Leader: Change of course for access drive

July 28, 2006

There appears to be a growing consensus (among the politicians, at least) that the time has come for a reappraisal of the drive to widen participation in higher education. For Labour, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, has asked for an "audit" of widening participation programmes and Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has quietly distanced himself from the Government's 50 per cent participation target, while Boris Johnson, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, is probing further on the cost and effectiveness of the various strands of activity.

Last week's performance indicators, showing a downturn in recruitment from the target groups, brought matters to a head, but doubts are more longstanding. The indicators, after all, may represent a blip that has already been corrected - the figures relate to recruitment two years ago.

It is the pattern displayed over a longer period that is causing concern.

The annual entry from the lowest socioeconomic classes has grown by about 10,000 since the first PIs were published in 1999. But even some of the universities most committed to widening access have begun to see these numbers fall, while those at the top of the league tables continue to compete for a limited pool of candidates they consider capable of holding their own academically. With a tight spending review on the horizon, it is no wonder that programmes costing hundreds of millions of pounds are under the microscope.

Top-up fees could yet accelerate the downward trend. First reports from the Department for Education and Skills suggested that the social mix of this year's applicants was close to the norm. But, especially at universities where the decline in demand is steep, this autumn's intake may tell a different story. A more middle-class enrolment at universities that are failing to meet national benchmarks would raise further questions about the effectiveness of the Government's policy.

The Education Secretary's move to play down the 50 per cent target is prudent, given the near-certainty that it will be missed. His predecessors had already taken to discussing progress "towards" 50 per cent. And, as Mr Johnson claims, the message sent out by the target was far more important than the precise participation rate in 2010. But there will be no going back on Labour's determination to widen participation, particularly if Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister. Mr Rammell may be right that maintenance allowances and other initiatives will soon produce results, but if not there will be pressure for a different approach. The focus of widening participation may shift from universities to schools, where many in higher education have always said it should be. If that happens, however, the funding is likely to go with it.

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