Ministers 'fudged' student total

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Indy Politics

The Government is double counting students and bending the rules about what constitutes a full degree course in order to meet its target of getting half of all school leavers into university by 2010, it was claimed yesterday.

The Government is double counting students and bending the rules about what constitutes a full degree course in order to meet its target of getting half of all school leavers into university by 2010, it was claimed yesterday.

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, already criticised for her handling of the A-levels fiasco, has been accused of using attendance on new foundation courses – some as short as six weeks – to boost the figures. The claim comes from Britain's leading university staff association, which also said that young people going to summer schools at higher education establishments will be counted as having been to university.

Although the Government insists that "only courses of a high-quality HE experience count towards the target", the Association of University Teachers (AUT) claimed the new courses are at establishments that are "well below" undergraduate standard with "inadequate" facilities. And yet they are still being counted towards the target.

The AUT said higher education experts were also concerned that students were being double counted. The union has been told by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that a foundation course and a bridging degree will count as two separate courses. The body is yet to announce whether the final year of a normal degree course will count as a third separate course.

Despite the admission from its own quango, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) denied double counting was taking place. But a department spokesman admitted that pre-degree foundation courses, which the Government announced last week could last anything from six weeks to a year, would be counted towards the target.

The AUT and NATFHE, the other higher education union, are concerned that foundation courses do not meet existing standards of higher education. The decision to count them as part of the 50 per cent target is certain to fuel the debate on dumbing down in education.

Sally Hunt, the AUT general secretary, said: "Many people in higher education are becoming increasingly concerned that there's an element of double counting going on – simply so that the 50 per cent target can be reached. The AUT is a strong believer in widening access, for poorer students and people from ethnic minorities, but we're very worried that these courses haven't been thought through properly and that the whole exercise could backfire with more people put off higher education than encouraged into it."

The Government is clearly concerned it may struggle to reach the target, for which it needs 95,714 new students each year. In the past two years the HEFCE has created around 20,000 extra places but has failed to fill them all.

There is also widespread concern that the Government is not prepared to commit the necessary resources for the higher education sector. Expansion, critics insist, is being expected without finance.

Nor have the full details of the future path of higher education been clearly set out.

The long-awaited White Paper on higher education is expected, when it is published next month, to set out a 10-year strategy for higher education, its expansion and the review of its funding – an element of government policy that has been consistently postponed.

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