must be at the heart of success.

If we are to address the fundamental points, we must recognise the scale of the problem. Going to university is simply not on the radar for many thousands of young people in our country. Recently, the University of the South Bank invited 120 nine year-olds to visit the university. When the vice-chancellor asked them whether any of them had ever been in a university before, not a single hand went up. I am sure that that is not a unique example.

The challenge is: how can we close the credibility and information gap? Providing living proof can work well. One Newcastle school in a very challenging area recently hit on the idea of inviting its first university student back to present prizes on speech day. It was living proof that students like him were capable of enjoying and getting on at university.

It must be said, however, that many young people have proof of a different kind. It is exceptionally difficult to motivate young men in particular, when all they know about higher education is that it leaves people in debt and without a firm guarantee of a job.

We must face some harsh facts. The average debt of £10,000 is more than many single parents earn in a year. The pressure on 16 to 18 year-olds to get out and earn is intense. Many of them have the experience of earning during their time in school. It is not something that they can or will give up. NUT research indicates that applications from mature students are down by 15 per cent, and from black and Afro-Caribbean students by 4 per cent. Although help with funding is available, I invite noble Lords to look at Table 16 in the National Audit Office report, which indicates that there are 11 different mandatory funds, five different social security benefits—one of which (and this is good news) will soon be out of date)—and six discretionary funds.

I warmly welcome all the Government's initiatives to motivate and enthuse students in regard to higher education. I share the reservations expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in relation to the Excellence Challenge and its powers to self-select; nevertheless, we are making a brave start. However, the challenge is to find all the missing students, and to make sure that they share the wealth of higher education.

The report drives home three important lessons to government. First, we must have a decision on student funding, and quickly, because it is casting a blight over student applications to universities, which is causing severe problems. We need a decision, and I hope that it will be in favour of some form of maintenance grant. Secondly, universities must act on the advice of the UK report to make what they are doing part of their whole mission and extend the partnership with schools beyond where it is at present. Thirdly, that means starting not with sixth formers but with children in primary school, when those children are at their most impressionable and when their families are most involved.

6.18 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and to your Lordships for missing the early part of her speech. She knows that I was earlier at a meeting—ironically at the University of London. She and I were sparring partners in the mid-1980s, when she was at the AUT and I was at the DES. She educated me then, and she has continued my education today. Because I left the DES as long ago as 1985, I am today essentially a traveller from an antique land—my only tangential contacts in the interim being with higher education institutions in my former constituency, some of which were generously misguided enough to give me honorary awards. I am also deputy chairman of the University of London council.

I find the document which underlies this debate more a collage or a quarry than a template or a manual, but I concur that the conclusions which harness all this creative energy are comprehensive. I find the distinction therein between widening and increasing participation a little academic, except in one regard, which in due course will reinforce my final conclusion.

However, the reference to social class in the title is central. Just as the social bias in the demography towards middle classes provided a booster rocket to the forecasts of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking in 1988 and the explosion in participation between then and 1994, the opposite social bias in the immediate future demography after eight years of comparative standstill in student demand also offers an opportunity, however imprecisely predictable, for reasons fully documented in the Universities UK publication.

I am not here to dance on the grave of government forecasting of student demand. If it is errant, we gain, paradoxically, from studying why student demand forecasts go wrong. Overall, one is conscious when looking at future student demand of how many variables there are. Today, the literature about post-16 education raises the potential possible consequences from the Curriculum 2000, and this year's consultation on the 14 to 19 age group introduces further variables. Although I described working class demand as imprecisely predictable, 100,000 student places could flow from successful widening of participation. In the world of the contingent and the conditional, one is reminded of the adage of one's childhood that we could have ham and eggs if we had some ham and we had some eggs.

My concern is that, as we debated last week, the larger university scene has problems enough to deal with, including finance. It is important that those are solved. I am in favour of widening access for all sorts of reasons, both practical and humane, but I do not want the larger problems to be complicated by diversion through the wider access issue, where there are also separate problems enough. While the problems of personal student finance are true, as other noble Lords have said, especially in a part of the community that is traditionally anxious about debt, there is the separate issue that the less well off tend to want—for reasons that perhaps need further research—to work close to home. The provision of relevant courses to meet that need locally may involve institutions in costs on top of those that extra access activity already imposes. Though I appreciate the funding council interest, which has come out in the past three or four years, I hope that the funding of this special area of wider access can be through new and additional government money.

I would not want that separatism to be treated as patronising or representing discontinuity with our educational history or tradition. I began with a phrase from Ozymandias. RAB Butler, the first of four members of the National Union of Students executive in 80 years to serve in the Cabinet—in his case often—was an exact school contemporary of my late father, who once heard RAB inadvertently amend the final line of Ozymandias, Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! so that it closed instead with the words "and beware". RAB's spirit would not have regarded wider access as a threat to an older tradition.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, at the London School of Economics, I am glad to be a member of the committee specifically dealing with access. This has enabled me to see at first hand the excitement of the Saturday schools and the rest. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Warwick, to whom we are all grateful for this debate, was right to pay a warm tribute to the staff and students who make such work possible and to the commitment and spirit of those participating from school.

As my noble friend rightly stressed, access matters because education is an indispensable investment in our future economic and social strength, in our freedom and democracy—if we take seriously its interdisciplinary and qualitative dimensions and not just its quantitative dimensions—in social inclusiveness and social cohesion and, perhaps most importantly of all, in people as individuals. We must avoid debasing it by a utilitarian approach alone. It has precious inherent value as an end in itself, enabling people to live more fully and creatively and to be what they are capable of being.

For all those reasons, the Government are right in their commitment to access. However, some key issues need to be addressed. My noble friend was unanswerably correct in stressing that if the Government will the ends, they must ensure the means. Access costs money. Whenever I look at the issue, I am struck by the fact that unit costs per student rise rather than fall. It costs more to bring in the students at the fringe than those with already developed academic talent. Support once the students are within the system also costs money. If that support is not provided, there is a danger that we could reinforce a sense of failure by a cynical absence of the necessary resources.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, rightly referred to the pressures on academics. We all understand those pressures and the consequences that they may play safe in their admissions policy, but we must keep the emphasis on potential and not just on proven record. That brings us to the issue of excellence, as measured against the challenges of breadth of intake. Of course there is a need for a range of institutions. The former polytechnics have an important part to play, but it would be ill advised to throw the whole burden of extension on to them. We have to beware of social divisiveness. Our biggest challenges in the century ahead are those of social solidarity and cohesion. That is why I believe that the more prestigious institutions, anxious to open up beyond public schools alone, could be in danger of ending up exchanging one set of middle class students for another. They must look not just at their intake from state schools, but at their intake from nonselective schools and, most importantly, from inner city schools, which face so many demands.

