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Chris Chope introduces Bill to force universities to award places on merit alone

By Jonathan Isaby

Yesterday Christchurch MP Chris Chope saw his Further and Higher Education (Access) Bill get its Second Reading debate.

Chris Chope The Bill would "make provision to require all institutions of further and higher education in receipt of public funds to allocate places on merit" and Chope expanded on his cause thus:

"There is a lot of confusion at the moment, among universities in particular and other institutions of higher education, because the Government seem to be at sixes and sevens in developing their policy in this area. Originally, the Government said that they would publish guidance to the Office for Fair Access by the end of January to enable it to give guidance to universities by the middle of February on their admissions policies for the academic year starting in 2012. Despite full guidance having been issued in the middle of February, with the Minister for Universities and Science saying in a press statement at the time that OFFA would be able to advise universities by the end of February, as of now, in the first week of March, there is still no information from OFFA on the principles that universities should apply for next year’s admissions."

"The full guidance that was issued by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Universities and Science to the director of fair access in February was based on the draft guidance that was issued on 7 December 2010. Paragraph 6.1 of the draft guidance was very clear: 'There have been no changes in the legal constraints on your powers as Director of Fair Access. You are not empowered to interfere in institutions’ decisions about the admissions of students and you may only set conditions that clearly relate to promoting participation and access.'

"When the final guidance was issued last month, that paragraph was omitted. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Universities and Science, asking why it had been omitted. Unfortunately, the fact that I received a holding reply rather than an immediate substantive reply makes it obvious that he had to think about the reasons why it had been omitted. Eventually, he came back with an answer pursuant to the holding answer of 16 February: 'Paragraph 6.1 was unnecessary as it provided no new information.'

"I am not convinced by that and remain very suspicious. Indeed, the full guidance is more extensive than the draft guidance. The full guidance is some seven and a half pages long, whereas the draft was only five and a half pages long. That clearly expressed paragraph is omitted from the final guidance. I share the concern of many people in universities that the Government are trying to increase regulation and interference to tick boxes on social engineering and social mobility, and that that is ill conceived."

"My Bill is designed to promote the freedom of universities to decide the issues in question for themselves and to restrict the Government’s ability to interfere in the governance of our universities, many of which are international institutions of high repute. They are expanding and raising their standards in the global higher education context, and they are highly respected. They do not need an interfering Government, who are pledged to reduce regulation, increasing the regulatory burden on them. However, that, of course, is exactly what the Government’s current policy seems to be."

Rees-Mogg Jacob Fellow backbencher Jacob Rees-Mog opposed the Bill, providing, as so often, an eloquent history lesson in the process:

"Let us think of a young man: the son of a butcher in a country during a time of civil war who goes to his local school, wins a scholarship to Oxford, goes to Magdalen college, gets to the top of his profession, and sets up his own college—now arguably the greatest Oxford college. That man was Cardinal Wolsey and the civil war was the wars of the roses. He went to Magdalen college in the 1480s and then set up Cardinal college, which was later turned into Christ Church by an envious and jealous King.

"From the 15th century onwards, although I am sure that we could go back even further, it has been possible for people of great ability to get to our country’s highest and grandest universities, and to have the basis of education that allows them to go on to achieve great things. Cardinal Wolsey could have become Archbishop of Canterbury or Pope, but other than that, he had every great job that was open to him. He was the King’s First Minister, the Lord High Chancellor, a cardinal and the Archbishop of York. We see throughout our history that there has been social mobility through education and that universities have been free in the way in which they admit people for most of that time.

"As an aside, I mention the admissions process of my own college—Trinity college, Oxford. It kindly admitted me, although it knows better than me whether that was on merit or for any other reason. In the 18th century, Trinity managed to admit our greatest Prime Minister and our worst. It admitted Pitt the Elder, who founded a great empire and won all those wars—mainly against the French, actually—in Canada and India, and it later admitted Lord North, so admissions policies do not necessarily work. We might wish that Lord North had not been admitted to Trinity and that we still had the American empire."

"My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is noble in his principle. He is noble in wanting to ensure that education is free from the dead hand of state control, but I am sorry to say that his Bill goes about it the wrong way. Instead of getting the dead hand of state control and throwing it on the bonfire, he has severed the dead hand from the arm of state control and is leaving it lying, rotting on the university funding scheme. I say, “Get rid of this dead hand! Remove this dead hand. Get rid of it, finger by finger. Bury it a 1,000 feet deep. Free up our universities; free up the British people!” Let us have a system that is free from state control, where students and universities can do brilliant things, so that our country can be the success that it deserves to be."

HAYES JOHN And expressing he Government's opposition to the BIll, the minister, John Hayes, said:

"Institutional autonomy, whether in further or higher education, remains a central tenet of our system, and it is a key theme in our current considerations. Perhaps I should add that in respect of further education colleges the Government are going even further. We are determined to lift much of the bureaucratic burden that they have endured for too long. To unleash the human capital in our further education colleges and to build on their excellent work, we will free them from some of the target-driven, centrally micro-managed and directed edicts that emerged from the previous regime. In those dark days, further education was undervalued by Government; it is not now. As we have moved from the shadows into the light, so has further education in the United Kingdom. The Education Bill that is currently making its way through this House rescinds some of the requirements that were placed on further education colleges late in the previous Government’s life. It will increase their powers to borrow and invest, and make various other changes. The principles of institutional freedom that I have described will be retained.

"Although I understand the reasons for doubts about what OFFA has said about admissions, I do not believe they are well founded. I have given a firm commitment on behalf of the Government to the principle of merit, but I wish to say a little about how we might move ahead in agreement.

"To help identify individuals with the greatest potential, institutions may want to use data about the context in which a young person has achieved their qualifications. The Government believe that that is a valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access while maintaining excellence, as long as individuals are considered on their merits and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence-based.

"That is not a change from previous good practice, it is what universities and colleges have always done. Many universities already take into account a range of such contextual information in considering whom to admit. The sector has taken steps to further develop its use of such information, and the sector-led supporting professionalism in admissions programme already has as one of its key themes the use of contextual data to support fair admissions. Good practice principles on the use of such data have been developed.

"In passing on the soul of society, we need always to be conscious of the fact that the relationship between learning and opportunity is profound. It would be inappropriate, but worse than that unethical, for a Government not to focus on how we can spread opportunity as widely as possible. That is one reason why I championed vocational education so vociferously in my time as a shadow Minister and now as a Minister. Many people’s tastes and talents will take them down a vocational pathway, which must as navigable, progressive and seductive as the academic route. Notwithstanding my support for apprenticeships, to which the Government are devoting unprecedented levels of funding, the tastes and talents of many other people from the kind of backgrounds that I come from will take them towards an academic career in a university. Our duty is to ensure that they too get their chance of glittering prizes.

"We believe that my hon. Friend’s objectives do not need legislation, as I said. We know that good sense and good government demand that universities remain free to make those judgments about their future. Accordingly, while recognising the worth of his intentions and admiring his ambitions, and frankly, being envious of his perspicacity, the Government are bound to oppose the Bill."

The Bill failed to get a second Reading by 33 votes to 3, with only Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone and Mark Reckless (including tellers) backing Chope's Bill.


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