Peter Knight: Fair chance of a lot more unfairness

Admission to university can seem like entering an elite club, so if certain things go wrong it is a guaranteed headline story.
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The Independent Online

Admission to university can seem like entering an elite club, so if certain things go wrong it is a guaranteed headline story. The standard shock-horror tale is of a talented student, likely to get five straight As, preferably from a comprehensive school and a working-class background, who is refused admission to Oxbridge.

Admission to university can seem like entering an elite club, so if certain things go wrong it is a guaranteed headline story. The standard shock-horror tale is of a talented student, likely to get five straight As, preferably from a comprehensive school and a working-class background, who is refused admission to Oxbridge.

Fuel can be added to the fire by two extra ingredients. First, it helps to snap a picture of a slightly bewildered don, hopefully wearing a bow tie, as he confesses that he was only trying to put the applicant at her ease when he asked if she had mains electricity at home.

The second essential is an outraged politician, full of righteous indignation, demanding that something be done about such discrimination. The fact that his understanding of the issues would make the Sunday Sport look sophisticated is incidental to the argument. Variations on this theme include the accidental suggestion that a Welsh A-level doesn't count as an A-level (false) or more complex stories about how hard it is to get into certain universities if you come from a public school.

This type of story emerges every year, and putting the headlines and political points-scoring to one side, a few home truths are necessary. All universities have the same objectives when making offers to students. They all want to recruit the best qualified individuals, the ones most likely to succeed. There may be other secondary motives, such as meeting local needs or working with particular schools, but the bottom line is that all universities and their admissions tutors want the best.

The next key fact is that entry to university has always been, and will always be, competitive. The students with the best qualifications will be offered the most desirable places. Finally, the process of deciding the best applicants is not an exact science. Into this maelstrom will burst the proposed new Office of Fair Access (Offa). Offa has been created as part of a Faustian bargain between universities and the Government to try to assuage fears that the introduction of higher fees will see some students rejected because they can't afford them.

In exchange for being allowed to charge higher fees, the quid pro quo from the universities will be that they enter into an agreement with Offa to ensure that they will offer bursaries and scholarships to the less well-off. The only reason that universities have signed up for this is that we agree with it. It is hard to argue too much against something that you actually believe in.

Offa's access agreements will be a joy to behold, as the regulator tries to find a rational basis for the different obligations that will be placed on individual universities. Will the amount that you have to put into bursaries be directly related to the proportion of your student body that comes from public schools? Will you get a discount on your commitments if you recruit extra students straight from further-education colleges?

Those concerns aside, there is a further problem. Offa is going to fail. I believe, that up until 2010, a cycle of events will take place that will discredit the organisation. It goes like this: universities will respond to its mandate and encourage more students to consider higher education. Participation rates, at least as far as applicants are concerned, will therefore start to rise. At the same time, the number of 18-year-olds in the cohort will increase. This is as near to a fact as you can get in higher education policy. There are larger-than-average numbers of 13-year-old students now, and, like a football moving through a python, we will have a bulge in applications.

So there will be more applicants anyway, and higher participation because we have all gone out and encouraged it. Result: a substantial increase in demand for courses. Now here's the rub. Universities will not receive any extra funding for significant expansion. There will be very little growth because it will be costly and the priority will be to get the new fee system bedded in.

Demand accelerates as the size of the system remains static. The outcome will be more and more disappointed applicants, and when this happens the least well-prepared youngsters from the least advantaged backgrounds are always the first to lose their places. So, despite Offa, universities will end the decade more exclusive rather than more accessible. Depressing, but probably true.

The writer is the vice-chancellor of the University of Central England

education@independent.co.uk

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