Inquiry ordered over low-achievers on degree courses

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Seven thousand students are admitted to university each year through foundation courses which do not always require them to have A-levels, it was revealed last night. Ministers have ordered an inquiry amid fears that standards could be eroded if low-achievers are allowed on to degree courses.

Almost 3 per cent of the 270,000 students who go into higher education each year now go on these one-year courses, according to the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard. Some universities are prepared to fill the places with students who have gained "U" grades at A-level.

Mrs Shephard said applicants must be told they had to meet rigorous standards to then embark on a three-year degree. She asked officials to find out if young people with little hope of reaching such standards were being recruited. Last night only 28,000 university places were still available for this autumn but 115,000 students were eligible to enter the clearing process. The latest university course vacancies are published in the Independent today.

Mrs Shephard said she had no objection to access courses designed for mature students or for arts students to convert to science. "What I am not in favour of is foundation courses which ignore the intellectual capacity of the candidate to achieve a university degree at the end of the course. "

Mrs Shephard stressed that the universities' entrance procedures were their own business but voiced her concerns in a letter to the Higher Education Quality Council, which checks on quality assurance in universities. The council is to conduct a survey of all universities and higher education colleges to find out more about the courses. Many universities have to struggle to fill their places, particularly on science and engineering courses, and suffer financial penalties if they have vacancies.

A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said it was sure the inquiry would show the courses were "quite proper and above board".