Colleges reassured over state school targets

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The Independent Online

The Government promised yesterday to review benchmarks for top universities aimed at persuading them to take in more state school pupils.

The Government promised yesterday to review benchmarks for top universities aimed at persuading them to take in more state school pupils.

In his first big speech since taking office last month as Higher Education minister, Kim Howells promised to mount an investigation on how the statistics had been gathered. He went out of his way to reassure vice-chancellors that ministers had no plans to put "tanks on vice-chancellors' well-groomed lawns" in the growing furore over the new benchmarks.

His intervention was seen as a clear indication that ministers would like to see the benchmarks ­ which increased the percentage of state school pupils that top universities should admit ­ returned to the drawing board.

The furore began last week when Michael Beloff, warden of Trinity College, Oxford, urged the Government to "get its tanks off our lawns" ­ and warned that the university would go private "within 15 to 20 years" if it was forced by ministers to meet the benchmarks.

Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, accused ministers yesterday of undermining free society by attacking the independence of universities. But Mr Howells, speaking at a conference organised by Universities UK, the body that represents university vice-chancellors, insisted ministers never intended to use the benchmarks to force universities to take in more state school pupils.

He said the Government believed the participation gap between "higher and lower social classes" had "remained stubbornly and unacceptably wide". But he said it was "nonsense" to suggest universities would be penalised for failing to meet them. "No university in the country gets penalised or loses any money because they do not reach their access benchmark," he said. "[They] are simply a set of informative tools which help every university to plan ahead."

Universities had to be "the masters of their own admissions procedures", he added.

However, the new Office for Fair Access (Offa) could refuse universities the right to charge top-up fees of £3,000 a year from 2006 if they are deemed to have failed to make efforts to widen participation. They would have to sign an access agreement setting out how they intend to attract more applications from under-represented groups.

"As long as Offa is satisfied ... the university has done all it can to meet the milestones, they will be allowed to increase fees," he said.

Universities could also face financial penalties of up to £500,000 if they failed to convince the regulator they had abided by the agreement.

Mr Howells' speech was welcomed by Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, the chief executive of Universities UK, who said the benchmarks had "caught most of us by surprise". She added: "I think it is sensible to look at the figures again to see if they should be changed.

"I am sure that HESA [the Higher Education Statistics Agency ­ the government agency that produced them] would welcome that."