Government policies turn off target students

March 17, 2000

Warning bells should be ringing in ministerial ears this week as signs of frustration with the government's widening participation policy emerged in higher education ("Swapping the ghetto for the gown", pages 6-7). Existing policies seem to be making life hard for the students government wants to attract - among them people who are eager to become teachers.

Despite a policy of capping full-time, first-degree numbers in higher education (6,000 more places this year, with a negligible rise next year) and expanding part-time degree and sub-degree places until 2002, the reality is that institutions cannot meet demand for affordable part-time courses. They have too few funded part-time places and therefore face the prospect of either charging full cost or drumming up sponsorship funds, all of which hinder part-time expansion.

Until the government's fledgling school reforms create an expanded cohort of school-leavers with higher education aspirations, the market for full-time university study is all but saturated. Since 1992 the proportion of school-leavers entering university has edged up from just over 30 per cent to about 35 per cent, and some universities are finding it hard to fill places.

Meanwhile, demand from over-21s, most of whom study part-time because of family and employment commitments and cost, was increasing significantly but began to flag when grants were scrapped - a coincidence of timing that makes it barely credible to suggest the drop-off is because the adult population has had enough higher education. Expansion would surely resume if provision and financial support were tailored more appropriately. In this respect, the proposed two-year, vocational foundation degrees, which may be offered largely part time to employees ("Labour's marred vision", page 1) could, with the right incentives, really open opportunities.

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