Social mix can enhance the quality of education. It can bring maturity, wisdom and experience to balance cleverness. In turn, that can contribute powerfully to the social cohesion that we all seek. At the LSE, if we have learnt anything it is that there is a key part to be played by younger academics and students, to whom those at school can more easily relate. We have also learnt that we cannot start that process of stimulating interest too young. As has already been said, in too many parts of Britain there is no sense of the relevance of university to life. That has to be tackled at a young age.

I conclude with one observation that will not surprise your Lordships. Everything that we have been saying about access in the domestic context applies to overseas students as well. In our overseas student policies we must be committed to educating not just the wealthy from abroad, but those with potential.

6.28 p.m.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for initiating this debate. Universities UK's wide-ranging report clearly shows where higher education institutions have increased participation among underrepresented groups and demonstrates how targeted initiatives are contributing to social inclusion. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that more needs to be done earlier, at school level.

As chancellor of De Montfort University, I can say that my university is passionately committed to widening participation and we have considerable experience in doing so. We estimate that 35 per cent of our undergraduate student population is drawn from under-represented groups. De Montfort University consistently performs significantly above its national benchmark for widening participation—a benchmark that also encompasses mature students and students with disabilities. Our approach is a combination of providing targeted specialist support for such students and exploring innovative ways of widening access.

As your Lordships are well aware, students from under-represented groups are often ill prepared not only for university education, but for university life. They may have been disadvantaged earlier in the school system or may come from families and communities that have had little experience of higher education. Without personal and professional support to make the adjustment to university life and to instil confidence in their own potential, they are far more likely to drop out of their university studies, often perpetuating their perceptions of themselves as academic failures.

The services and support which De Montfort University aims to provide include trained financial advisers to help students manage their finances, cope practically and personally with debt and access hardship funds and bursaries; analysis of key skills before or immediately upon starting a university course to identify at an early stage what additional academic support students may need; a dedicated maths learning centre to enable students to reach basic levels of numeracy; and English language support for students who may not speak English as their first language.

We are also exploring innovative ways of broadening opportunities and access for students and reaching out directly into under-represented communities. The university has been recognised and praised by the Higher Education Funding Council for having established strategic partnerships with a network of further and higher education colleges across the region, bringing access opportunities and the experience of a university education to students who may need to study close to their home.

We are working in partnership with local schools and colleges directly to reach pupils aged 13 to 17 and inspire and persuade them to enter higher education, to recognise their skills and achievements, and to work with them to tackle areas where they need more support. In addition, we are actively working with a range of primary schools using undergraduate mentors to raise aspirations early in pupils' educational life. We are also committed to expanding opportunities for foundation degrees or part-time study, which are highly attractive to students from under-represented groups with lesser academic achievements or who may need to remain in full-time employment.

As noble Lords have heard, however, this additional support and outreach comes at a price. The postcode premium of 1000 per cent additional funding allocated to universities shows some recognition of this, but it does not reflect anything like the true cost of providing the necessary support, which is closer to a resource requirement of 20 to 25 per cent. Funding authorities must recognise that fact.

I should like to make two further observations. First, the Government have often faced criticism from those who say that widening participation will lead to decline in standards and in quality of higher education. I absolutely refute that view. On the contrary, I think that widening participation can contribute to enhancement of quality. The absence of formal or traditional entry qualifications does not mean that students lack talent or potential, but it does mean that we have to devote more time and resources to identifying and supporting such students. As a society we have a moral, ethical and economic obligation to provide talented people who for whatever reason have been disadvantaged and have not had opportunities to realise their full potential.

Secondly, talented students who can benefit from higher education deserve the best that higher education can offer, and that includes the chance to be exposed to research and academic scholarship that is at the cutting edge. Therefore, the argument for supporting only a few universities in research would, in my view, perpetuate disadvantage. De Montfort University is by far the leading new university in research, as our performance in the 2001 research assessment exercise demonstrated. Our students, regardless of their background, benefit from our research success, which informs the academic curriculum and inspires students to pursue postgraduate study. Supporting very few universities in research would defeat the objective of widening participation and maintaining standards and quality.

Widening participation is not just about meeting admission targets; it is about supporting those from underrepresented groups to stay in higher education and to receive the best possible education. Efforts by the higher education sector have to be matched by necessary financial support from the funding authorities. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

6.34 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, a waste of talent is not always a bad thing. Most Members of this place, for example, have the talent to become lawyers and accountants. We should be grateful that so many of them have wasted it.

When discussing increasing university participation to 50 per cent, which is a thoroughly good idea, we should think about broadening universities' offerings and the way in which they work with further education. It is no good trying to cram another 15 per cent of the population into the current courses. Although those courses may suit some of those undertaking them, others start them only because that is all that is on offer. Our higher education system has to offer courses that usefully demand the attention of half our population for three years. That is where we should be focusing attention.

I have been delighted by the descriptions of what universities are doing today. Nevertheless, I believe that the Government should be focusing, not on pushing 50 per cent of pupils into higher education, but on providing suitable higher education opportunities for 50 per cent of people. Real action could be taken to make that happen.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, clearly explained, the information available to students considering university courses can be very inadequate. Students considering a geography course at Durham, for example, would like to know what former students are doing five years after completing the course and their own employment prospects. Students considering a more career-orientated course at an FE college would be told that information. They would also know what happened to students who had completed their study in the previous 15 or so years. They would have spoken to former students about the value of the course because it is the former students who help to recruit new ones. The providers of more general education do not provide such information, and the poor information that they do provide does not justify giving up three years of one's productive life or putting oneself £10,000 into debt. That is a great deal to ask of people, particularly those not from a rich and supportive family. People have to be confident that they can build a prosperous future on that type of educational base.

