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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that already nine out of 10 of those in the lowest two social classes who qualify for entry to universities go on to higher education? If the Government persist with the 50 per cent target they are likely to achieve it only by increasing the proportion of middle class students entering higher education, which will increase the gap between the higher social classes and the lower social classes in universities?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it depends how it is done. As I said earlier, it is important that we recognise the need for graduates if we are to fulfil our expectations in terms of jobs. Therefore, I would expect an increase across all socio-economic groups. However, in this House we have long discussed working with those who do not aspire to a university education so that we can persuade them that it is a route that they can follow to their and our greater benefit.
Lord Dearing: My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the £420 million mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is a tidy sum, it is dwarfed by the £6 billion that universities say will be needed over the forthcoming three years? In view of the experience of the railways and the Tube, it may be as well to take note of that.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am sure that everyone in government takes note of experience from everywhere, and rightly so. I have heard many figures in relation to the needs of universities. I fully recognise, as does my honourable friend Margaret Hodge, who has responsibility for this area, that we have to develop the correct basis upon which we can work in partnership. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who asked the Question, was seeking that kind of assurance. We must all await the outcome in the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Lord Elton: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether she accepts that extending the catchment of universities and other institutions of academic higher education by something like a quarter of a million will have an effect on the academic standards of entry? What does she believe will be the effect? Does she also accept that norm referencing of examination results will mean that the average pass rate will remain the same regardless of the quality of the input? What will that say about overall national standards?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am quite certain that there is no need for any lowering of standards. In relation to A-level results, there is nothing to suggest that standards are being lowered. We have many hard-working young and older people who do extremely well and make their way into our university sector. However, I acceptI believe this is behind the question raised by the noble Lordthat one has to ensure that the experience of young or older people who go to universities is a positive one, and that they can learn because the resources are available. That is the crux of the matter. There must be a partnership between government and universities to ensure that we are able to achieve that.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, whatever the merits of aiming to secure a particular overall admissions percentage, does the Minister agree that a so-called voucher system, whereby the Government vest their contribution directly to every student who qualifies, could have the advantage of making it possible to top up the voucher's basic value for students from less advantaged backgrounds; further, that it would give the universities more flexibility to recruit both students and academics at realistic market prices?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, all these ideasand there are manyabout how best to organise student financing are being considered by the review. It is important that your Lordships have a chance to impact on this important review. That is why I am delighted to be standing here again discussing higher education today. I hope that those directly involved in the reviewI am sure that they willrule "nothing in and nothing out" until they have made their decisions about what will work best. The words of the noble Baroness will be in Hansard. I am sure that they will be fed into the review.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that not every young person is well suited to a university education? Will she therefore ensure that the funding for these matters is not wholly confined to universities but remains adequately available for vocational training where appropriate?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Yes, indeed, my Lords. I agree that it is very important that we do not lose sight in our discussions of the need for our young people to be able to pursue the career and the route into employment that suits them best. We are trying to make sure that those who would benefit from a university education are given the opportunity of one and do not lose out simply because of lack of aspiration, lack of knowledge or lack of opportunity.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government have made no such representations, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is in discussion with the Belgian authorities. The route of the proposed road will not encroach on any Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, but the Government recognise the sensitivity of this issue and would resist any proposal which would affect these important sites.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. He is aware that twice in recent weeks I have visited this unique and extraordinarily unspoilt site at Ypres, which is much the same as it was before the First World War. Does my noble friend appreciate that the principal objection to the proposed road lies in the fact that it would cut the Pilckem Ridge battlefield site in half? It would destroy its attraction as a place of pilgrimage for up to a quarter of a million visitors a year, particularly those visiting the 12 or so Commonwealth war graves cemeteries, seven of which would be only just a few metres from the motorway traffic and thus have their tranquillity destroyed. Is my noble friend prepared to lend his support to the campaign that is now under way to persuade UNESCO to designate the entire battlefield as a world heritage site and so leave in peace the tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers who lie in unmarked graves across the Pilckem Ridge?
Lord Bach: My Lords, the proposed extension to the road is a matter for the Belgian authorities. It has been opposed by local interest groups for many years. My noble friend's recent visits have added extra force to that opposition. If the extension were to go ahead and the remains of war dead were unearthed, as occurs as often as 60 times a year from ordinary farming activity and other development in the area, we would expect the Belgian authorities to show the same sensitivity as they have always shown, and that includes treating the remains with due respect.
The Flemish Minister for the Interior, who is responsible for heritage affairs, has informed the Belgian Minister for the Interior of his intention to start procedures for the recognition of war relics as world heritage matters. That, too, is a matter for the Belgian authorities. I cannot comment further at the moment.
The Flemish authorities have confirmed that a final decision on the road extension would be taken only after an environmental impact study had been carried out. That is a significant assurance against concern that the tranquillity of the site as a place of pilgrimage could be destroyed. That is a rather long answer, but I hope that it goes some way to satisfy the House.
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