Leader: Target retreat has sting in tail

December 17, 2004

The writing was on the wall for the Government's target of 50 per cent participation in higher education as soon as the word "towards" began appearing whenever it was mentioned. That started to happen even before last year's White Paper was published, and now it seems that history is being rewritten to pretend that 50 per cent was never a firm objective.

Opposition parties are unlikely to let ministers get away with that but, given the arbitrary nature of the target, most academics will probably welcome a little vagueness as long as the principle of extending access is retained.

This week's grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England is a case in point. By broadly maintaining funding levels while allowing for limited expansion, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has chosen quality over quantity without inviting the charge of abandoning his social agenda. Demographic change will account for most of the extra places, but just enough margin has been built in to allow some progress to be made on widening participation. As the size of the 18-year-old age group declines later in the decade, the 50 per cent target may be closer than now seems likely. But in any case, Mr Clarke is establishing a different priority, which he will not find difficult to defend in higher education or among the wider electorate.

Where he might yet run into trouble is in the much less flexible attitude he has taken to enrolments next autumn. Ignoring the likelihood of a bulge in applications in advance of top-up fees, Mr Clarke has been even stricter than normal on possible overrecruitment. He demands "appropriate control over student numbers" and warns that the sector may pay with next year's grant if this is not forthcoming. But what will be appropriate if applications increase substantially? What will the Government's principles of fair access be worth if well-qualified students have to be turned away to avoid a one-year blip in the cost of student support?

There are mixed messages in the early figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service: applications for medicine and dentistry are up dramatically, but veterinary science is down. There has been a huge increase in online applications, but this may signal a step change in process rather than a genuine leap in demand. The point is that no one yet knows. In a month's time, the official Ucas deadline will have passed and the picture will be clearer. That is the moment, not now, to decide what level of recruitment will be fair to applicants and sustainable for the system.

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