I am saddened by the attitude that some universities have taken to AS-levels and the key skills. Oxford and Cambridge dismissed them as if they did not exist. They seemed to say, "It doesn't matter what you do in your AS-levels; we pay no attention to them. We only want your final A-level grades. And key skills do not matter." Even those universities need to look beyond A-levels. It will always be possible for private schools to teach to a higher level than state schools. If universities remain narrowly focused on A-levels, they will find it very difficult to recruit the best students.

Elite universities also have to consider their prerequisites for new students. People wishing to study architecture, for example, must show a previous interest in architecture. But what are the opportunities for people from inner cities to show such an interest? The universities are excluding people from the start. I am delighted that the medical schools are finally realising that one consequence of their triple-A requirement has been to restrict most of their intake to students from the private system. Consequently, they have been overly restricting opportunities. They have to examine each course individually to see how the situation can be improved.

There is a great opportunity to get the situation right, but we have to progress gradually and use all the good will and talent that exist in the university system. Above all, we have to widen opportunities for students to reach higher education through further education. One problem is that some students from the state system are insufficiently educated to get on to the first rung of the ladder of better courses. Universities need to build partnerships with further education. They have to say to students, "Take a year out, go to this FE college and do this course. If you get the qualification, you can join us." Many art programmes require students to take a foundation course before joining. We should be promoting that sort of partnership and flexibility to bring people in from the underrepresented areas and social classes rather than trying to impose a strait-jacket on universities by telling them to take in under-qualified pupils from under-performing state schools.

6.40 p.m.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, I declare an interest as an almost brand new Chancellor of the University of Glamorgan following the distinguished service of the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees. I have no expertise in the delivery of education but being a Minister responsible for education was part of my portfolio as the Welsh Secretary for five years. Having represented for over 40 years an industrial constituency with more than its share of deprivation, I know something of its problems.

I have found that an important marker of deprivation is the number of children on free school meals. I note that 62 per cent of the children in Peckham are in families dependent on benefits. The family itself is rapidly changing. It is reported today that 47.2 per cent of children in Wales are born to unmarried mothers. That is a challenge to society. We must respond to the need of such families for resources and practical encouragement from the school up. My attitude to education is simple: we cannot afford not to train and retrain and ensure that no one is deprived of training for lack of resources. We cannot afford to see our global competitors doing more. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, indicated that.

Three differing studies have caught my eye. The first, not unnaturally, concerned Glamorgan, The report states, that Glamorgan's scheme has made more progress than any of the original case studies. Widening participation seems to be something that Glamorgan enjoys doing". At my installation I claimed that Glamorgan was an institution which admits more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than any other UK university.

The second study concerns the University of Wales colleges at Aberystwyth, at which the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, used to preside as vice-chancellor, and Lampeter. They are both in Ceredigion which is part of the title I am proud to bear, where I was born, where I live and where I took my first degree. Aberystwyth believes that the use of postcode funding is not sufficiently sensitive to disadvantage and in particular does not recognise rural disadvantage. While 50 per cent of students come from lower income backgrounds only 8 per cent qualify under the postcoding formula for premium funding. I should like the Minister to respond to that point.

The third quite different study concerns the Guy's, King's and St Thomas' School of Medicine, where, as we all know, there are areas of considerable deprivation. The study reported the comment, No one from Peckham will ever become a doctor". The overall aim is to expand entry to the medical profession on the part of students from disadvantaged local communities. At the same time, the Dean of Medicine, Professor Gwyn Williams, declares, When I die it will be inscribed in my heart that this is not dumbing down medicine". Their worry—I believe that we heard it from the noble Lord, Lord Norton—is finding the time, energy and resources to do that. It comes down to funding again. The Government must put their money where their mouth is. There must be no dumbing down generally. Our communities need excellence which is accessible and relevant to their needs.

I say in passing that I see no merit in the Government juggling the allocation of student places at some of our most prestigious institutions by what might be perceived as financial blackmail. The medical school has recognised that it is both in its own and the community's interest to attract the best. Admission tutors, after all, come from a whole range of schools. The answer lies in the expansion of places, as the medical school proposes, and at the same time giving practical encouragement to many more schools and students to raise standards and to aim high where there is that potential. That, I believe, is the heart of the problem—the preparation by schools.

Finally, I am seriously uneasy about students entering the working world with debts of more than £10,000, on average, as we have heard, or £30,000 in the case of medical students. The same dean said: The background I come from, which is South Wales, you did not go to university to get into debt". That is also my background. The report acknowledges that student finance is one of the barriers to access. Wales and Scotland are acting differently, the price—or, is it the reward?—of devolution. It would be tragic if the Government in Whitehall did not move forward when the conclusions of the review are available. More importantly, we look forward to the Government's response.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, like other noble Lords I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, for introducing this important debate. I congratulate her on the way in which she did so.

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for briefly raising the issue of academic freedom. The quality of experience of undergraduate and postgraduate students and staff is critical if universities are to recruit and retain high quality students and staff. Some of your Lordships will know that in the Export Control Bill academic freedom is under threat.

Two weeks ago, on behalf of Universities UK, formerly known as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and the Association of University Teachers, which represents 45,000 academic and academic related staff, I moved an amendment to the Export Control Bill. Without that amendment the Government would have had the power to control co-operation between academics as well as the ability of academics to research and publish their work without first obtaining a licence, and foreign students would have had to work under licensed conditions. I am not sure whether noble Lords are aware that 75 per cent of the research students who come to our universities are from abroad.

That was a matter of great concern to a wide branch of academia and caused high concern to the whole of the scientific establishment. During the course of the debate on the amendment I suggested that, the Government's proposed provisions…are totally inappropriate in a country where universities have been centres of learning, research and discovery for over 900 years".—[Official Report, 18/4/02; col. 1109.] I further suggested that not only would that inhibit foreign students from coming to our universities but it could also result in undergraduates preferring to study elsewhere and graduates and researchers also choosing to do their work elsewhere. Fortunately, your Lordships agreed with both myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, who added her name to the amendment. Your Lordships' House passed the amendment with a substantial majority. I ask the Minister to use his influence with the Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry to accept our amendments when they arrive in the other place. It is not enough for our universities to attract students and postgraduates from all parts of the country and of the world. It is important that when they are here they should be free to conduct their work and their studies unhampered.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, it has been a privilege to listen to the debate and particularly the opening speech of my noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe.

