Blair education expert 'shuns own advice' on student access

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The radical proposals to broaden access to university places put forward by a government working party chaired by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, are being shunned by his own university, critics have claimed.

In this academic year, Brunel has pulled out of the clearing process in many subjects, it has shelved plans for a foundation course in science and it has stuck rigidly to its demands that students should meet a minimum grades requirement, equivalent to a C and two Ds at A-level, in order to protect its league table position. Many students choose Brunel because of its high reputation in the sciences.

But Professor Schwartz, in his working group paper published last week, floated a number of ideas aimed at attracting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to higher education, including proposals to offer children from run-down schools university places on lower exam grades than their more privileged peers.

Though a spokeswoman for Professor Schwartz insisted that last week's interim report was a "discussion document", "not prescriptive" and "not Professor Schwartz's personal opinion", ministers are likely to adopt the working group's proposals.

Universities would then be expected to show that they are doing all they can to recruit students, regardless of social background, before being allowed to impose controversial top-up fees.

Members of staff at Brunel and the trade union that represents them have voiced concerns at the university's admissions policy.

One member of staff, who did not wish to be named, insisted, however, that the admissions strategy at the university militated against the recruitment of students from struggling schools, who were less likely to make the grades needed despite their natural ability.

"This year the vice-chancellor decided not to put Brunel into clearing, which seems to imply he was not very enthusiastic about having less able students in," the member of staff said. "On the face of it, his policies don't seem particularly designed to encourage students with lower grades."

Another staff member said: "If we are concerned about widening access, pulling us out of clearing does seem to run counter to that, as people from poorer schools are more likely to be in clearing."

The staff member added that there was also "some inconsistency" between the working group's proposal to allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university on lower grades and Brunel's decision earlier in the academic year to stick to its tariffs. "There is a lot of concern about some of his actions."

However, Professor Schwartz's spokeswoman defended Brunel University's record on widening participation, saying it was something the establishment was "pretty proud of". She said it had always been at or above the benchmark set for widening access.

Brunel, she said, had opted out of clearing in some subjects because it was in danger of exceeding its quota for student numbers and risked a fine if it took in any more. She said the university, through outreach programmes working with pupils in the inner cities and the Brunel Able Children Centre, was taking a "proactive" approach to widening access.

The foundation course in science did not go ahead because it did not comply with the "academic strategy". The spokeswoman added that the admissions process was decided by the Brunel Senate, and not by the vice-chancellor alone.

But Lydia Richards, assistant general secretary at the Association of University Teachers, said: "The AUT has expressed serious concerns about Brunel's refusal to go into clearing this year. We are worried about it in terms of access to students and also our members' jobs. We are disappointed about the foundation courses because we felt it was a really good way of getting students with lower grades into the university system.

"It seems strange given the positions that Steven Schwartz is putting forward at the moment in relation to getting a diverse mix of students accessing higher education when the situation in Brunel doesn't appear to reflect that."