Access spells a scramble for places

September 8, 2000

School-leavers will face tougher competition for university places as access to higher education is widened, a member of the Commons select committee on education warned this week.

Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, said: "We're going to have to grasp the nettle on competition and access. We are increasing the ability to apply. If you seek applications from under-represented groups, even allowing for continued expansion, there will be some from mainstream groups and under-represented groups that will not get in."

Mr Marsden cited Harvard University where, he said, admissions tutors encouraged applications from members of groups under-represented in higher education, but then have ten applications for every place.

This year's unfilled places would soon be over-subscribed if measures to encourage applications from under-represented groups succeed, he said. But, he added, part-time provision could help ease pressure on places.

He was speaking at the annual convention of the European Access Network in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which he attended with select committee member Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat spokesman for higher education, and Robert Rees, clerk to the committee. The committee will publish its report on access later this year.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "Students from poorer backgrounds are still under-represented... There are some neighbourhoods where you have a 100 per cent chance of attending university and there are some where you have virtually none.

"If the success of grants policies for schools raises the participation of these under-represented pupils just to the average, then this alone will require a further 100,000 places.

The government will create extra places at institutions that widen access and has set aside Pounds 25 million for widening participation. Education secretary David Blunkett is expected to announce further details next week when he addresses the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Maggie Woodrow, executive director of the European Access Network, said the money should be given to institutions that had succeeded in widening participation. She said: "I fear the money will be spent on specific strategies, such as summer schools and partnerships. I want it spent on outcomes not processes."

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