Priciest universities 'should recruit from state schools'

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The Independent Online

Universities planning to charge some of the highest fees should recruit more than 90 per cent of their students from state schools, the senior Liberal Democrat MP charged with improving access for the less well-off has suggested.

Simon Hughes, an opponent of raising fees who was this month appointed the Government's Advocate for Access to Education, said there needed to be radical changes in the balance of privately and publicly-educated young people doing degrees.

The Lib Dem deputy leader, who abstained in the key Commons vote allowing institutions to almost treble fees to £9,000, said universities had "failed miserably" at reflecting society.

His comments came in an interview with The Guardian, which said around 7.2 per cent of young people in England attended private schools but went on to make up more than a quarter of students at the 25 most selective institutions, 46.6 per cent at Oxford.

"Every university should, wherever their fee level is, but specifically for a fee level above £6,000, recruit on the basis of no more people coming from the private sector than there are in the public as a whole," he said.

"I don't believe you have to look to the private sector to give you the quality of exam results and ability to make up the numbers to fill the places."

"If you're really going to be radical about these things, then you have to say 'access' means you seek to reflect society in your recruitment policy.

"And most people in society go to local authority schools, not to private schools, and therefore most people from all universities, including Russell Group universities, should do that. And it doesn't mean lowering standards."

He told the newspaper: "I think my message to the universities is: you have gained quite a lot in the settlement. Yes, you've lost lots of state money, but you've got another revenue stream that's going to protect you.

"You now have to deliver in turn. You cannot expect to go on as you are. It has failed miserably."

Legislation should include "a clear admissions criteria that will allow the recruitment policy to work better", he said.

There was "no real pressure" on universities to seek out bright pupils in schools in areas such as his south London constituency, he complained.

"We've just got to change that. So for me - of all the bits of the jigsaw, that for me is where I want to have most influence, and I want to try and persuade them that they have to be really tough with the universities, really really really tough."

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, said the Government should not "interfere" with admissions policies but help make it easier for state school pupils to secure places.

That could include allowing the setting of lower A-level requirements than for privately-educated students.

"The way forward here is not for the Government to interfere in university admissions procedures, it is to make sure there are systems in place which allow a greater number of state school pupils to go to university.

"That might mean making sure that it is acceptable for universities, for example, to admit state school pupils with lower A-level results... or the encouragement of state school pupils to do additional foundation years so they can improve their A-level grades.

"I can't believe that that is a sensible way forward - for the Government to be dictating to universities that they limit the number of students from private schools," she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Ms Dandridge also said the Government's proposal to offer two years' free university education to the least well-off was flawed and needed revisions to prevent it acting as a "perverse disincentive".

"The problem with the proposal is that there is a very uneven distribution of students on free school meals in universities, with some universities having hundreds of students and some having very few," she said.

"If there was a requirement for universities to match funds, it would be financially punitive to those universities that take higher numbers and therefore act as a perverse disincentive.

"What we are now looking at, working closely with the Government together with others, is whether or not there could be a more sophisticated model. What we need is a bit of flexibility in the system."

Universities UK was "wholly supportive" of the principle of the fund, she said, which was put forward as part of efforts to calm Liberal Democrat anger over the decision to massively raise fees.