Universities urged to hold back 35,000 places for poorer students

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Universities should hold back up to 35,000 places a year until A-level results come out in an attempt to attract more working-class students, the director of the government-backed Office for Fair Access to Higher Education (Offa) said yesterday.

Universities should hold back up to 35,000 places a year until A-level results come out in an attempt to attract more working-class students, the director of the government-backed Office for Fair Access to Higher Education (Offa) said yesterday.

Sir Martin Harris signalled his backing for plans for all universities to withhold "between five to 10 per cent" of the 350,000 annual entry until August, when pupils learn their results.

Research suggests that some working-class students do not apply for top universities because they are not confident of getting the good results that they later achieve.

Sir Martin outlined his new approach as he published his first guidance to universities on getting agreements to widen participation. In return for improving access, universities will be allowed to charge the new top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006.

But Sir Martin warned that universities which failed to recruit enough students from poor backgrounds - including Oxford and Cambridge - would be expected to offer larger bursaries than other higher education institutions to widen the social composition of their undergraduates. He said that as much as £200m a year could be "put back into the pockets of students from disadvantaged backgrounds" by 2009.

"The contribution will vary from institution to institution but if, on average, universities and colleges in England invested 20 per cent of their additional fee income into widening participation, then £200m could be generated," he said.

His comments follow benchmarks published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency last month which showed 11 universities - including Oxbridge - failing to recruit enough students from state schools.

Sir Martin said he would meet deans of medical faculties, whose courses are among the most oversubscribed, in the next week to discuss the idea of holding back places.

His comments came on the day that headteachers unveiled a radical blueprint aimed at allowing all students to apply for places after they had received their results from 2008.

A report from the Secondary Heads Association claimed the present system was "unsound, inequitable and inefficient". Offering candidates places on expected grades was "notoriously unreliable", said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.

Research has also shown that students from poor backgrounds are more likely to lack the confidence to apply to leading universities until they receive their results.

In his guidance to universities, Sir Martin said: "We expect that institutions whose records suggest they have furthest to go in attracting a wider range of applications may wish to invest [in bursaries] more than others."

He insisted he would bring a "light touch" role to his dealings with universities but those that failed to abide by agreements struck with Offa faced fines of up to £500,000. Universities would be judged on whether they had stuck by their agreements - not on admissions figures. "There are no benchmarks in this exercise," he said. "Others will judge if I am using strong-arm tactics. Our principal goal is to make sure less well-off students are not disadvantaged when variable fees are introduced."

His comments were welcomed by Kim Howells, the Higher Education minister, who said: "This is a good day for widening access."

Universities UK, the body that represents vice-chancellors, also welcomed Sir Martin's comments.

Professor Ivor Crewe, its president and vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "It is good to see that the guidance clearly reiterates the fact that Offa will be concerned with applications only - and that decisions on admissions will remain the prerogative of the universities."


Plans to hold back up to 35,000 places a year are the forerunner of a more radical programme for all pupils. The new admissions system, planned for 2008, would work like this:

April: Candidates put down two preferences for courses to give universities an indication of likely demand.

May: A-level exams brought forward a week and continue through the half-term break. Teaching assistants invigilate exams and are given time off in lieu later in the term.

15/16 July: A-level results, a month earlier than now.

21 July: Round 1 of applications: Students make applications to top two preferences, instead of six at present.

Early August: Round 2: Those not awarded places select two more courses.

Late August: Round 3: Minority still left without select two more options.

1 October: New term starts, with 11 weeks between results and start of term, compared with present five.