Hywel in Parliament - Debates

University Admissions Policy Debate

25th October 2004

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I am encouraged by this debate. I have found it very hopeful, if only for one reason: the number of times that we have discussed part-time and adult students. However, we have not discussed them sufficiently, so I want to concentrate my remarks almost exclusively on them.

Just before I entered the Chamber, I chanced upon a book by one of the great academics and adult educators, an organic intellectual, Raymond Williams, who died in 1988. It was a collection of his essays, published posthumously and called "Resources of Hope". That is what we have been talking about today. A great deal has been said about poverty of aspiration, but not enough has been said about poverty of opportunity, and that is what the Prime Minister means by an opportunity society. There are echoes of the Prime Minister's recent speeches in the writings of Raymond Williams. We should be talking not so much about social inclusion and exclusion or about social engineering, but about social justice and an opportunity society—for all classes, both genders, the part-time and adult, and the local and not-so local. That is what I want to focus on.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education is not in his place, but I was greatly encouraged by his support for part-time and adult students, which I greatly welcome. I am sure that his words will encourage that great educational institution established by an earlier Labour Government, the Open university. It will also encourage the adult learners' body, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and the Universities Association for Continuing Education, as well as all departments of continuing education throughout the country, which have done, and continue to do, excellent work in widening access. I was also encouraged by the support that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) gave part-time students.

On a personal level, I am pleased that we are having this debate; I welcome it and congratulate the official Opposition on it. While we are giving bouquets to one another, I should say that one of the most encouraging periods in my academic life was the time of the Educational Reform Act 1988 and onwards, when the then Conservative Government developed the third route to higher education and made official the strategy of widening access. In that period—the 1980s and 1990s—initiatives of the Labour Governments of the 1960s, including the Open university, were again taken forward by another party and Government.

It is good to focus on what has already been said. The majority of students in higher education are now part-time students or adults. It is insufficient to focus on Oxbridge, as we tend to do; the 18 to 21 club, as some call it; and full-time students. Also, when we are discussing universities' admissions policies, we should not focus only on the work of OFFA—although it is admittedly important—as if the encouraging of widening access could not be done by other bodies throughout the country.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend makes a telling point about the diversity of the population. It is good for students to be not just with 18 to 21-year-olds, in a club. It does them good to meet more mature students, part-time students and a diversity of students from different social and economic backgrounds. That is the beauty of true higher education, is it not? We should all encourage that.

Dr. Francis: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Government's welcome policy of higher education being free at the point of entry and fair at the point of repayment. Of course, until recent times, that was not at all the case for adult students, and certainly not for part-time students. In nearly three decades of teaching part-time students in higher education, my experience has been one of identifying and trying to eliminate piecemeal the barriers that have existed for the under-represented groups of students.

The first group that comes to mind are those students that my hon. Friend the Minister and I tried to teach back in the 1980s. In those days, he did not call me his former boss; we were comrades in the class struggle. I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear that.

Among the remarkable people who failed to get to grammar school—who failed the 11-plus, as I did—were rather remarkable steelworkers and miners. Three come to mind. One is Tyrone O'Sullivan, who is now the managing director of the most famous co-operative in the world, Tower colliery. The second is the late Charlie White, the most sensitive and eloquent writer and orator that I have met, an Afro-Caribbean photographer who worked in St. John's colliery and died in 1985; he was the most remarkable man. The third was the most difficult and awkward student I ever had, now newly appointed professor of continuing education at Swansea university, and a miner in the early 1980s, Professor Colin Trotman. All those escaped through the net, so to speak. For every one of those whom we taught, there were thousands of others who could and should have gone to university.

In the mid and late 1980s, our department of continuing education focused more on other under-represented groups, such as women returners—the women who came to the fore during the miners' strike. That was in partnership with bodies such as the Dove Workshop, which was founded by women who had their first political and learning experience on the picket lines in 1984 and on Greenham common. They created bodies such as the Dove Workshop and, eventually, the Community university of the valleys, which now exists in many communities across the valleys. Those bodies identified the critical barriers that prevented people from advancing to higher education. They identified ways in which new opportunities could be created by providing advice, guidance, transport support, fee remission, crèche support, flexible learning and part-time learning. Those now are—or should be—mainstream activities in the most advanced-thinking universities.

Next month I will visit four such universities with excellent track records in widening access to higher education: Staffordshire, Swansea—my old university—the Open university and London South Bank. I shall be going for two reasons. I visited them last year just before we debated the Higher Education Bill. I discussed with their vice-chancellors, students and staff their concerns, hopes and aspirations. I am revisiting them to discover how they feel about the progress, or the lack of it, that we have made.

There is another more personal reason why I intend to visit those universities. I declare an interest as vice-president of Carers UK and as promoter of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I want to talk to them about that other under-represented group—perhaps the most under-represented group—in higher education: unpaid carers. There are 6 million unpaid carers, nearly 20,000 of whom are in my constituency. I probably have as many carers in my constituency as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) has full-time students in his constituency. That is an interesting contrast.

We are hoping to run locally pilot schemes with three groups to encourage carers to take up learning opportunities. The first involves the 600 young carers—children under 16—in my constituency. We are interested in the extent to which their opportunity for higher education is limited as a consequence of their circumstances and will see how we can assist them. The second pilot scheme involves young parents who want to enter further and higher education and involves the special needs activity centre in Taibach. The final pilot scheme involves older adults who are caring for elderly parents.

We should be discussing such issues in debates on university admissions policy. I hope that the official Opposition and the Under-Secretary will have something to say about that. My hon. Friend spoke strongly and eloquently in my Adjournment debate last year on part-time students, and I thank him for that.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on reminding us that we should not be parochial in our higher education debates. There is a wider world that needs to be recognised as part of the phenomenon of globalisation. I remind him, however, that we should not only think global, but act local. Almost all mature and part-time students access universities locally. We must not forget that.

I was struck by my hon. Friend the Minister's reference to dinner in the Athenaeum. The next time he reflects on developing university policy, perhaps he would be assisted by coming with me to the Community university of the valleys and have lunch at midday, although people there would probably call it dinner, at the Sarn Helen café in Banwen. The celebrated comedian Colin Price, who was from that community, once jokingly referred to Banwen as the road to oblivion, but as Banwen has pioneered the Community university of the valleys, it will not be the road to oblivion that my hon. Friend witnesses, but the road to progress and higher education, and a land of opportunity in an opportunity society.

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