I come at this issue from two different directions but I hope with the same conclusion. I am a member of the Court of the University of Luton and I am also chairman of the appeal of Worcester College, Oxford. Luton is one of our newest universities and is about to celebrate its 10th birthday. It has one of the most diverse student populations in the country with 30 per cent coming from ethnic minority groups and 45 per cent over the age of 24. The local government wards which provide high levels of enrolment at the university have high levels of social deprivation. The university does a remarkable job in providing educational opportunities for people who a few years ago would have been ignored and forgotten by the system. It is rewarded with the satisfaction of achieving very high levels of graduate employment. Luton is among the top 10 universities in the UK for seeing its graduates get jobs.

The University of Oxford is also successful at seeing its alumni get employment as the number of Oxford graduates who are Members of your Lordships' House testifies. Last July I asked a Starred Question about removing financial barriers which deterred bright students from applying for a place at Oxford. I did so in the aftermath of the Laura Spence affair to which my noble friend Lord Morgan referred. In her Answer, my noble friend Lady Ashton said: 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".—[Official Report, 2417/01; col. 1840.] Oxford and Cambridge hold regional "Oxbridge" conferences, inviting teachers and pupils to well-known sporting centres of excellence to take part in subject seminars, to meet current undergraduates and to learn about the admissions process. They have been to the football grounds of Manchester United and Newcastle United, to Wembley—when it was there—and to Murrayfield in Edinburgh. They have held regional conferences in Newcastle, Manchester, Cheltenham and Sandown this year which were attended by more than 8,000 pupils.

In that context, I should mention in particular the tutor for admissions at Magdalen College, Oxford—Andrew Hobson. That college was at the centre of the Laura Spence affair. Mr Hobson is a Geordie and a Newcastle United fan. After the storm over the non-admission of that student, he went back home, put on a Newcastle United shirt and was photographed in it, wrote a full-page article in the Newcastle Journal and urged youngsters to apply to Magdalen, pointing out that the college's colours were the same as Newcastle United's—black and white. The result was a 50 per cent increase in applications in 2001, compared with the year before. Very many applicants came from state schools, which had never sent anyone to the college before.

In a letter to me, Mr Hobson points out that, the Laura Spence year of medical students have just had their part one examination results, and Magdalen took the top two spots in the university". He added: Perhaps our judgment was not so bad in hindsight". On the question of academic excellence and widening participation, I agree wholeheartedly with the view of the Vice-Chancellor, Colin Lucas, who said in his 2000 oration: The improvement of access is in our own interest because it is in our interest to recruit as students the most talented young people we can find, in espective of social or school background, ethnicity or gender. We should be clear about how and why we select students; if we can improve our methods of differentiating between many talented candidates for few places and add new methods, then we should do so. What we cannot do is to abandon our independence of judgement and the methods which, after mature inspection, we know serve to secure its validity. We cannot compromise on quality at admissions". He added—I am afraid that I agree with him in this regard, too—that academics, not Ministers, should make academic judgments about which students should be admitted.

Had we more time—we are very pressed for time — I would also like to refer in detail to the subject that my noble friend Lady Andrews mentioned; that is, the question of debt. The prospect of leaving university with an overdraft of as much as £10,000 is undoubtedly deterring many people from poorer families from even applying.

However, those are subjects for another day's debate. Meanwhile, I look forward to my noble friend's reply, which I hope will be as supportive as was my noble friend Lady Ashton of the efforts by Oxford and Cambridge to widen access without jeopardising academic excellence.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Vincent of Coleshill

My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for initiating this timely and relevant debate. In doing so, I should also declare an interest in my capacity as Chancellor of Cranfield University and as the Chairman of Governors of Imperial College, London.

I point out that both Cranfield University and Imperial College are concerned with high-quality teaching and research in science, technology and medicine, with the emphasis on their application to practical and useful purposes in an increasingly competitive international environment. I make clear their strong interest in providing opportunities for those from a broader range of social groups to benefit from a university education. But to achieve that effectively, as many noble Lords have emphasised, will call for significant action from the Government as well as the universities themselves. For example, interestingly, although this country appears from a recent HEFC report to have a similar social profile in its universities to that in most other nations in Europe, we have much smaller numbers staying on at secondary school or college among those aged between 16 and 18 in order to prepare adequately for a university education. That problem is particularly acute in subjects such as mathematics and the sciences, which are essential foundations for those studying science, engineering or medicine at university.

To that end—this is just an example—-our secondary schools need to recruit about 800 qualified physics teachers each year if they are to prepare adequate numbers of and give opportunities to students in those secondary schools to read science, engineering or medical degrees at university. However, I understand that against that requirement of 800 physics teachers each year, last year only some 80 initial applications were received. The implication of that speaks for itself.

Imperial College is seeking to close that gap by offering volunteer graduates in the relevant subjects to help local state secondary schools. We will be announcing next month a new funded initiative in that respect. But, fundamentally, those problems can be addressed comprehensively only in the state secondary schools themselves with appropriate support from government. While we offer the usual range of student accommodation at Imperial College, the much higher cost of living in London makes further heavy inroads into students' hard-pressed financial resources. Again, unless something more significant can be done about that by Her Majesty's Government in order to support the additional costs of widening access to higher education—that has already been recommended by the Select Committee on Education and Skills—I fear that that will act as a further serious disincentive to broadening access in many cases.

In essence, the initiative to widen access to higher education is strongly supported in those universities with which I am associated. But the long-term foundations that are required to achieve it effectively need to be addressed by the Government as a matter of priority. If we do not do that, we will see at Imperial College, for example, more places on our science, engineering and medical degree courses being filled by very able and committed students from overseas who pay the full commercial fees for such education and, incidentally, achieve some of the best academic results. As welcome as our overseas students are, that outcome really cannot be in the long-term social and economic interests of this country.

6.58 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, while listening to this debate, it has been interesting to reflect that in Scotland, where there is a tradition of a higher proportion of the population than elsewhere in the United Kingdom entering higher education, the least well off at the present time are no more likely to enter higher education than they are elsewhere in Britain.

The Scottish Executive boasts that it has solved the problems for Scots by abolishing student fees. In fact, fees are simply postponed until a student begins to earn. For too many in Scotland, as elsewhere, the real problem is the cost of student maintenance. The Government's decision, so soon after they were elected, not to implement the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, is by far the biggest hurdle in the way of widening access today.

But, as is the case south of the Border, the Scottish universities are making a huge effort to widen access. I take as examples two universities with which I am familiar—the Open University and St Andrews. I declare a small interest as having an honorary degree at each.

