HL Deb 14 September 2004 vol 664 cc107-9WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr Charles Clarke, has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I am delighted today to commend to the House the report from Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, on fair admissions to higher education.

Professor Schwartz and his group have over the past 15 months carried out an extensive and thorough examination of the processes for admission to higher education and have consulted widely on two occasions before presenting their conclusions. I am indebted to Professor Schwartz and all who have worked so diligently with him on this important task.

Responsibility for admissions to higher education rests firmly with the institutions themselves. They have to be satisfied that the students they admit have the ability and potential to complete their studies successfully. That is right and proper and this report unreservedly maintains that position. It also confirms, on the basis of the evidence, that admissions processes in our universities and colleges of higher education are generally fair. Nevertheless, government have an interest in ensuring that admissions processes also command the confidence of prospective students, their parents, advisers and teachers. That is why I invited Professor Schwartz to identify options for institutions to adopt when assessing the merit, achievement and potential of applicants for their courses.

The report Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice will stand as a practical guide for institutions as they review and develop their admissions policies, practices and systems. Everyone involved with admissions to higher education has a deep concern to ensure that they are fair and that they are seen to be fair. In pursuit of that end, Professor Schwartz has identified five underlying principles that I wholeheartedly endorse as the basis for fair admissions. These principles will support:

  • transparency in admissions processes;
  • selection for merit, potential and diversity;
  • reliability, validity and relevance of assessment methods;
  • minimising barriers for applicants; and
  • professionalism in all aspects of admissions services.

Taken together, the five principles provide the bedrock for building fair admissions systems that provide equal opportunity for all individuals, regardless of background, to gain admission to a course suited to their ability and aspirations. The implementation guidelines also offered by Professor Schwartz will help institutions in mainstreaming the principles within their own admissions systems. I hope that all universities and colleges will take immediate steps to introduce the principles and guidelines within their own arrangements.

The report is more than just a guide however. It is also a call for action by higher education institutions and across the wider education establishment including some matters for Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

These include: setting up a new centre of expertise on admissions. I can confirm that the Higher Education Funding Council for England will work with Universities UK, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to see how this centre can be established, perhaps under the umbrella of the HE academy where it would dovetail well with the role for staff development. research to assess the feasibility and reliability of a single, national test for potential that is not fully demonstrated by exam results. I support this as an early task for the new centre of expertise on admissions and will look carefully at the outcomes of the study alongside the final report from Mike Tomlinson on 14–19 qualifications reform that is due in the autumn, before deciding on the way forward. What we must not have is tests for tests' sake, but if there is a genuine need, it would be right to explore the opportunity. ensuring that consistent levels of advice and guidance are available to all applicants. Similar messages are emerging from Mike Tomlinson's working group as well as from the end to end review of careers education and guidance that my department has undertaken. As part of its work on the youth Green Paper—to be published in the autumn—the department is considering how it can best ensure that all young people are able to access and interpret the information and advice they need to make well informed decisions. the introduction of a radically different system for applications to higher education whereby students will not apply for higher education courses until they know their exam results. I am concerned that over very many years such a system has acquired the reputation of a holy grail for the HE admissions world—desirable but not achievable. I am aware of the complexity of the practical difficulties that would need to be overcome before a post-qualification application (PQA) system could be introduced, but I remain persuaded by the arguments for PQA which have been endorsed by Professor Schwartz and his group. It must be fairer and more transparent for students to know their final results before making important choices about where and what to study, and this must also aid decision-making by universities. PQA could also help many students, including those from families without a tradition of HE, to feel more confident in applying to our leading universities. I have therefore asked Sir Alan Wilson, the director-general for higher education, and the former vice-chancellor of Leeds University, to lead the work on implementation for PQA. He will be assisted by an implementation group which he will establish. Sir Alan will consult with all interested parties, engaging fully the devolved administrations, and advise me on the arrangements and an appropriate timescale for the introduction of PQA.

Finally, Professor Schwartz has asked that I initiate a further review of admissions after three years as a means to assess progress in implementing his group's recommendations. I accept that it would be sensible to follow up this initial review and that three years will allow time for some of the more immediate benefits to have been realised and for appropriate action to be under way to secure the longer term ones. I shall commission the further review in due course.