Speaking today at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the universities minister said the AAB policy – introduced for the first time this year in a bid to force competition between universities – meant that “more students will be studying at their first-choice institution and universities are having to work hard to attract those applicants”.
He added: “Our White Paper committed us to year-on-year increases in the number of liberated places.
“To an extent, that is likely to happen naturally – given past trends, for example, in school achievement.
“And I urge Hefce to continue talking to qualification bodies about the details of the tariff policy, for example in relation to equivalent qualifications.
“We want to go further than this, but are still digesting strong views on whether to do so in 2013-14.
“I recognise that you need to know very soon exactly what our policy will be for 2013-14. We all wish to avoid last year’s scenario in which many institutions had to rewrite their access agreements so, while I am not in a position to make an announcement now, I hope to do so before the end of the month.”
Mr Willetts also used his speech to acknowledge the “fraught debate” around the appointment of Les Ebdon, former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, as director of the Office of Fair Access.
Professor Ebdon’s selection provoked a backlash in sections of the press and among Conservative MPs in late February over fears that he would force elite universities to accept more students from poorer backgrounds.
Mr Willetts said: “Let me make it absolutely clear that we are not introducing quotas.”
“Your power to decide who you admit is rightly protected in legislation…institutions will always have complete autonomy over whom they choose to admit.
“Vince Cable and I are glad that Les will be picking up the reins at Offa.
“He was the strongest candidate, selected in a fair and open process – and he will provide a clear voice for the sector with the advantage of coming from the sector and understanding it.”
He also reiterated his position on contextual data, emphasising that the selection of students could be based “on more than just A Level results”.
“The aim is that those who can perform best at any given university are selected for it,” Mr Willetts said.