Election '97: All's fairer for university applicants

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The Independent Online
People from working-class backgrounds, ethnic minorities and women all have a better chance of getting to university now than they did before the Conservatives took office, according to a pamphlet published yesterday.

Universities are fairer and more accessible than they were in 1979, Professor David Watson, director of Brighton University, and a member of the Dearing Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, says.

He points out that the proportion of university students in the bottom three social classes has risen from 23 per cent in 1986 to 28 per cent last year.

The participation rate for those in the very bottom social class (E) has doubled since 1991 and that for social class D is up from 12 to 17 per cent.

Women now form just over half of all full-time home (as opposed to overseas) undergraduates compared with 41 per cent in 1979. For ethnic minorities, the participation rate has risen from 10.7 per cent in 1990 to 13 per cent.

The figures are complicated by the fact that the polytechnics, which have traditionally taken more working-class and ethnic minority students than the old universities, were given university status six years ago.

Even if this is taken into account, Professor Watson says, the university system since the expansion triggered by Kenneth Baker, the former secretary of state for education, "is demonstrably fairer to potential participants than the post-Robbins inheritance of 1979".

What is more, he argues, research shows that student achievement has remained as high as it was 18 years ago so the pool of talent is far from exhausted.

But, although the Government willed the end, it failed to will the means, the pamphlet says. "The stark conclusion on the resourcing of this enlarged, more accessible and hence fairer system of higher education is that government has failed to meet its implied commitments through public funding."

This year, the whole university sector is likely to go into financial deficit. Government spending on research and development has fallen sharply during the past decade, and the pay of university teachers is slipping further behind that of people in comparable professions.

Professor Watson said yesterday that the substantial investment needed for higher education would have to come from private as well as public sources.

It was vital, he said, for universities to continue to expand. "If we were to go back to a smaller and more selective system we would lose the social and economic gains we have made through expansion."

He pointed out that retrenchment worked against equal opportunities for all students. The proportion of working-class students went down between 1981 and 1984 when Sir Keith Joseph was squeezing university numbers.