Nervous preparations are afoot to meet Government requirements that universities admit students from a wider range of backgrounds. The English funding council carried out a study of present participation, the results of which were published in April (THES, April 18 1997). This showed the enormous advantage students from affluent areas have in securing university places.
In the spring universities were put on notice to look over their admissions practices and be prepared to change them sharpish.
Now comes news that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is polishing up its points score system to give vocational qualifications more clout and that Oxford is having another go at persuading more state educated students to apply (page 5).
Broadening social intake is hugely complicated by the correlation between A-level success and social background. Promises that general vocational qualifications at level three, deemed equivalent to two A levels, would qualify students for entry have been honoured - up to a point. But GNVQs have not won the same esteem as A levels and they have on the whole provided a passport only to less well-subscribed institutions and subjects.
Moves to broaden entry, both in terms of qualifications and social background, have been set back in the past three or four years by Government restrictions on full-time student numbers. Rationing is the enemy of access. This may now change. The Dearing committee is expected to put renewed emphasis on more open access and the Government will be eager to accept recommendations to that end.
The most obvious targets are Oxford and Cambridge. These two universities, which admit the best prepared students, many of them from highly supportive affluent families, get more public money for teaching each one (through college fees) than any other universities or colleges. It would be in line with the new Government's priorities to shift such public subsidies so that those teaching students with greater difficulties get the most help. That would mean more help for part-timers, for mature students and those with shakier qualifications (priorities near to Minister of State Baroness Blackstone's heart).
A Government bent on such a shift has choices to make. The European open-entry model, giving all qualified school-leavers the right to a place, is not seen as a desirable solution. It leads to hugely overcrowded universities and very high drop-out rates.
Technically it could be feasible to allocate students centrally according to Government criteria - the Dutch model. But this would require legislation to override university autonomy and, in the old universities, the awkward business of amending charters.
Easier, and more likely, is to manipulate grant and fee regulations and funding formulae. Formulae could be rigged to favour particular kinds of students or particular kinds of institutions.
If subsidies are to be channelled through students, the Government could, for example, restore means-testing for tuition fees (the Keith Joseph proposal which Tory backbenchers scuppered) and keep grants. This is the option the National Union of Students, anxious to end students' dependence on parents and partners, hopes it has hit for six by agreeing instead to accept the total abolition of maintenance grants while tuition remains free. Whether to retain some maintenance grants - as Dearing is thought to propose - looks set to be a hot issue.
The institutional option is favoured, for example, by the Council of Europe which in September last year (THES, September 1996) called for a policy of linking state funding of institutions to the socio-economic background of their students. The funding councils have been exploring this option and it may tempt a Government which wants to keep control.
These issues do not seem to have been resolved by Dearing. Debating positions are being taken up.