HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc34-42WH 12.29 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this important subject, which has been in the news recently. Access to Oxford university was supposed to be a theme of Government campaigning, and a recent outburst by the Chancellor received a great deal of publicity. This is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss the subject in detail in the House. I think that everyone in the House and, indeed, everyone in society recognises that there is a problem about access to universities for less well-represented groups, especially in relation to the so-called elite universities—I would use the term "top" universities or university departments. We need to do something about that. I am pleased to welcome an Education Minister to the debate: I am sure that he feels as passionately as my constituents and I do about the problem of groups under-represented in higher education generally.

It is unfortunate that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not here to respond to the debate, because that would give him an opportunity directly to answer some of the concerns that have been raised by my constituents and others about the Government's handling of the matter. The Chancellor waded into the subject by making a statement that was factually incorrect, offensive to people involved in the admissions procedure at Oxford and, most importantly, counterproductive to the aims of my constituents, of Oxford university and of the Department for Education and Employment. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity, however indirectly, to apologise on behalf of the Chancellor, not only for making factual errors, of which everyone is capable, and not only for the unjustifiable offence caused to people involved in the admissions process at Oxford university—it is a casualty of all politics that some offence is caused—but mainly for the fact that his remarks were counterproductive and will make our task in rectifying the problems much more difficult.

It is worth considering the Chancellor's motives for pronouncing that the decision by Magdalen college, Oxford not to offer a place to one student was a scandal. What could his motives have been? It is interesting to note that he made the remark—which he knew would receive press coverage, because it had already been covered earlier in the week—at a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970. Was it that the Chancellor had little to say about any new legislative proposals to deal with the pay gap between men and women? Given the subject of this debate, it is interesting to note that a pay gap in higher education has been proved to exist. The Bett report clearly showed a discrepancy in the pay of men and women in higher education, regardless of their status, for which the Government have refused to accept responsibility and refused to provide funding to tackle the problem.

The Minister often says that there has been a real-terms increase of 11 per cent. in funding for higher education and that that is sufficient to tackle the problem. However, he knows that that increase is to fund expansion, which he and I both welcome, but involves a reduction in the unit cost per student. When unit funding per student increases in primary and secondary education, the Government rejoice. In their annual report, they announced that as a wonderful thing, but when the higher education unit of resource is cut year after year by this Government, as it was cut by the previous Government, either they have nothing to say or they say that it is a necessary efficiency. I do not believe that equal pay or access can be fully tackled until that reduction in the unit of resource is halted or, preferably, reversed.

It is appropriate for me to refer to an individual case in relation to access to Oxford university, not least because Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, have already done so. Some years ago, a state school student with a string of As at GCSE, or the O-level equivalent, applied to Oxford university. The student was predicted to do well at A-level, but was rejected by the medical school at Oxford, and went on to America to study at Harvard. That student was me. However, I went to Harvard high school in Los Angeles—and only for a year. I then applied again to Oxford university and got in. It was right that I was rejected the first time, as my performance in the entrance exam was poor. As I understand it, my place was given to a young woman from an inner-city school. She was born on the Indian sub-continent and had done equally well in her education, although she had overcome many more hurdles, not least that of language. I made no complaint and I was pleased to enter the university a year later. The contrast between my approach and that of the Chancellor in the Laura Spence case is startling. I shall speak more about that later.

We should consider the figures, as they are the basis of the subject under discussion. We know that only 7 per cent. of people are educated in the private sector, but that 50 per cent. of places at Oxford university and some other top academic departments go to students from the independent sector. That huge discrepancy is very worrying. The corollary is that the 93 per cent. of our young people who are educated in the state sector form only 50 per cent. of entrants to some of our top academic institutions. The gap can be narrowed, and it is important to note where it is reduced, so that we can see where the problem lies. Information given by the Independent Schools Association to the Select Committee on Education and Employment during its recent inquiry suggests that 20 per cent. of A-level entrants are in the private sector, which, of course, leaves 80 per cent in the state sector. The figure narrows the gap significantly, although there is still a huge discrepancy between the 80 per cent. of A-level entrants and the 50 per cent. of acceptances to top universities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

indicated assent.

Dr. Harris

I see the Minister nodding. The gap must be closed if we are to solve the problem, whose existence we both acknowledge. Approximately two thirds to 70 per cent. of pupils who gain the sort of qualifications—the Government consider A-levels the best measure—that are required for entry into the top institutions come from the state sector. The pool from which Oxford university and other top institutions can recruit is limited to that 70 per cent. Clearly, that percentage needs to be levered up, because it leaves a large discrepancy between the state sector pupils among those students eligible to be admitted and the proportion among those who are admitted.

