Ministers must "unambiguously" define their flagship 50 per cent higher education participation target to allay concerns that they are "fiddling" the figures to ensure they can claim success, an influential committee of backbench MPs has warned.
The Public Accounts Committee says in a report on student participation and achievement this week that "there is some lack of clarity" about the prime minister's target to get 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010. It says the government's definitions of higher education have varied, what qualifications will count as "higher education" are under review, and the way the target will be measured has changed.
The PAC report, Improving Student Achievement and Widening Participation in Higher Education in England , also says:
- The "dog's breakfast" system of student financial support with numerous sources of discretionary funding is a barrier to access and should be urgently reformed
- The Higher Education Funding Council for England should find ways of "better targeting" the £31 million premium funding earmarked to support institutions accepting non-traditional students
- Hefce should develop widening access "targets", not just benchmarks, for every institution, linked to the national aim of 50 per cent participation
- Up to £200 million is wasted through dropouts, which vary from 2 per cent to over half depending on the institution. Hefce should "develop an action plan focusing on under-performing institutions, in consultation with the Department for Education and Skills".
The committee's report says that it is crucial that the government raises standards and expectations in schools to meet its 50 per cent target. But it raises questions about the target itself.
During an evidence session as part of the report in January, committee member and Liberal Democrat education spokesman, David Rendel, probed the DFES permanent secretary, David Normington, about the plans. Mr Normington admitted that officials first thought the current participation role was 44 per cent, but it was actually 41 per cent.
Mr Rendel also criticised the changing terms of the 50 per cent target, which began as "more than 50 per cent". "University participation" had later become "experience of higher education".
The type of qualifications counted as "higher education" was also under review. "If you go on including enough different qualifications, you can meet the target today probably," Mr Rendel said.
Mr Normington said: "There is no point in doing that, and we are not in that game."