The Open University is particularly strong in Scotland. Increasingly, it uses its own resources or combines them with those of others locally based to help unlikely people into higher education. A report on Scottish universities, Include Me, describes how that arrangement has worked for individuals. They include a young man in a low-paid job on the small Hebridean island of Muck; a 50 year-old worker at a nursery in Aberdeen; and a full-time mother and unpaid carer over 30 years in rural Perthshire. All are now studying for Open University degrees. One was assisted by the OU's fee-waiver scheme; the others arrived by way of local access courses funded by their local authorities.

This year, the Open University in Scotland has added a residential weekend at no charge for 40 participants aged 18 and over with few school qualifications. The places— allocated on a first-come, first-served basis—attracted enormous attention and the course was hugely oversubscribed.

At the other end of the spectrum, St Andrews is a small, ancient, rural-based university that is high in the quality research league and determined not to lower its standards and reputation one iota. St Andrews has few student recruitment problems, yet it goes to great lengths to widen access. It has an annual four-week summer school offering confidence-building practice in how to cope with the skills of academic study; write notes; revise; cope with exams; and use a library. The university's admission tutors pledge to take summer school performance into account when considering degree course admissions. The Royal Bank of Scotland assists with student support and offers bursaries—as does the university—for degree courses.

This year, St Andrews will run the first Sutton Trust-funded summer school in Scotland for 60 pupils from families and schools where higher education is not the norm. The trust is giving a three-year grant of £90,000. Every academic group in the university will take part. St Andrews also has a part-time evening degree programme with no specific entry requirements. At present, 80 students are studying a wide range of subjects and, as with the Open University, enthusiasm and the willing commitment of spare time are producing achievements well up to the university's high standards.

Those are but a few examples of the huge effort being made across Scotland. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a Scots Member of Parliament. He seems worried about access for Scottish students. I suspect that the Chancellor exaggerates but whatever the findings of the current review, I hope that he and his Scottish Executive colleagues will sort out student funding—above all, student maintenance.

7.3 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I feel somewhat hesitant in view of the number of university chancellors who have declared their interests because I was a plain, common or garden teacher at the University of Sussex for some time and remain a visiting fellow.

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for introducing this debate and to Universities UK for its excellent report on good practice in raising participation rates. That is a tribute also to the universities' flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit. The research assessment exercise set them a challenge and they rose to it. The sad part is that the Government have not woken up to the fact that universities have achieved so much.

In the early and mid-1990s, the great thing was for universities to make their research more relevant to industrial needs. If we look around now, we can see that they have done so splendidly. Universities have risen to the challenge by finding positive ways of opening their doors to students from lower social classes.

It has always been a mystery to these Benches that the Government fell into a paradox. Why did they increase tuition fees and switch from grants to loans at a time when they wanted to increase participation by entrants from the lower social classes? As Claire Callender's figures show, the problems so created hit precisely the students whom the Government wanted to attract to university. Claire Callender demonstrated that for the lower social classes, the increased cost of entering university since the switchover in 1997 has been 35 per cent; whereas for students from the upper social classes it has been only 2.5 per cent.

Liberal Democrats do not believe that tuition fees should have been introduced. We say that education should be free at the point of access up to level 4. We go along with the Cubie proposals and the notion that students should pay something back, which was the concept behind endowments. Under those proposals, endowments would be used to finance a return to residential grants for lower-income students. It is much better that those who benefit should pay—but after graduation rather than before. We would like a mechanism for pouring back some money from graduates into means-tested grants.

How realistic is the Government's 50 per cent target? We feel that that useful round figure was plucked from the air—and that the Government had no idea how to achieve it but offered ex post justification. There is no shortage of graduates but there is a shortage of students with level 2—five A to C grade GCSEs—and level 3 qualifications. We place emphasis not on achieving the Government's nominal 50 per cent target but increasing the number of students with level 2 and 3. That is where the key skills gap is to be found—together with the productivity problem that the Chancellor identified time and time again in his Budget. We need to think hard about helping such students to gain level 2 and 3 vocational qualifications.

Students do not stay on at school largely because they are bored. They fail to see the relevance of the often over-academic A-level curriculum that is the route to university. Students want something more practical and hands-on. One can catch such students if one can devise something that they view as relevant. I may not like the noises that come out of the Guildford Academy for Contemporary Music but its students include school dropouts who are working hard. The academy links practical and academic studies.

Further education colleges provide a number of A-level study opportunities, particularly for students who are less academic. There has to be a climbing frame of qualification. We must introduce a parity of esteem between the vocational qualification and the academic qualification.

As for the idea of a Master of Arts, I should explain that, like the master craftsman, this would be someone who went through the process and then taught others. There is no reason why the plumbers who are training at our local further education colleges should not have some sort of progression structure whereby those who ultimately teach plumbers should become master craftsman and be recognised as having the equivalent of a Master of Arts, or a master's, degree. We desperately need to see that possibility coming through—the concept of the climbing frame of qualifications—rather than just an apex with the academic qualifications at the top.

That brings me to a further issue which has not so far been mentioned in the debate despite the fact that it is probably one of the key issues in widening participation. I have in mind the role of part-time students. I am delighted that so many speakers have taken part in the debate, as distinct from last week when we debated the resources for education. On this occasion, we have heard much more about the 1992 universities. I take my hat off to what those universities have accomplished, and to the degree to which they are actually pulling in students by stimulating their interest. But no speaker has spoken about the difficulty of attracting part-time students. Indeed, if anything, the financing arrangements have put off such students.

It seems absurd that those who study part-time usually have to pay full fees. We are therefore making it more difficult for those who want to sign up to the Open University to do so, despite the fact that it is the cheapest and most efficient way to gain a degree in this country. All this applies to someone who wishes to study part-time. For example, the childcare arrangements available to those who study full-time at universities like Greenwich are not available to part-time students. Indeed, there are a whole range of these arrangements, which are extremely complex. By and large, if one looks through the detail, it appears that part-time students are excluded.

I am not honestly sure that we have the right vision here. We tend to visualise campus universities bringing in more students. We are living in very exciting times in terms of higher education: what we are actually seeing is a merging of further and higher education. There are now more students studying for higher education degrees, or studying for degrees at further education colleges, than there were in total at the time of the publication of the Robbins report. Further education is already playing an extremely important part in the higher education field.

