University Equality plans at risk, say MPs


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The Independent Online

The Government is given a stark warning today it may fail to deliver on widening participation in universities because its higher education reforms have been too rushed.

MPs on the influential Commons Business, Innovation and Skills select committee say they are not convinced ministers will achieve their objectives "as effectively as (they) may have hoped".

They urge ministers to adopt a similar approach to that adopted in schools - whereby a "pupil premium" is given to them for every pupil from a disadvantaged background they take in.

In particular, the MPs urge ministers to shelve plans for changes in control over student numbers for at least a year to avoid creating a two-tier university system.

Under the Government's plans, universities can bid for extra reserved places for recruiting high-flying A-level candidates who have achieved two A grade and a B grade pass. A further 20,000 special places are reserved for universities who charge less than £7,500 a year on average in fees next year.

"The Government will need to demonstrate its policy (on AAB places) encourages bright candidates from all backgrounds to achieve high grades at A-level," their report says. It warns ministers must ensure these places "do not go disproportionately to candidates from selective schools".

The MPs warn of "a polarisation of the higher education sector into 'traditional ' universities and lower-cost providers focussing on more vocational courses".

"The committee is not convinced that the Government's policies for widening participation will achieve its objectives as effectively as it may have hoped," the report says.

"It therefore urges the Government to reconsider funding widening participation in higher education through a programme similar to the 'pupil premium'."

The MPs also believe higher education would be more accessible to disadvantaged youngsters if support was targeted at helping them with their living costs rather than fund national scholarships.

They warn that ongoing consultations ordered as a result of the White Paper on higher education - published in June - put a question mark over whether "the necessary coherent package of reforms" will be in place by next September - when fees rise to up to £9,000 a year for the first time.

Adrian Bailey, the Labour chairman of the all-arty committee, said: "The start of the new academic year is less than a year away and many key aspects of the reforms including vital support for students - are currently out for consultation.

"The Government will have to work overtime to deliver these reforms so that next year's intake of students have the information and support they were promised in exchange for their increased contributions to their education."

Professor Les Ebdon, chairman of the university think-tan million+ and vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, added: "I welcome the fact that MPs have recognised that a great deal of uncertainty has been created for students and universities because of poor communication and too many policy changes introduced by ministers at the last minute.

"MPs are absolutely right to recommend that changes to student number controls should not be introduced at the same time as changes to the fees and funding system.

"Unfortunately ministers have already jumped the gun."