The ratio of applications from the two sectors, which varies according to institution and subject of study, is approximately 50 per cent. each from the state sector and the private sector. That figure is approximate and varies year on year, but, crucially, it roughly matches the percentage of acceptances or offers made or entrants—the terms are analogous—into the top institutions. It gives at least prima facie evidence that the problem exists mainly in the proportion of the number of people with top A-level grades who are from the state sector and who actually apply to the top universities or, indeed, to higher education in general. It is that gap to which we should apply ourselves, and I hope that Government policy will be directed towards it as well as the others.

In any assessment of the relatively poor performance of young people in the state sector as compared with those in the private sector, we must first say that the poor performance is that of the sector and not of the young people themselves. It would be wrong to argue that there is anything to do with the students themselves that makes them on average less likely to do well in the state sector than students do in the private sector. Classes in the private sector are much smaller, which is what wealthier parents are paying for. We ask whether the Government are doing enough to ensure that funding in the state sector is equivalent to or is catching up with that in the private sector. That will help address the problems of morale in the teaching profession in the state sector.

In his latest Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer put nearly three times as much state money into reducing income tax, which will benefit the better-off, as he made available in additional funding to the state education sector. The Minister knows that the Liberal Democrat party and I oppose that. Our priority is yet more funding for the state sector, and we oppose those income tax cuts. It ill behoves a Chancellor who has such priorities to say that the problem lies not with inadequate resources in the state sector but in some sort of bias in our top universities.

The Chancellor who made those remarks is the same Chancellor who, although it was not mentioned in the election manifesto, cut at a stroke maintenance grants for the poorest students entering higher education and imposed tuition fees on most of the rest. Independent studies of the subject, not least the independent Cubie commission in Scotland, show that fear of debt is a significant deterrent to young people entering higher education, particularly for those from poorer backgrounds.

The Government are particularly keen on focus groups as a mode of gauging opinion. However, it is not surprising that the university partnership in East Anglia found that fear of debt among poorer families in areas with poor access to higher education is a major factor in deterring people from applying for higher education. That is also the view of the Independent Schools Association, which has no axe to grind on maintenance grants for poorer students. Indeed, the director of Sutton Trust told the Select Committee that he was aware of the work of the Cubie commission and could understand its point of view.

The Government may have increased access funds, which is welcome as far as it goes, but I wonder whether that is the way forward, because it is a post-application, post-acceptance, post-poverty solution. Once students get into poverty, they are encouraged to enter a beauty parade to decide who is the poorest and who can qualify for access funds.

The major component of the problem relates specifically to the number of applications being made to our top universities and to universities in general. The Minister will know that a huge amount of work is already being done, although it could be argued that more should have been done earlier. Next week, at Oxford university, I shall again attend one of a series of summer schools to encourage young people from comprehensive schools, from poorer backgrounds and from the state sector in general to apply to Oxford university. Such summer schools can be found at other universities. Indeed, the Department for Education and Employment, in its welcome excellence in cities initiative, is funding some of them.

I applaud the Government for that, but it rather defeats the purpose of funding schemes that encourage people to apply to universities when the person in charge of the purse strings says, "By the way, however much you are encouraged to apply, you may as well not bother. The admission scheme is stacked against you because the old school tie or old boys' network is at large." That unsubstantiated allegation has caused great damage.

Application statistics show little evidence of bias in the selection and admissions system at Oxford university. For example, of the students from UK schools selected to study biochemistry—the subject that Laura Spence eventually decided to study at Harvard university—62 per cent. of candidates were from the state sector, and 38 per cent. from private schools. That is similar to the distribution of students doing well at A-level, which is welcome; crucially, the success rate is almost identical for students from each background—a 69 per cent. success rate for state candidates and a 70 per cent. success rate for independent school candidates.

Success rates are similar in the medical school, to which Laura Spence applied. Just over 100 places are available for UK students, and about 500 applications are received. Approximately half those application come from the state sector—the proportion should be higher—and half are from the private sector. Almost every one of those students will have gained straight As at GCSE and will be predicted for straight As at A-level; there is no point in applying without such grades, because it is such a competitive subject. Even if every one of those just over 100 places had been allocated to state school students, 150 eminently qualified and highly able state school students would not get a place. That is 150 Laura Spences—an awful lot of speeches for the Chancellor to make. The allegation that the offers received by that capable student from other medical schools were somehow unworthy is of concern to those who work in the top universities.

