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I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman about that. I do not know about that case. I will try to read about it. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, and many others, through interventions, have pointed out that the best indicators are those A-levels that we have; no question about it. However, there are circumstances sometimesit must be left to the universities in question to decide what
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those circumstances arewhere other things should be tested as well as a straight A-level result. That is important.
We are not simply relying on Sir Martin's respect for institutional autonomy and his willingness to work with the sector on that basis. All along, we have made it clear that OFFA will not have any remit over university admissions. That is enshrined on the face of the Higher Education Act 2004, and the access agreements, which OFFA will oversee, will focus on how best to generate and attract applications from under-represented groups. OFFA will not consider institutions' admissions policies; it will not impose any admissions targets or quotas; and institutions will propose their own milestones, or indicators of success. We expect that the vast majority of institutions will honour the requirements in their access agreements.
Mr. Collins: The Minister said that the Government would not impose targets or benchmarks, and now says that OFFA will not impose targets or benchmarks. Will he explain why he accepts the first nine or ten words of the Opposition motion, but rejects the reference to
"externally imposed targets, quotas or benchmarks"?
Dr. Howells: The core of my argument is, with respect, that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands OFFA's job. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is sitting next to him on the Front Bench, suffered with me as we read OFFA's regulations; it was my first job on my first day in post, and it was terrible. The hon. Gentleman should read OFFA's regulations and then he will see for himself. [Interruption.] He may well have read them, but he has not understood them.
"universities should be solely and wholly in charge of their own admissions policies",
"without regard to any externally imposed quotas, targets or benchmarks"?
Yes; I agree and am trying to make that point clear in my speech. It is not OFFA's job to try to impose conditions on universities. It is up to universities to decide whom they take, how they take them and how they judge them. I hope that together the hon. Gentleman and I have made that clear to the House.
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Mr. Maples: I understand that OFFA's purpose is to improve and monitor universities' access plans and that if a university wants to raise tuition fees above £1,150 a year, its plan must be approved by the director of OFFA. If the director of OFFA does not approve such a plan, presumably the university cannot raise its fees, in which case he has direct power over universities' admission policies.
Dr. Howells: That point does not concern admissions within a university; it concerns raising the tuition fee. The tuition fee may only be raised to a maximum of £3,000 if Sir Martin Harris judges that the agreement between OFFA and the university stretches that university on reaching potential students who do not currently apply to university. That might involve a university doing what it does at the moment or doing more than it does at the moment. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) looks dubious.
Mr. Maples: I would like to believe the Minister, but if Sir Martin Harris does not approve a plan, presumably the university cannot raise its fees, in which case OFFA has enormous power over the financing of the universities if it does not approve of what they are doing. It is surely incorrect to say that OFFA has no say or influence over universities' admissions policies.
Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is encapsulating what is wrong with the Opposition's argument. This is not about the way in which a university conducts its admissions procedure, but about how it tries to encourage applications from parts of society that do not provide students at the moment. I will give an example of what I mean. Oxford has been much maligned in the course of this debate; wrongly, because it is working very hard in some communities to raise the aspirations of young people who may not have the confidence to go to Oxford and will wish to apply to other universities that are nearer to home or are where they think they would be more comfortable. Oxford is not getting the accolade that it deserves for doing that work. As OFFA would recognise, it is not trying to take X number of students from this social class or from that postal code; on the contrary, it is trying to reach those parts of society that universities are not reaching at the moment. That is a wholly good thing.
Mrs. Anne Campbell: While we are on the subject of access plans, will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the excellent work that is done by students' unions in trying to encourage access? Every year, Cambridge university's students' union sends hundreds of students into the community and into schools to talk to students and to encourage them to apply to Cambridge. Such efforts should be rewarded and applauded.
I am very much aware of the efforts that are made by students' unions, especially in Cambridge. They do a terrific job. I am encouraged by the joint approaches that universities are now taking. They need to tap the potential of those parts of society that are not being tapped because they need high-quality students who will not drop out but stay throughout. OFFA's great role will be to encourage the debate that should be
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taking place between universities and everyone who is interested in trying to widen applications and increase the number of people who go to university.
Mr. Gibb: Do not the Minister's comments about poverty of aspiration imply that problems lie not with universities, but with schools, and that he and his Department should examine why our comprehensives are not raising people's aspirations in relation not only to Oxbridge and the top universities, but to life as a whole?
Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right; that is what we have to do. However, I would argue with Chris Pattenor is it Lord Patten?[Hon. Members: "Not yet."] It is only a matter of time. On the "Today" programme the other morning, Chris Patten gave an interview in which he said that the main thrust of the argument concerns raising aspirations. I do not disagree with that. However, he is wrong, and is being a bit lazy, in that he has not considered what OFFA is designed to do. There is no way of short-circuiting the problem of trying to raise standards in schools, which is the absolute priority of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards.
Mr. Robert Jackson: The Minister is being very patient and reassuring, but will he clarify one point? If a university decides that it wants to use interviews as part of its method of finding out about the quality of the candidates that are offered, would that be a perfectly proper and legitimate approach for it to adopt?
Dr. Howells: Most universities will use a mix of methods, and properly so. A-level results will certainly be the prime mover, but other factors may apply in certain circumstances. In today's edition of The Guardianwhich I rarely read these days, as the hon. Gentleman probably knowsa woman writes about the difficulties that she had in getting into Oxford. She got one interview, which was pretty awful, went back to pick up her coat, and met an historian who persuaded the university to take her.
Jonathan Shaw: Will my hon. Friend confirm that it would be appropriate for OFFA to intervene in a case in which it had approved a university's access plan that included the provision of a £300 bursary, but that sum was not provided? Surely everyone thinks that there should be a system of recourse in such circumstances. Although that situation is highly unlikely, provision to address it should exist in legislation.
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