We are also seeing a merging of full-time and part-time students. Twenty-five per cent of our students who are studying full-time are working over 20 hours a week to earn money, yet we class them as "full-time" students. Those who are honest and declare that they are working are classed as "full-time" students, and are consequently discriminated against. That is absurd. We must sort out this problem. We must introduce some equivalence.

We are also seeing a merging of distance and campus-based education. Universities are increasingly using distance learning courses. They are buying modules from the Open University and using them as part of their own courses. That is inevitable. Anyone who has visited America will know that there are more students studying of an evening in American universities than there are during the day. I am talking about the mixing and matching of distance and campus learning and of full-time and part-time learning, as well as the prospect of students being able to take some courses at their local further education colleges and some at university. It is a question of opening the doors to knowledge, and bringing in people by constantly saying, "Come a little further", and so on. That is the kind of world that we must try to create in terms of higher education: it is one of continuing education, of lifelong learning. We must think in those terms and not in terms of cloistered cells.

7.14 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for initiating this debate. As we all know, the noble Baroness has a great responsibility to all who work in higher education, a responsibility that she has fulfilled today by focusing on the policy issues and their funding consequences that affect the future of our universities.

Perhaps I may say from the outset of the debate that we believe that access to higher education should be available to all who qualify, whatever their background; and that efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of higher education, particularly to bright young people from those groups that are underrepresented in higher education, should be supported and encouraged. However, we do not believe that university entrance standards should be compromised in any way, nor should admissions policies be distorted by exhortation, or threats, from government Ministers. As my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, and other noble Lords, have said, young people should be brought up at school to the standard for entrance to higher education.

The report produced by Universities UK, Social Class and Participation in Education, draws attention, interestingly, in its conclusions to the tensions and the distinction between, on the one hand, the Government's objectives of widening participation, and, on the other, increasing access to higher education. They clearly are not the same thing.

As the report points out, widening participation can be achieved without necessarily increasing access. Financial rewards and penalties related to the 50 per cent target can cause injustice. An interesting irony, which is highlighted by the case studies in the report, is that many of the institutions that are actively raising the awareness of young people from underrepresented groups, particularly those working with primary and secondary school children, do not necessarily directly benefit, even if they are successful. For example, Teesside University—from where I declare an interest by having received an honorary doctorate—has a very successful programme of working with young school children on Teesside, especially primary school children. Under the system, if a higher proportion of the children from that area eventually enter higher education across the United Kingdom, Teesside University will not necessarily gain the credit.

It does not help when Ministers threaten to withhold funding from universities if they do not meet the Government's targets. Many universities, usually the more successful ones, have no difficulty filling places with appropriately qualified students. So, is it the intention of government that these universities should displace some of those students with the highest qualifications with others from "postcode premium areas", who may have lesser qualifications? Alternatively, should they expand their numbers to take all qualified applicants—in which case where is the funding coming from? Furthermore, should this be done against other institutions that have difficulty filling their places?

Incidentally, the money held by government to fund the "postcode premium" is top-sliced from the core budget of universities in the first place. Can the Minister say what is so secret about the list of postcodes that are used for special university entry status? There has been a reluctance to let MPs see the list. However, I believe that the list should be a matter for public information. No one is disadvantaged by having that information. Whatever happened to open government?

The letter received by my honourable friend Mr Brady in another place from the Higher Education Funding Council for England attempting to explain the "postcode premium system" should qualify for a wooden spoon award by the Plain English Society for sheer gobbledegook. I know that the Minister will do better in his reply to the debate.

It is important for the Minister to clarify in his response how the Government plan to address the tensions between the policy objectives of widening participation and of increasing access. I also wish to pose another question underpinning this whole debate. My honourable friend Alistair Burt, the shadow Minister for higher education, has been trying to elicit from government—but, so far, without success—a definition of "higher education". Again, perhaps the Minister will be give us a definition this evening. The answer is very pertinent to all those who work in higher education.

It is true that the unit of resource per student has been declining since 1989 to the present day. That is why the Dearing report was commissioned in 1996, with all-party support, to address the future funding of higher education. It is also the case that the introduction of tuition fees was meant to provide additional funding for higher education. Many of us took a very jaundiced view of the Government's pledge on this issue; and I have to say that we were right. We now know from the Permanent Secretary, speaking to the Select Committee in January 2002, that the amount of grant to universities has been cut by the same amount as fee income raised. Therefore, there has been no real-terms benefit to higher education from the introduction of tuition fees.

However, the burden of admitting an additional 30,000 students each year from now until 2010, with a higher proportion coming from under-represented groups, will put enormous strains on our universities. In the debate last week, and again today, so many issues, in addition to costs, have been raised in connection with the Government's policy of expansion.

Expansion should not result in the compromising of standards. It should not risk affecting the quality and quantity of research. Such expansion is causing, and will continue to cause, great tensions in the recruitment and retention of high-quality staff, especially given the Universities UK report findings that, in addition to the need for extra staff to cope with increasing numbers of students, there are problems with an existing ageing staff who will also need to be replaced.

A not unrelated but serious point is university pay. The Belt report has been outstanding for too long, and the Government really cannot go on saying that this is a matter for the universities alone. Their only source of funding is from the public purse and the Government bear a responsibility in this matter. The disproportionate cost of supporting underrepresented groups entering higher education, as quantified in the Universities UK report, also needs to be addressed.

In last week's debate, the noble Lord, Lord Moser, appealed to the Government to put their target of 50 per cent on hold, pending a step change in funding. While I have no difficulty with the aim of helping potential students by all means possible to reach the standards of entry to university, I have my doubts about specific quotas and believe that more could be done to persuade students to partake of high-quality options at further education colleges. Indeed, for many students, it could be the more appropriate decision.

There are so many sub-degree options leading to education and training awards provided by further education. They range from the highly practical subjects, such as plumbing, to take an example close to the heart of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, to subjects such as electrical mechanics, catering, science and technology, business and communications, as well as foundation and link courses for higher education.

Further education is an important rung in the ladder as an end in itself, as a route into work and, for many people, as a link with higher education. The Minister should understand that the disquiet surrounding the Government's target is considerable. If the Government persist with the idea that an additional 30,000 students should enter university, with all the attendant support that will be required in each year to 2010, then the appeals for funding set out in the UUK report cannot be ignored.

