Institutions that fail to put their weight behind the government's widening-participation strategy will have their public funding stopped, warns a detailed strategy document unveiled by the funding councils last week.
Every higher education institution and further education college that receives public cash must comply. John Rushforth, director for widening participation at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said:
"The task to widen participation is large and long term, and this is something that we believe is part of our core expectation of all institutions."
The report, Partnerships for Progression: Call for Strategic Plans to Release Funding , stipulates that every English university and college must help raise regional enrolments by 10 percentage points by 2010. The plans provide the targets needed to meet the Labour Party's manifesto promise that 50 per cent of people aged 18 to 30 years will experience higher education by 2010. In England, between 41 and 42 per cent of young people currently enrol in higher education.
The regional targets make institutions responsible for raising the aspirations of local children rather than enrolling them. Institutions in the London region will be responsible for getting 45 per cent of young Londoners into higher education, whether they choose to study in London or not.
Every institution in each of the nine English regions has been asked to join a regional consortium with the task of widening participation. In their 50-page document, the Hefce and the Learning and Skills Council state: "We expect all higher education institutions and further education colleges to contribute to partnerships and to be involved in the development of strategic plans."
The nine regional partnerships will set detailed targets, including those to be achieved by March 2006, as well as sub-regional targets. Hefce and the LSC will review their delivery every year.
The councils warn that they "may decide to withdraw funds if planned activities are not undertaken and there is no agreed redeployment (of money) into more effective activities. We may also cease funding if the evaluation of activities by their intended recipients and beneficiaries indicates that they are not having a significant and relevant impact."
At least £60 million is available for partnerships over the next three years, to be channelled through Hefce. It is anticipated that matching funding could come through the European Social Fund, money that would also be managed by Hefce.
The document states that more money will go to regions where fewer people progress into higher education. The Northeast, for example, has been asked to boost enrolment rates from 24 per cent to 34 per cent (a 42 per cent increase), compared with London, which has to increase enrolments from 35 per cent to 45 per cent (a 29 per cent increase).
The document also defines what is meant by "experience of higher education". "Participation is defined as starting an undergraduate course of one year or more, without having previously started a higher education course," it says.
The document also reveals that Hefce is considering replacing the "postcode premium" for students who come from a low-participation neighbourhood with a measure that focuses more on individuals' circumstances.
Hefce intends to make widening participation one of four core institutional activities, along with teaching, research, and business and community.
After last summer's consultation on Partnerships for Progression, the two councils decided not to collaborate on plans to provide cash to improve standards in further education and for work-based learning - these activities will be funded by the LSC alone. However, they will collaborate on raising aspirations and a national programme of research and evaluation to assess which activities best achieve this.
The document also reveals how best practice is being sacrificed to government policy. Many respondents to the consultation on partnerships argued that work with children aged under 13 could help raise aspirations.
The document states: "We accept the value of this work but are nevertheless aware that the government is seeking to achieve the participation target by 2010, so work with very young children may not deliver by then."