Access tsar to penalise elites

January 23, 2003

Key points

  • Universities must draw up an access agreement to improve access for disadvantaged students before they are able to increase tuition fees

  • This agreement will be supervised by an access regulator   

  • The true cost of attracting and retaining non-traditional students will be met

Efforts to encourage people from non-traditional backgrounds to enter higher education will be redoubled, the white paper promises.

An access regulator with power to hand out fines will be appointed to lick institutions into shape. Brunel University vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz described the proposal as “repulsive”.

He said: “Choosing to attend a university is determined by family values, role models, school quality, the availability of jobs and the attraction of vocational training. None of these is under university control.

“This is why the proposal for an access regulator is so repulsive. If student selection and student fees are centrally regulated, it is almost certain that admission decisions will be made for political, not educational, reasons.”

Universities and colleges wishing to charge students more than the minimum tuition fee will be obliged to devise access agreements with the regulator, who will supervise progress against “robust and challenging” targets agreed with the institution. If an institution does not meet its targets, it will be prevented from charging variable fees or fined.

The access regulator will develop a system of benchmarks for dropout rates and will fine institutions that fail to meet them.

Performance indicators for disadvantaged students will be overhauled and new ones introduced by 2007. Education secretary Charles Clarke said that family income and parental education, together with attendance at poorly performing schools, would be a better measure.

The Higher Education Funding Council will consult on the proposals. In principle, data on parental income could be available as early as 2004, while schools’ performance data could be available by 2006. However, a Hefce study this week suggests that school performance is not a useful indicator of success in higher education.

A new programme called Aim Higher will be created from merging the Partnerships for Progression work with the Excellence Challenge in April 2004. Aim Higher will build links between schools, colleges and universities. Meanwhile, Partnerships for Progression will receive an extra £9 million next year.

As part of Aim Higher, students will be encouraged to take paid part-time support roles in schools or colleges and to share their experience of university with school pupils.

The government also wants to see more flexible study arrangements under which students take the first part of a degree at one institution and then move to another to complete a full honours degree. The first part of a degree would be a foundation degree, higher national diplomas and higher national certificates are being abolished. Extra cash will be available   through the   Strategic Development Fund to encourage institutions to find partners who will transfer credits between themselves..

Credit transfer will be important for students progressing from a foundation degree to a full honours degree. It will be up to each university to decide how much more work a student needs to complete in order to convert.

HNDs and HNCs will be subsumed into foundation degrees by 2005. And foundation degrees will be made more attractive. Graduates will be able to use letters after their names - FDA for a foundation degree in the arts and FDSc for a foundation degree in the sciences - to enhance the status of the qualification.

And financial incentives will be offered, either through bursaries for extra maintenance or to offset the fee for the course.

Universities will be able to charge top-up fees for foundation degrees but the government suggested that they should come in cheaper than two years’ of a full degree. The existing foundation degrees will be reviewed and new programmes developed that are targeted at the associate professional skills gap. Key employment sectors - such as teaching and medical-related jobs - will be funded to work with universities and colleges to develop relevant foundation degrees.

A network of universities - Foundation Degree Forward - will validate foundation degrees delivered in further education colleges nationwide while acting as a national centre of expertise.

The Department of Health has already announced that any health service employee with five years’ service will be entitled to training and development leading to a foundation degree. The new higher-level teaching assistants will also do foundation degrees.

Hefce will review how foundation degrees are funded and will ensure that it funds them adequately to “reflect the relative costs of delivering foundation degrees compared with other forms of higher education”.

Another idea is to establish compressed two-year honours degrees by extending the teaching year and using the summer as a third semester, as happens at the private University of Buckingham. A pilot to encourage institutions to try out two-year honours courses will be established.

Finally, work will be done to ensure that university admissions are fair and consistent. Hefce, Universities UK, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service will consider how to turn best practice into a flexible framework for admissions. Admissions criteria should be as easily understood as possible and admissions staff should be trained to recognise potential as well as achievement, and to make fair decisions.

Once the framework is in place, it could form part of the access agreements that universities that charge more than the minimum tuition fee will have to devise.

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