One must ask what the Government seek to achieve, particularly when the Foreign Secretary says, on the one hand, that too much cachet is put on Oxbridge degrees—I would agree with that—while the Chancellor says, on the other, that it was a terrible crime that someone as able as Laura Spence could not get a place at Oxford and that she was therefore right to reject the other top universities. That was her decision, and I wish her well wherever she studies, but the biochemistry scholarship that she was awarded by Harvard—not the subject that she applied to study at Oxford—will not cover the fees that she will have to pay. Poorer students at Harvard have to take jobs to pay their way, perhaps by cooking meals for richer students.

The Chancellor and his colleagues would do best to consider their own country—Scotland has done away with some of the barriers that prevented people from poorer backgrounds from getting into higher education—rather than some American panacea. The number of applications in Scotland as a percentage of the population has increased this year by nearly 5 per cent. following the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants in some form, whereas it is still falling in the rest of the country. That must give the Minister pause for thought.

Finally, it is important that we realise that a problem remains to be tackled. We must ensure that people with a state-education background apply for higher education generally, and particularly to our top universities. That process is not helped by Oxford and Cambridge and other top universities being portrayed as having a Brideshead image. I get extremely frustrated—the Minister, too, must feel this—at press and television coverage showing Oxford students wandering about in academic dress. The times when academic dress is worn at Oxford are much the same as at every other university.

We must change those prejudices. We must ensure that universities do more to get people to apply for higher education, including at Oxford. That process is not helped by the Government's ill-founded, factually incorrect, offensive and counter-productive attacks on individuals in the Oxford admissions process. I look forward to the Minister answering some of the points that I have raised about Government policy. I hope that he recognises the damage that was done by the Chancellor's intervention in the debate.

12.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said that he was sorry that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not able to reply to the debate. My right hon. Friend is elsewhere, helping to maintain a stable and growing economy, which must be good news for future public spending on education and many of our other priorities. It therefore falls to me to undertake the task.

I start with a quotation from the report of the vice-chancellor of Oxford university's working party on access of May 1999. In it, he said: Year by year, Oxford admits more applicants from the independent sector than from the maintained, although the latter group contains approximately two-thirds of those school leavers who obtain the highest A level grades. Fairness to applicants and fulfilment of the University's mission alike suggest that the proportion of applicants accepted should be closer to the ratio of high grades at A level, one-third independent school pupils to two-thirds maintained. I am struck by the fact that, although the Oxford university working party was not complacent about social inequalities, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon appeared to be so on at least one occasion. He saw faults all over the place, but they did not relate to admissions policies. I side with the university in recognising that there is a serious problem.

Obviously, there has been much discussion about the matter in recent weeks and I for one welcome that, especially because it will become a spur for action. Many universities are doing good work to improve their links with state schools and colleges. They include Oxford, which is why I referred to the Oxford document. They are also reaching out to parts of our country where participation in higher education is traditionally low. As Oxford's vice-chancellor acknowledged, much more needs to be done. Although opinions differ on what precisely should be done, there is no doubt that action to improve the position should be taken in partnership: Government, universities, colleges and schools need to work together.

For our part, the Government have been taking action on a number of fronts to ensure that people with talent and all those who can benefit get their chance in higher education. Given the limited time that remains for this debate, this is not the occasion to speak in detail about our policies. However, I should point out that we are spending more on education. We have taken significant action for early-years and nursery education, and measures such as the primary school literacy hour and the numeracy strategy are in some respects as important to tackling this issue as encouraging an 18-year-old to apply to a particular university. The strategy applies across the board.

The hon. Gentleman presented a critique of our student finance strategy. The system that we have put in place is not subject to the failures that the hon. Gentleman outlined, but the system that we inherited failed in many respects. In his important report, Lord Dearing recognised that universities were seriously underfunded during the previous Government's time in office, which saw a dramatic fall in unit funding from public resources. Between 1989 and 1997, there was a 36 per cent. drop, which is a drastic decline in standards. A further cut was planned for the subsequent two years. It is vital to get right the balance between quantity—with more of our young people going to university—and quality. Spending on higher education was also regressive, as the great majority of taxpayers who did not benefit from it paid for the minority of people who went to university and who came, predominantly, from the higher socio-economic groups. Until recently, the state spent almost twice as much on the education of graduates as on the education of people who left school at 16. Graduates benefit from higher earnings and are less likely to be unemployed.

