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Higher Education

8th November 2001

The problem of students dropping out because of debt is a real one, but the report does not adequately cover the issue of standards.

4.54 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I agree that retention was well covered in the report, which makes useful suggestions. The problem of students dropping out because of debt is a real one, but the report does not adequately cover the issue of standards.

The number of people entering higher education has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. I recognise the Government's intention to increase the number of students, but having more people in higher education will not in itself support Britain's manufacturing and service industries. If students are ill suited to their courses, more students doing courses will not necessarily benefit students. In some other countries, only highly qualified school leavers are accepted as students and they are heavily tested at the end of their first year-in effect, a reverse retention policy. We, on the other hand, push ahead with trying to get more students who, once they are enrolled, remain where they are, whether or not the course is suited to their needs. The college will want them to stay for funding reasons and may have offered them a second-choice place on the basis of what it, rather than the student, wants. How do the Government propose to deal with those concerns?

The reports also have good ideas on encouraging access outreach schemes. A review of professional management practices is important. It is easy to blame a lack of access on demographic divisions and so on, but it is important that that is done only after the Government are confident that access for poorer and ethnic minority students is properly managed from the university's point of view. I was pleased by the acknowledgement of quotas as inappropriate because they all too often encourage discrimination.

The view that access is often just as much a problem in rural areas as in inner cities is correct. In cities, universities are probably more closely situated to potential students, and if they have crèche facilities, access for mothers is greatly enhanced. However, in rural areas-particularly those such as my constituency, which has no university and where significant distances must be covered to reach higher education institutions-access can be a real problem. In my constituency, many mature students, particularly mothers, tend to do the first year of their degree at the Huntingdon regional college and then go on to university. I would like our FE colleges to be increasingly recognised, particularly in terms of funding, which normally falls well behind that of schools.

A further concern is about the needs of businesses. Many feel that our education system does not cater adequately for them. Many bright but non-academic young people would be better served by a decent apprenticeship system. Many manufacturing companies in my constituency have said that they are unable to recruit 16-year-olds for high-level apprenticeships and, importantly, that they are blocked from getting into local schools to talk about these opportunities. The vocational A-level is generally seen as not much use and is poorly recognised by businesses. How will the Government improve access in a way that helps our business sector rather than hinders it further?

There should always be a role for academic excellence, but we need to break down the barriers for young people who want to go into vocational higher education. I speak from experience because I undertook a modular degree at a polytechnic and was impressed by how it could be moulded to individual time and career requirements. Will the Government get our business and higher education working together in a better way?

4.59 pm

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