Tories offer bursaries to 'useful' students

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The Independent Online

Students on maths, science and language courses would receive bursaries of £2,000 a year under a Conservative plan announced yesterday.

Students on maths, science and language courses would receive bursaries of £2,000 a year under a Conservative plan announced yesterday.

Michael Howard, the party leader, said the scheme was aimed at encouraging undergraduates to take degree courses in subjects which were important for the country's economic future.

He said that the £20m a year needed for the scheme would come from scrapping the new Office for Fair Access (Offa) - which was set up by ministers to encourage wider participation at university.

The money would cover 10,000 bursaries a year, Mr Howard said in a speech at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and would support students on maths, chemistry, physics, engineering and language courses.

"In too many institutions, the future of important subjects is under threat," he added. "Some universities have even closed departments because of the lack of interest in doing such subjects."

The bursaries will be paid to the students upon graduation.

He added that Offa, whose chairman Sir Martin Harris has already been dubbed the "access tsar", would insist that every university had targets to increase the number of applicants from state schools and would also target particular neighbourhoods.

"That may sound innocuous enough," he said. "But what happens if they fail to meet the targets of their so called 'access agreements'? They can be prevented from charging fees and they could be fined millions of pounds if they fall out with Offa. If that's not coercion, what is?"

The plan was attacked by Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, who said that Mr Howard was "promising money to those who already have a strong interest in these subjects".

Ministers have insisted Offa will not have any say on admissions - and will confine itself to seeing if universities have stuck to their access agreements. The maximum fine would be £500,000.

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