Efforts to modernise higher education and to widen participation are being hampered by the government's preoccupation with funding elite institutions, Wolverhampton University heads have said.
Initiatives designed to support widening participation have become overshadowed by the debate on top-up fees, a development that threatens to alienate the underprivileged students ministers believe universities should be targeting, they say.
Wolverhampton recruits 65 per cent of its students from the West Midlands and about a quarter via local colleges. The university strives to match the government's expectations for widening participation and the needs of its local communities.
Students at Wolverhampton are reaping the benefits of the first three years of a ten-year development plan and a £70 million building programme designed to support 21st-century learning. Flexibility, accessibility and high-quality support are priorities.
Students work at conversation-friendly curvy tables in cyber cafe-style areas with state-of-the-art interactive computer facilities. They can troubleshoot all their problems at a one-stop shop combining financial support, counselling, jobs and careers advice.
A higher education "shop" offering advice in Wolverhampton city centre receives 25,000 visitors a year.
Young people from partner schools and colleges are offered weekend visits, master classes and sleepovers in a bid to whet their appetites for higher education.
But vice-chancellor John Brooks is concerned that widening participation is no longer a priority for the government. He said top-up fees may have taken the wind out of the sails of its Partnerships for Progression initiative, designed to support cross-sectoral links to help move towards the 50 per cent participation target.
Professor Brooks said P4P was "planning in a vacuum" because the government had failed to find a funding stream for it.
"It is alarming to hear ministers saying they might apply for European funding or that regional development agencies might pay for it, because it shows that there has been no strategic planning in the department for funding the 50 per cent target," he said.
"We would love to have a long-term strategic plan, but because of the lack of clarity about participation targets and how they are going to be achieved, it is very difficult to do. We would like to grow by about 2 per cent per year, and we have plans to do that with about half of the growth through partnership with FE. But there is a real cost involved, and there is no intention from the government to make the funds available."
Professor Brooks said the debate on top-up fees threatened to create barriers for non-traditional students. "This argument for international competitiveness is being driven by a relatively small number of universities that are competing on the world stage. Is it right that the whole of the system should be predicated on the needs of this elite research-led minority?" he asked.
Wolverhampton heads worry that fees might skew the distribution of trained graduates against employment needs. They believe the university plays an important part in regenerating and modernising local industry, which has shifted from manufacturing towards a knowledge-based economy. But they fear that some students from working-class backgrounds who want to train for such emerging professions might be put off by fees.
Such issues barely needed to be considered by elite research-led institutions, said Bryony Conway, dean of Wolverhampton's business school.
"They have a totally different set of concerns, because they recruit students who are mostly going to sail through anyway," she said.