Leading article: Universities must be made to open their doors wider

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Today's higher education league tables (or performance indicators, as they are officially known) will make depressing reading for the Government. They show that the percentage of state-school pupils recruited to university has declined for the first time in five years.

On the face of it, this seems to support the view that some universities are only paying lip-service to the Government's drive to widen participation in higher education. The universities may be sending apostles into neighbourhoods which have, in the past, yielded few applicants, but state-school pupils are still finding it hard to get into the top establishments.

There may well be blame on the universities' side. When there are so many well-qualified candidates to choose from, university admissions officers may be less assiduous than they might otherwise have been at searching out those who would benefit most from the courses they have to offer.

But the Government must accept blame as well. If certain universities have been temporising, it is because ministers have moved far too slowly to use some of the key levers it has at its disposal. The first is the introduction of US-style aptitude tests for university applicants. This was recommended by the government task force on university admissions earlier this year. And in the United States these tests have led to top universities such as Harvard recruiting more students from deprived neighbourhoods.

So-called Sats are not the whole answer. Even in the United States there is criticism that good teaching or expensive private tutoring can improve scores. Pupils from poor schools may still be at a disadvantage. But with the performance of public schools and many comprehensives in this country so far apart, Sats deserve to be tried.

Yet it is only this November that the first pilot project will start in this country, and it is designed to last for five years. Contrast this with the speed with which the Government is introducing its academies programme to reform inner-city schooling, and the testing programme looks like a very poor relation.

The second area which is ripe for change is the timing of university applications. Few contest the idea that it would be fairer all round to base university recruitment on actual exam results rather than predictions. Post-qualification application to universities (PQA for short) would put all candidates in the same position.

It would also tackle the problem of low aspiration, where pupils in poor schools may be told by teachers or parents that the top universities are not for them, and it would counter any prejudice that teachers may unwittingly apply to predicting a pupil's grades.

As with the introduction of aptitude tests, however, the Government seems to be dragging its feet. A consultation paper is slowly doing the rounds of the education service while university vice-chancellors, as usual, defend the status quo. Next year, top universities will be encouraged to set aside some places for those whose grades are better than expected. But the universities are reluctant to do so - and anyway, such a feeble change hardly addresses the problem.

There would be great benefit, both to the individuals themselves and to the country as a whole, if the brightest, rather than just the best-educated, pupils had an equal chance of being admitted to the best universities. The Government is right to want to broaden participation in higher education. It has mechanisms at its disposal; it should use them.

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