Leader: Access distinctions with slight differences

March 14, 2003

When does a benchmark become a target become a quota? And is a funding council target, approved by the education secretary, different from a government target? In the looking-glass world of public policy, the distinctions are crucial. They allow Charles Clarke, for example, to contradict his higher education minister and insist the government will not set admissions targets according to social class, while the funding council does just that - and records that the figures are conditional on the education secretary's agreement.

Naturally, there will be no quotas; it is just that universities may be forbidden to charge top-up fees if the access regulator finds their progress unsatisfactory. Benchmarks, it was said when they were introduced, were there merely to let institutions know how they compared with their peers. Now they are to become targets with financial consequences.

Universities and funding officials are indignant when these are described as quotas, but it will be a brave (or wealthy) institution that ignores them.

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