Every university and college must take students from under-represented groups under plans being developed by the English funding council, writes Alison Goddard.
The strategic plan that it is developing includes widening participation as a core activity - a fourth mission, alongside teaching, research and reach-out.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, chief executive Sir Howard Newby said: "The 50 per cent target of 18 to 30-year-olds benefiting from higher education by 2010 is an election commitment. Therefore, as a sector, we do have to regard it as politically non-negotiable.
"We do believe that all higher education institutions should en-gage. We are proposing to ask all institutions to produce a widening participation strategy as a condition of grant. In other words, no one should be allowed to opt out of this."
Sir Howard also outlined how the funding council intends to meet the 50 per cent target by concentrating cash in some institutions rather than spreading it across the sector. There will be regional and sub-regional targets, and progress will be monitored. Most of the growth is expected to come through Hefce's "Partnerships for Progression" initiative.
The funding council simultaneously published a consultation document on widening participation. It states: "We plan to set sector-wide targets for both widening participation and retention. We propose to ask institutions to revise and resubmit their action plans and associated targets in summer 2003, to incorporate activities associated with the new funding streams."
* Hefce is to set up a think-tank, led by the present director of policy, Bahram Bekhradnia, to identify policy issues and bring them to the attention of policy-makers.
Funded by Hefce, it will aim to deal with interests beyond higher education.