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Dr. Howells: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House that that is precisely what would happen. If a student entered what could be an expensive contract, yet suddenly found that the rules had changed, OFFA would have a responsibility to intervene. He is right that I would expect OFFA to take such action.
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Mr. Chaytor: May I pursue that point? Although I fully accept that hefty benchmarks are not targets to be imposed, is it not the case that there are enormous discrepancies between the benchmarks and real situation in several of our leading universities? Does my hon. Friend think that, if more of our leading universities accepted the best practice described by OFFA, the gap between performance and benchmarks would gradually close?

Dr. Howells: I would expect OFFA to fulfil a role that would do much to spread best practice, but different universities will do things in different ways. The university of Glamorgan, which is in my constituency, has a fine record of being what it calls a "community university". It has an excellent symbiotic relationship with local industry and communities, but it is a different creature in many ways from some of the Russell group universities, including Cardiff university, which is only 15 miles away from it. I do not think that universities will be drawn more closely together or that there should be a single model or paradigm to define what a university should be. Different universities will fulfil different functions, and universities themselves should decide which students to take and how to judge that.

Helen Jones: I am pleased that a few other universities have been mentioned, because I was starting to think that we were talking about only Oxford. Does the Minister agree that, although universities must determine their own admissions, they must also be more transparent by making what they are looking for and the way in which they will assess merit clear to applicants? Their admissions tutors need to be properly trained in, and rewarded for, carrying out that process, but sometimes they are not.

Dr. Howells: I agree with my hon. Friend that that sometimes does not happen, but the situation is getting better. Universities are taking admissions tutors and the process of admission far more seriously than before. I have been impressed by people whom I have met and I have witnessed terrific outreach and bursary award schemes. The distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), seemed to agree that it was about time that other universities were mentioned. His own university in Huddersfield—although I suppose that his own university is the London School of Economics—is doing terrific work and has an especially good relationship with further education colleges. It is exploring the interesting possibility of offering foundation degrees.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): We appreciate the generosity with which the Minister has given way. Is not the nub of the issue his ability to satisfy and reassure both Conservative Members and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on the point about the number of students from specific backgrounds who go to particular universities? He would not be satisfied unless something happens in relation to those statistics. How can he reassure the Opposition that universities will be free to carry on their admissions policies—bearing in mind what he said about attempts
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to bring everybody in—if those statistics do not change? If those statistics do not change, what is the point of OFFA in the minds of some of his hon. Friends?

Dr. Howells: That is a good question and a good point. OFFA must make a difference, or there is no point in its being there. I hope that the difference will be that Sir Martin Harris will be able to have such a discussion with universities, and with each individual university on a university-by-university basis—or a higher education institution-by-institution basis—to try to understand how they can further stretch themselves in reaching out to those communities. But I emphasise that that is not the same as saying that he will have any power whatever to force those universities to adopt new admissions policies, to impose quotas on them or to meet benchmarks. He does not have that power, and he will not have it.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Will the Minister then explain why, when the original draft letter to the director was presented to the Higher Education Bill Committee earlier this year, it specifically referred to the HEFCE benchmarks as something that should be taken into account?

Dr. Howells: As I said earlier, the benchmarks are numbers that, all things being equal, one would expect the figure to be at. I would expect Sir Martin Harris to want to take a range of variables into account in his discussions with universities, and that will be one of them, but it will not be binding on any university. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House on that.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Can I push my hon. Friend further on that? As he probably knows, having done his homework since taking his new job, the Select Committee did not want, or did not see the necessity for, OFFA. Everything that he has said in his speech seems to suggest that it does not really have a role. What would happen if a university, or a college in a university, were making decisions about admissions that were absolutely reprehensible, and everyone could see that it was swayed in a particular way? Is he saying that OFFA and the Government would do nothing, even in the case of a glaring injustice?

Dr. Howells: I can only repeat to my hon. Friend what I have already said: OFFA has no responsibility to intervene in the admissions policy of any university. However, I would expect OFFA to have an adult conversation with the vice-chancellor or the board of that higher education institution to try to persuade them that they should be considering things differently. By the way, I do not know of any higher education institution or university that is behaving in that way—looking for that kind of trouble would be perverse in the extreme and I do not expect them to do so. I was lucky to have dinner with the Russell group on Thursday evening, and I did not detect that any university was looking for that kind of confrontation, or that they saw any sense in it, as they would essentially be cutting themselves off from a huge potential reservoir of bright students.
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Mr. Sheerman: To take the argument a step further, is OFFA therefore a substitute—rather an expensive one—for a good chat in the Athenaeum, or does it have a substantial role? My hon. Friend, who is an old friend of mine, has not convinced me and even other Labour Members that OFFA still has a role.

Dr. Howells: I have tried to describe the role. Perhaps my hon. Friend does not like it. I have not been in favour of storming the Athenaeum since about 1968, and I thought for a long time that only permanent secretaries went there to discuss how they appeared before the Public Accounts Committee. Clearly, however, vice-chancellors go there too.

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: I must make progress, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Harris: The whole House recognises how generous the Minister has been with interventions. I think that he accepts that Oxford's problems in not having enough state school attendees are partly due to the shortfall in the number of applications that it receives from state school students. If he accepts that even more research evidence is showing that higher prospective debt will put off people from state school and poorer backgrounds, does he agree that it is wrong for Chris Patten to argue, as he was reported as doing in The Times, that increasing top-up fees and the level of debt is a solution to getting more state school applicants? How does the Minister solve the funding problem that Oxford faces: increasing top-up fees, increasing debt, fewer state school applicants?

Dr. Howells: I do not accept that apocalyptic vision of the future of Oxford. Oxford gets a good deal of money from the taxpayer—there is no question about it—and it will get more, but I think that the basic problem is not a financial one for most families. The deal that our young people will be offered after 2006–07 as a consequence of the Higher Education Act 2004 is probably one of the best deals that they will ever be offered. I do not get irritated very often these days, having survived the Utilities Bill, when the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was pouring scorn on me hour after hour, day after day, week after week, but the fact that so many young people from poorer families do not go to university is not because they are scared of debt. That may be a factor in the case of some people but it is not the main factor. It is about aspirations and applications.

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