Education: The university challenge: where to put the 500,000?

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Last year Tony Blair declared that he wanted to see another half a million students going into further and higher education. Only one problem: he didn't say how this was going to be achieved. Ben Russell looks at the conundrum facing Britain's colleges

Tony Blair has left universities and colleges with a problem: how to squeeze in an extra half a million students when they are already bursting at the seams.

At the Labour Party conference last autumn the Prime Minister amazed everyone when he magicked another 500,000 students out of his hat. Where would the money come from, people wondered.

This autumn some of this expansion will begin to come on stream. Later this month individual universities will learn whether their bids for extra student places have been successful. Ministers are finding the money for a further 6,000 full-time higher education places next year and an additional 80,000 places in further education colleges. But that only adds up to 86,000. That means the rest of the 500,000 target must be met in just three academic years, raising the prospect of a headlong rush to expansion in universities and colleges.

Details are still unclear but observers think around 400,000 will be channelled into further education, leaving higher education with the rest. That ties in with Education Secretary David Blunkett's target of increasing the rate of school leavers going on to higher education from around 30 per cent to 35 per cent by 2002, estimated to produce an extra 85,000 students alone.

But such rapid expansion raises the prospect of further overcrowding in an already packed sector. Universities complain constantly of lecture halls full to overflowing. Book rationing is common, and freshers face the almost annual experience of starting term in bunk beds as emergency accommodation is found to meet the extra numbers.

Last month, members of the Association of University Teachers voted to boycott the Government's expansion drive if the money to increase numbers was not forthcoming. The AUT's general secretary David Triesman vowed not to participate in the "dumbing down" of higher education.

An AUT spokeswoman says: "This [the expansion] could represent at the very least five or six sizeable universities and there is no evidence that there are new campuses around."

Details of how the Prime Minister's ambitious target may be achieved, and paid for, are still unclear. The Government's Green paper - The Learning Age - promises to provide funds for the additional 500,000 people as part of a range of measures to promote cradle to grave education.

Further education funding chiefs are also preparing for increased numbers - and expecting extra money to fund the expansion. Predictions from the further education funding council suggest an increase of 80,000 full time places for 16 to 18-year-olds in college and the equivalent of 70,000 full-time places for adults, representing around 210,000 part timers. They are also very keen to start offering an increasing proportion of Britain's higher education through vocational HND courses and franchised degree work.

Such expansion is in line with the huge growth produced by further education since colleges won their independence five years ago.

Universities say they would welcome any lifting of the Government cap which has held numbers down. They want expansion in full or part-time numbers - as long as any places created are funded fully and not on the cheap. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals estimates that 100,000 extra full time students would cost the Treasury pounds 460m, but a spokesman insisted demand was there and universities could easily cope with the numbers.

"Universities would welcome extra places," he says. "We have between 1.5 and 1.7 million students already so we can absorb 100,000 more. The reason recruitment has remained so steady is because of the cap on universities. We think university admissions would reflect demand; and there is demand from industry and school leavers."

Universities believe many of the new students will be part-time and will put little extra pressure on accommodation. But they worry that part-timers are not cheap to teach and need substantial money spent on them in books, laboratory space and teaching time.

Announcing next year's funding allocation to universities last week, Professor Brian Fender, chief executive of the higher education funding council, was able to lift the cap on recruitment a little but admitted he was pinning his hopes for further money on the Government's ongoing fundamental spending review. He refused to be drawn on how many new students would find their way into his sector. "We will be arguing for a fair share of these 500,000 places," he said.

The debate about the Government's educational big idea, however, goes beyond questions of how to pay for expansion. It involves asking what sort of higher and further education that expansion will produce.

John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Warwick University and a member of the Fryer Committee set up by ministers to advise how to turn their dream of a learning society into reality, has been asking those hard questions. Warning that a headlong rush to expand further and higher education could do more harm than good, he cautions against stuffing universities full of less-than-motivated 18-year-olds who may simply be serving out the time between school and work.

"If you think in terms of a learning society approach you might do better investing in people returning to higher education at a late stage when they are paying more towards it themselves than cramming more 18-year- olds into the system," he says. "There's a huge proportion of people who, had they been 18 today, would go into university and would do fine and are now in a position to use the knowledge they would gain."

Professor Field also worries that the universities might be tempted to increase the number of teenage undergraduates while neglecting the needs of adults who could benefit from part-time adult education. He argues for a more radical course, advocating the extension of maintenance loans to part-time students. "I think the Government has created a set of proposals which may inadvertently harm lifelong learning," he says. "The targets would lead the institutions to focus on how on earth they are able to demonstrate by 2002 that they have achieved this target. If you are given an impossible target and you are still going to meet it, you have to take the route of least resistance."

Part of the picture will involve promoting a type of education far removed from the traditional full and part-time university or college courses of the past.

The Government's Green paper talks at length about the benefits of taking education into people's homes through computers and interactive television. The University for Industry, currently being piloted in the North East, is designed to offer people high-technology teaching packages to use at home or at work - taking education and training out of the lecture hall using methods pioneered by the world of further education.

Such developments, which attempt to coax people back into education after years out of school or college, are likely to be crucial if Mr Blair's student target is to be met.

Admissions officials doubt there is large pent-up demand for places. The current university entrance system turns away relatively few people with the basic entrance qualifications. Ministers hope their efforts to improve the exam results of school leavers will eventually stimulate demand for higher education from teenagers. But in the short term it is doubtful that will happen.

To meet the Blair target, universities and colleges are being urged to reach out to groups previously excluded from the lecture hall. Speaking last week at a conference sponsored by The Independent, Education Minister Baroness Blackstone asked universities to turn their attention to people without traditional qualifications and develop what she called outreach activities, working with local colleges and employers to offer opportunities to people who may not have considered higher education before.

But will that happen? CVCP chairman Martin Harris says universities will promote new techniques to tap into demand. "Some of the group will be part-time and much of it will be provided by innovative teaching technologies," he says. But expansion will also mean more full-time teenagers and traditional mature students going to university.

Tony Higgins, chief executive UCAS and a member of the Kennedy Committee on widening participation in further education, predicts the expansion will lead to Britain becoming more like America. "What you can assume is that increasing numbers of students will stay locally for financial reasons," he says. "It's my personal view that we are moving down the road of having a higher education system which will very likely end up like that in North America."

That may fulfil Mr Blair's ambitious target. But higher education may not remain quite as we know it.

Ready, steady, scramble...

Bursting lecture theatres, book rationing and a scramble for computer terminals are severe problems for undergraduates up and down the land, according to student leaders.

Douglas Trainer, president of the National Union of Students, says it is impossible to accommodate substantially increased student numbers without radical action.

"Universities will not be able to throw the buildings up in time," he says. We already have people in tutorials of 27 and second and third-year students will not be happy having to scramble for computers along with extra freshers.

"The only way to accommodate 100,000 extra freshers is to be pretty radical. They will have to be students with their own computers or who live at home. I think the Government is right to set a target, but the expansion needs to be planned."