I refer now to the point that I made in the debate last week concerning the Government's policy of social inclusion. The Government themselves have created disadvantages for young people from low-income families who wish to enter university. They abolished the assisted places scheme, which enabled bright young people from poor backgrounds to attend independent: schools. They set their face against selection on the grounds of academic ability. They abolished maintenance grants the greatest blow to students from the poorest families—and they introduced tuition fees.

The supreme irony is that it was a Labour Government who brought about a situation whereby the poorest students leave university with the greatest level of debt. That cannot be unrelated to the falling number of bright young people from poor backgrounds who enter university and the increasing drop-out rate of such students.

Despite all that has been said, the quality of research carried out in our universities is excellent. They produce good-quality students and, even now, the drop-out rate remains relatively low. However, that situation is very fragile, and the reputation of British university education is at risk. The debates both today and last Wednesday, together with the UUK report, have given the Government important information which must be considered and, I believe, with urgency.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this very wide-ranging debate. Predictably enough, every conceivable aspect of higher education has been covered. It is rather a tall order to respond in 20 minutes to all the points raised but, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Warwick on introducing this very important issue. I believe it is an indication of the importance that your Lordship's House places on widening participation that our debate has been of such high quality and has had so many participants.

At this stage, I join my noble friend in her tribute to the late Maggie Woodrow, who was the author of this report and who, sadly, died last October. There is no doubt that she championed wider participation, and her pioneering work and ceaseless dedication have helped to forge more equitable educational systems both within this country and throughout the European Access Network. I thank my noble friend Lord Puttnam for emphasising how much we need to widen access and the role which universities have to play in that.

Obviously higher education has a positive economic and social impact on people's lives. It is therefore: vital that it is available to all those who can benefit from it. We are a long way from achieving that goal. Despite a doubling of higher education students over the past 20 years—I pay due respect to noble Lords in this House who played their part in that as Ministers—there has been little progress in increasing the percentage of individuals from working-class families who enter higher education. That was a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, drew particular attention.

Fewer than 20 per cent of those individuals go on to university compared with almost half of those from professional families. That constitutes a real failure on our part to exploit the nation's human resources. It puts our economy at a disadvantage, and we compare poorly with other countries, such as the United States and Japan, in terms of the number of qualified students from higher education which their systems produce.

But beyond the cost of lost capital and lost opportunities, we must surely also recognise that the cost of that failure is borne by all our fellow citizens who fail to realise their true potential and who fail to lead fulfilling careers and to contribute fully to our community.

Our determination to share the benefits of higher education more widely is reflected in our manifesto pledge that 50 per cent of those under the age of 30 should enter higher education by 2010. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, cast some aspersions about the value of that pledge. However, even though the Robbins report in the 1960s talked of the need to increase the number of those in higher education from 8 per cent, the noble Lord will recognise that there have always been Jeremiahs who have said either that it could not be done or that it could be done only with a reduction in standards in higher education and at enormous cost to the system. I can only say that that has not been proven in the past. It was not even accepted by the noble Lord himself when he was in office, and it will certainly not be accepted by me and my colleagues in government at present. We believe that we are in a position to unlock the potential of poorer sections of society who thus far have benefited far less from higher education than they should have done.

Perhaps I may reassure the House that it is not true that we have highly escalating drop-out rates. Of course, we must have regard to the quality of education and teaching and to the support given to students in order to ensure that drop-out rates do not reach what I believe are the cataclysmic levels that can be found in some systems. The French have ills of another kind at present, but let us not dwell upon those.

However, the expansion of recent years has not taken place on the basis of sharply increasing drop-out rates. In fact, the rates are fairly static. Of course, I recognise that it will be important to ensure that such rates do not increase in the future. We are already making a good start in relation to increasing access. More students than ever are entering higher education. Final UCAS figures for entry in 2001 showed a 5.6 per cent increase over the previous year, and applications are up compared with this time last year.

I want to assure noble Lords that we are certainly not seeing a massive acceleration in the number of students from poorer backgrounds; but nor are we seeing, as has been suggested, a significant reduction in applications from children from working-class homes because of the funding system. However, more of that anon. I shall address myself to the significant question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and others about the funding system.

The measures that we have already taken to drive up standards in schools and our proposal for improving the coherence of the 14 to 19 year-olds' curriculum will raise attainment and yield dividends in the coming years. More work needs to be done to encourage young people to participate, as noble Lords have emphasised, not least the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. She spoke of a particular group of members of our community who need to be encouraged to participate in higher education. Part of the Government's strategy is to ensure that.

The Excellence Challenge Programme and the Aim Higher Campaign have been designed to help raise attainment and aspiration in our schools and colleges. I can reassure my noble friend Lord Puttnam that the programme will ensure that we increase opportunities and aspirations in schools in regard to all our universities. I am deeply grateful for the work of those universities and higher education colleges that have engaged in this initiative, which now reaches out to over 1 million 13 to 19 year-olds.

Of course, we share with the House the widespread demand that the Government should recognise the achievements of higher education. We could not possibly have seen the achievements of recent years if it were not for the substantial co-operation and commitment of higher education staff. I am also aware that noble Lords on several sides of the House, not least my noble friend Lord Morgan, reflected on the trials and tribulations of academic staff and the challenges before them, as did the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The demands made upon the system are appreciated. It is important that we keep bureaucratic demands to as low a level as possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, we need to consider the career potentials of staff and the rewards that they receive.

I can reassure the House that in the expansion we do not intend to reduce the unit level of support for students. We have put a stop to that reduction. We are also committed to funding fully the increase in the number of students that we are projecting over the next few years. Certainly the programme for the years up to 2003–04 is one that is fully costed in terms of resources for higher education. I know that that does not mean that the shoe will not pinch in some cases. Institutions, like our universities and our colleges, can always use increased resources well and so improve quality. I have no doubt about the ability of the system to do that. However, I am seeking to offer the reassurance that the expansion is against the background of the recognition of the demands of the sector for proper resourcing.

There is another rich source of talent that we need to get into higher education. In this country there are 1 million people in their 20s who already have level three qualifications. If we are to attract those people into our universities, we need to develop new and more flexible forms of provision—the argument of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp—to enable them to earn and learn. There needs to be proper respect and consideration for the needs of part-time students who often appear to be an add-on to the equation of provision, whereas in reality they are an important part of the provision in higher education at present. I agree with the noble Baroness that part-time students and the form of provision provided for them are destined to be an increasing part of our overall provision in future.

