Government paves way for 'Ivy League' expansion

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The Government is ready to lift the restriction on the number of students universities can admit, paving the way for a huge expansion among the most successful and traditional institutions.

Ministers say the change will help Tony Blair reach his target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade.

But some academics fear this could force weaker institutions to merge as competition for the best students increases. They believe the move will lead to a "redistribution" of students to established universities, rather than to a massive increase in numbers.

Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Universities, told universities it was "timely and right" to have a debate over lifting the restriction. Privately though, officials are stressing that the move would mean vice-chancellors would be "pushing at an open door".

Last night, Universities UK – which represents the country's vice-chancellors – welcomed the move, paving the way for it to be implemented as early as September 2003.

Mrs Hodge said, in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council: "One priority is to achieve our target in widening participation in higher education. It seems perverse to ask universities to help us reach that target and at the same time to cap their expansion. The cap has been in existence since the mid-1990s and was designed for a period when rapid university growth needed to be controlled. Now growth needs to be encouraged."

But universities have been left in no doubt that any who suffer as a result of the greater freedom given to them to expand will have to explore forming links with other institutions. They may even merge.

The most obvious beneficiaries are likely to be among universities in the Russell Group – the "premier league" of higher education establishments – which have the best facilities for research. This group includes among its 19 members Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Warwick, Birmingham, Cardiff and Southampton.