Britain's universities will have to attract students without A-levels if they are to meet demanding government targets to increase student numbers, vice-chancellors will be told next week.
They must recruit thousands of youngsters, who have left school through alternative routes such as access courses, if Tony Blair's cherished aim of getting 50 per cent of under-30s into higher education by the end of the decade is fulfilled. A paper to be presented to the university vice-chancellors' conference, Universities UK, warns: "The sector needs to reach students with non-traditional qualifications in order to achieve the government's participation target."
The report has been prepared by Sir David Watson, director of Brighton University and chairman of Universities UK's long-term strategy group. "The target won't be met by school leavers alone," he said yesterday. "We need to encourage employers to release employees so they can follow routes like foundation degrees, HNDs or access course to a higher education qualification."
Sir David said his group was keen to promote access courses and work with further education colleges to design apt courses. Access courses are traditionally used by mature students without A-level qualifications to prepare for higher education.
In the long term, universities plan to work with schools and colleges to persuade a larger percentage of 14-year-olds to stay on in education until they are 18 or 19 and take A-levels.
At present,students who have two A-levels will be almost guaranteed a university place.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "We recognise that we need more qualified applicants but there is no proposal to change admissions criteria."
Universities wanted to increase the number of motivated pupils who stayed on and qualified for university by establishing more links with schools and colleges. Together, they could enthuse more students to get qualified to study at university, she said.
"It is crucial to encourage more young people to stay on at school but, until that happens, we must look at recruiting more talent among those with non-traditional qualifications," she added.
Sir David's paper draws on research by Brian Ramsden, the outgoing chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Participation rates in higher education ranged from 72 per cent among children of professional classes to just 13 per cent of children of unskilled workers, he reported.
The Government offers "opportunity bursaries" of £2,000 to youngsters from a home without a tradition of university education to try to address the imbalance.
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