The facts speak for themselves. In 1960, more than a quarter of the 18-plus group from the top three socio-economic groups went to university, but only one in 28 from the lower groups did so. Mandatory awards were introduced by the Education Act 1962, giving student support and paying tuition fees for most students. By 1990, however, participation by the top three socio-economic groups had risen to more than one in three. In the bottom three groups, however, barely one in 10 went to university. By the mid 1990s, the participation rate for the top three groups had risen to almost one in two, or 50 per cent., whereas for the other groups, it had risen to only one in six. Whatever was good about the old system, it did not crack the problem of socio-economic inequality.

The plain fact is that mandatory awards did not promote the increase in participation by the lower socio-economic groups for which many had hoped. We were determined to tackle that problem, which meant some tough choices about what was needed. Consequently, we accepted the Dearing recommendation that those who benefit from higher education should contribute towards its cost. The arrangements that we have put in place mean that we can provide the extra funds that universities and colleges need to widen access without damaging quality.

The income we receive from student contributions to fees has helped us to plan more than £1 billion of additional funding over the four years from April 1998, which is an 11 per cent. increase after allowing for inflation. The costs of higher education are now shared more fairly between students, their families and taxpayers generally. I was unsure whether the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that he would change that policy, but if he was, he did not say how that change would be funded. Not everything can be funded from that famous 1p on income tax. If the Liberal Democrats are to be taken seriously, they must spell out their funding and taxation priorities.

We have also ensured that students from less well-off families do not have to pay fees. Indeed, already more than 40 per cent. of all students are exempt from making any contribution. That will rise to 50 per cent. from next year because we shall raise the contribution threshold. I repeat—poor students do not pay fees.

We recognise that much more needs to be done on the issue of access. The recent data produced by the Sutton Trust and others are not new but are very worrying. We must do more to ensure that all our talented young people, whatever their background, get the chance they deserve in higher education. It is not satisfactory that only 17 per cent. of young people from lower socioeconomic groups go into higher education, or that someone from a private school is almost 30 times more likely to get into university than someone from a disadvantaged background, or that 65 per cent. of those with three A-levels at A grade are educated in the state sector, but only 52 per cent. of entrants to Oxford and Cambridge in 1999 were from state schools or colleges. Many people are angry about that lack of equal opportunity. I am surprised that Liberal Democrat Members do not share that anger, and that they could not suggest one or two ways in which to improve the situation.

I applaud the work that has been undertaken by Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust. The trust is sponsoring six separate university summer schools at Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham and Bristol. The schools will run this summer and will be open to able 16 and 17-year-olds throughout the United Kingdom who fulfil the necessary criteria. Quite rightly, the focus will be on inner-city secondary schools and colleges where participation is still too low. We support that work and are contributing to its cost.

In addition, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, we are contributing £4 million towards piloting our own summer schools, which will start this month as part of the excellence in cities package and will offer opportunities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. More generally, through the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we are allocating £30 million this year for initiatives to widen participation. A 5 per cent. funding premium for universities was introduced last year to recognise the extra costs incurred in recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I know that at Oxford that money has been carefully focused on the recruitment of students who might not otherwise aspire to study there. We have also introduced premiums for students with special needs and are supporting networks of universities, further education colleges and schools to enhance progression into higher education. We have provided £10 million for "opportunity bursaries" of up to £1,000 from autumn 2001, which will be aimed at young students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We intend to build on that work to ensure that all universities have professional recruitment and selection systems that maximise applications from able students of all backgrounds. We will also ensure that schools and colleges not only raise the expectations of their students, but assist them in preparation for applications, interviews and selection examinations, which are crucial areas where there is much inequality within the different school systems.

I welcome this debate. The test for all of us will be how we move on. A great deal is being done to widen access, but a great deal still needs to be done. The Government and Oxford university recognise that. The issue is simple and has been debated in the House for more than 100 years. We are determined to offer every one of our citizens of high ability, whatever their social class, whether they are poor or rich, the opportunity to go to one of our top universities. This debate and that stimulated by the Chancellor's remarks have been useful, because they have provoked clashes between the forces of elitism and the values of equality. We know where we stand. I wonder whether the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats knows where he stands.

It being One o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.