Blair's big university pledge fails the poor

* Thousands of places left unfilled * Working class students lose out
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The Independent Online

Universities are heading for crisis this autumn, with a record number of student places set to remain unfilled.

The Government has created 6,000 additional places for this summer's school leavers, on top of the 10,000 places left vacant last year and lecturers say it is "inconceivable" they will be filled.

Half the universities in Britain are to lose funding because they were unable to recruit and retain sufficient students last year. The shortage of applicants is threatening to destroy the Government's strategy of widening access to education. It has also exposed the failure to tap the vast pool of working class teenagers who ignore higher education.

Despite Tony Blair's pledge to encourage students from poorer families, there is little sign he has been successful. The proportion of working class students remains stuck at 25 per cent – the same level it was in the Sixties and for some groups, including black males, participation levels are falling. The Prime Minister is now in danger of breaking his promise to have half of Britain's under-30s educated to degree level by 2010.

Continued failure to raise the proportion of working class students will be highly embarrassing.Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, triggered a national furore last year when he attacked Oxford University for rejecting Laura Spence, a bright state school pupil.

Ministers have tied university funding to the recruitment of working class and minority background students. But the student funding system has been accused of deterring many students from poorer families by imposing tuition fees and abolishing the maintenance grant.

The Association of University Teachers believes the extra places will only worsen the recruitment crisis. "It is inconceivable that they will be filled," a spokesman said. "If those people don't arrive, the people we represent are going to face empty classes and the resulting inquiries from management about why they are still in employment."

Several universities, including Sunderland and South Bank, were stripped of cash earlier this year for failing to recruit sufficient students. It is feared that will be the fate of other institutions, with the prospect of sacked staff and cancelled courses.

The association's spokesman added: "We are seeing a big rush through clearing, with universities trying to grab students. The only way to get cash is through attracting students.

"We are seeing a rise in university places which is good. I don't think the Government has followed the line of that to its logical conclusion that to expand places you have to put money there. You can't have expansion on the cheap."

Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education said: "The spectre of debt does [deter] a lot of individuals, particularly those from poorer backgrounds."

In a recent report published by the Council for Industry and Higher Education in conjunction with the left-of-centre think tank the IPPR, it was suggested the Government should introduce a fixed bursary scheme to cover the costs of maintenance for students from the poorest backgrounds.

It said: "Without changes to the systems for funding individuals from non-traditional backgrounds ... progress will remain limited. As a result the Government may not achieve its target that 50 per cent of those aged up to 30 should be engaged in higher education by 2010."

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