MP slams apartheid for poor students

February 14, 2003

Government plans to steer students from poor families to vocational sub-degrees courses while capping the number of places available for them on honours degrees could lead to a two-tier system, a leading Labour MP warned this week, writes Alan Thomson.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the education and skills select committee, attacked plans to change the funding of two-year foundation degrees in such a way that could make it harder for students to trade up to a full degree and that could create an educational apartheid.

There was little point in calling them foundation degrees if they did not provide the basis for progression to a full degree, he said.

He told The THES : "It is a dangerous development. If you build in rigidity and start creating barriers between foundation degrees and progression, you do something very serious - you start creating a two-tier system."

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge told the select committee on Monday that the government was minded to change the funding mechanism under which universities must offer foundation-degree students a place on an honours degree course.

She said: "What we are now reflecting on is that, if we want to push foundation degrees as qualifications in their own right, should that compulsory feature remain. We do not want to stop people developing (a foundation degree) into an honours degree if they so wish. But it is a degree in its own right, not a stepping stone."

The government has confirmed that almost all of the extra students to be recruited over the next three years will study for foundation degrees, with little growth in honours degree places. At the same time, the government plans to increase the number of higher education students from poor backgrounds.

Liz Allen, national higher education official for lecturers' union Natfhe, which was among the organisations giving evidence to the committee on Wednesday, was asked by Mr Sheerman if she was aware of the government's plans. Ms Allen said: "I would be staggered if that was the case."

Later Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, told the committee it was alarming news.

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