In the fourth of our series on universities in the 21st century, Wendy Piatt envisages a world of differential fees, scholarships, foundation degrees and infinitely adaptable curricula
It is September, 2005. Armed with complete records of achievement, students embark on the university application process with greater confidence. Under the new Post Qualification Application system, September is a period of intense activity. The moment the final results are released, university departments receive an "online profile" of candidates; they then target a selection of potential students, soliciting them with glossy information packages and invitations to apply. Relieved of the "distraction" of studying for exams and certain of their grades, would-be students can concentrate on making informed choices. They return to school for interview practice and consultations with student assistants who guide them through the comprehensive statement of entry criteria that universities are now obliged to publish.
Oxbridge has averted the threat of the abolition of the collegiate system in the face of increasing disquiet over inconsistencies between colleges on admissions practices. Colleges have bowed to pressure to publish detailed records of all successful applicants and to declare any of the fellows' interests, such as membership of a school governing body. There are now two main interviews - one conducted by the college and the other, a recent innovation, by the central admissions centre.
Oxford defended itself against accusations of elitism by vehemently asserting that the overriding objective of the interview was to identify potential. However, after compulsory interview-training, numerous dons genuinely committed to a fair procedure were shocked to discover how far their previous strategies were based on unwitting class prejudice and cultural assumptions. The PQA system has been universally welcomed as predicted grades were notoriously unreliable. One of the more controversial pieces of evidence is the "school classification" document, introduced to give interviewers a full picture of the student's learning environment in order to present the student's ability more accurately.
School classification indicators range from the number of pupils entitled to free school meals to extra-curriculum activity provision. Each school is allotted a band number (1-6) for greater ease of reference. All interviewers are encouraged, but not obliged, to make use of the "differential formula", which adds or subtracts from the candidates' total final-year score in accordance with the classification.
Although this system has been in operation for only a short time, the effects on schools' pupil intake are manifest. There has been a marked increase in the number of middle-class parents sending their offspring to the local state school, convinced that private schools no longer confer an advantage in the competition for university places. Needless to say, they have quickly made their presence felt at the schools. But student indebtedness still distorts the picture. Under the embryonic differential fee system, Oxbridge fees have risen to Pounds 5,000 a year. But the leaflets included in every mailing from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and discussions with the school funding officer give assurances that no payment will be demanded until graduates are earning in excess of Pounds 22,000. There are numerous sources of support: firms offer sponsorship deals committing students to work for a minimum period in their first year, but without further contractual obligations.
College scholarships also lighten the debt burden. With the substantial increase in revenue, high-fee institutions are not struggling to abide by the government's stricture that some form of bursary be extended to pupils from the lower socioeconomic bands. Moreover, most universities are delighted by the first signs of growth in alumni contribution. Former recipients of a bursary fund evidently feel a deeper sense of responsibility towards the succeeding generations of disadvantaged students.
Indeed, all the universities are beginning to reap the rewards of differential fees. Even the least prestigious universities are charging higher fees for courses, such as business and management, that compensate for the less profitable. Moreover, all higher education institutions are directly benefiting from the burgeoning revenues of the members of the Russell Group: the central administrative fund receives a small percentage of any top-up fees levied and redistributes this money to needy institutions.
Universities have also made considerable efficiency gains from forming more diverse consortia - comprising colleges and companies of varying sizes. Relieved of the obligation to provide a full range of high-quality courses, they can focus on their strengths, either in specific subject areas or social objectives, such as recruiting from under-represented regions. If they fulfil a clearly defined mission statement, stringently measured by performance indicators, they are granted an added bonus.
Access to most courses is also provided locally through "branches" and electronic distance learning. The consortia promote greater fluidity and integration between the rigidly stratified layers of post-16 education. Entitled to make use of all facilities within the consortium, students feel at ease moving across the previously distinct sectors.
The new foundation degree has also contributed to a sense of seamless progression between higher and further education.
After completing their foundation degree at the local college, many students qualify for the honours degree at the local university. Funding mechanisms are converging: further education students qualify for income-contingent loans and have been successful in obtaining sponsorship deals.
The boundaries between the worlds of work and education are rapidly disintegrating, not least because of the increase in full-time students with casual jobs. Mentors collaborate with students to devise a balanced regime to ensure that, far from undermining academic performance, work enhances learning.
Indeed, in assuming greater responsibility for the costs of their training, students have become notably more assertive in defining their needs. Colleges have responded by offering a flexible curriculum with infinite permutations. Within a robust advisory framework, students effectively construct their own curriculum. This more cooperative relationship between local institutions is beginning to extend to the local community. Colleges seize every opportunity to advertise their "special offers" and free "taster" courses to lure the low-skilled back into a learning environment.
The Individual Learning Accounts, now complete with "supermarket loyalty card", offering reductions on a variety of study-related goods and services, have achieved some success with the more motivated, initiated learners. But many of those with minimal skills are wary of bank accounts or credit cards. Free initial courses for this target group are crucial. A series of TV adverts, reminiscent of the "Don't tell Sid" adverts of the 1980s, have been trumpeting the importance of lifelong learning. In fact, comparisons have been drawn between the two campaigns in heralding and propelling a shift in notions of ownership and personal investment. Yet the similarities serve to underline the key differences in the respective policy objectives. In the 1980s, it was overwhelmingly the middle classes who profited from wider share ownership; at the beginning of the 21st century, investment in personal development should be universal.
Wendy Piatt, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, is conducting a project on the funding and structure of post-16 education.