The foundation degrees that got under way last September exemplify the innovative approach to teaching and learning required in higher education. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, indicated, such courses are for students with a vocational commitment who need the opportunity to develop their skills but who, otherwise, would find access difficult. The courses enable easy transition from further education courses so that students can move into higher education as and when required. The courses are designed in conjunction with employers, and they are vocational. They respond directly to the skill shortages at the associate professional level and are often available through part-time and web-based study that meets the needs of people leading busy lives.

So we meet an important thread within the debate. A significant number of students need to be attracted within a framework that is somewhat different from the traditional approach of the past. I have no doubt that universities are one of the main players in widening participation. They will need to engage in a wide range of activities to convince young people from less traditional backgrounds that higher education is for them too. Noble Lords have rightly identified that inevitably there is an element of sacrifice and commitment in engaging upon a higher education course.

Every university has its part to play, including the leading research universities. A great deal of commitment and determination is involved, and I am grateful for the efforts of so many institutions. I am also grateful to those institutions that in the past may have been charged, accurately or not, with having a less than solicitous attitude towards students from more limited backgrounds who now participate in schemes to which a number of noble Lords have rightly drawn attention.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, they participated before. The charges are totally untrue.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the argument obtains across a wide range of higher educational institutions I believe we have evidence of a redoubled activity in that respect. There is no doubt that from time to time we all need the spur and challenge of those who express some criticism of the way in which we act.

We recognise that the Universities UK report, Social Class and Participation in Higher Education, is a valuable contribution to the agenda. We recognise that the report builds on strong foundations going back a considerable way, and we recognize —my noble friend Lord Morgan has sought to reassure me—that the universities have been involved in generating a substantial momentum. I am heartened to see that the report shows just how much institutions are committed to widening participation and sharing good practice.

We are also greatly encouraged by the work that is taking place to encourage widening participation in the demanding subjects, such as medicine, where often students have come from a rather limited social background, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said. For the good of our health service and for the good of students, it is essential that we broaden those opportunities.

I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Vincent, that we also recognise the point that he made about particular areas of high level vocational courses at Imperial College and Cranfield. He will know that Sir Gareth Roberts has just produced a report to the Government on science and engineering skills. We are examining his recommendations and I am sure that they will bear significant fruit in the near future.

All this means that we have to make effective use of existing moneys. The postcode system was raised but it defied the capacity of one of my colleagues to express it in plain English. I shall duck that challenge on this occasion. My English is probably not up to it. I can reassure the noble Baroness that HEFCE recognises that aspects of the postcode system scarcely meet the level of precision and accuracy that we require.

There have been many proper challenges. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, drew some attention to that. I can reassure the House that we are looking forward to rather more sophisticated and more accurate measures than what we would all recognise were the first, early attempts to address the Issue. We also believe that rather more refined strategies would be—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, would the postcode list be published?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government will be responsible for ensuring that higher education institutions know exactly the opportunities that are before them and the criteria against which they will be operating.

But HEFCE has its responsibilities in those terms. It is not for me at this time to prescribe in greater detail the way in which HEFCE will operate. However, we shall certainly need to win the support and confidence of the institutions under the new structure, and we can rely upon our colleagues in that body to ensure that that takes place.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, under what clause of the Freedom of Information Act will this information continue to be withheld from us?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am being drawn down a rather devious route when I have only a minute or two in which to conclude the debate. So perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for not responding to that specific point.

I want to address myself to what was a central element in the debate this evening; that is, the issue of student finance. I can reassure my noble friend Lady Andrews that we are concerned to ensure that proper support is given to needy students. It will require a restructuring of student finance. My noble friend drew attention to specific groups. I have not the slightest doubt that they will fall within the criteria.

A review is taking place at the present time which will report in the fairly near future. Its job will be to sustain and support improved access to higher education. We take on board some of the criticisms advanced this evening about the present system, though once again I seek to disabuse the House of the notion that the present system of financing higher education has led to a significant drop in applications from students from working class backgrounds. That is not sustained by the facts.

We recognise that the perception and reality of debt is an important factor for students. We may perhaps need to adjust to a different situation. We need all the resources we can get in higher education. There is no doubt that the new review will continue with the principles that have been adumbrated since we came to office. It is surely unfair that graduates who, on average, earn 35 per cent more than the average wage, should make no contribution to the education which gave them that advantage. So I can assure the House that the principles behind the review—as if anyone would doubt it—will be based upon some contribution from the state, some contribution from the student and a contribution from the families. However, we hope to produce a better system than the present system and that is the burden of the review.

I pay due tribute to those noble Lords who emphasise that we need to think about higher education in a broader perspective than has been the case in the past. I have no doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, among others emphasised, that further education has a significant role to play. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, emphasised how many students follow higher education courses in our further education colleges. There is no doubt that the partnership that we need to forge not only between further and higher education, but also between the schools and further and higher education, is tremendously important in creating opportunities and ladders for progress. In the past entry to higher education has looked like a series of hurdles that people have to surmount. It is much more important that it be seen as a series of ladders which they can climb.

Therefore I share the view of noble Lords in welcoming this report. It reveals the real progress that the higher education sector is making and we should pay tribute to all those who have achieved those results. But we still have a long way to go. The Government's vision is to close the gap between the learning rich and the learning poor so that everyone has the opportunity to develop their talents to the full. I hope that this report and today's debate will give the sector a new stimulus to make progress in this important work.

7.44 p.m.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comprehensive and sympathetic reply. I am also grateful for the contributions from all noble Lords throughout the House this evening. It has been an excellent debate. It has shown what a variety of insights can be offered from your Lordships' wide experience, even when shining the spotlight on a highly focused topic.

I realise that we are pressed for time so perhaps I can simply reflect on the fact that all noble Lords emphasised one point above all. To open opportunities from those from lower socio-economic groups will demand innovative and flexible responses and approaches and will require new resources. It cannot be done on current funding methods.

I leave noble Lords with a comment from John Knowles from the Access to Higher Education project at Lincoln University. He attended our parliamentary launch last month and his words sum up today's debate. He said that it is good to see so many students who have benefited from widening participation initiatives and to see the great and the good taking notice. I thank your Lordships for taking notice. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.