No test for access goal, Johnson says

July 16, 2004

There will be no formal test of whether government policy on tuition fees and grants succeeds in drawing more students from poor homes into higher education, it emerged this week.

In an interview with The Times Higher , Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, said that setting a target for widening participation across the social classes would be "superfluous" even though a broader student mix is a key aim of the Government.

Mr Johnson also said that more support for part-time students would be among the priorities for post-16 education in Labour's third term in office. He said that a forthcoming student income and expenditure survey would, for the first time, include information about part-time students and that this would inform policy.

But giving what may be one of his last interviews in the post if, as is expected, he is promoted to a Cabinet position in this month's reshuffle, Mr Johnson said that establishing a national target for wider university participation across the social classes "may do more harm than good".

"Universities have their own milestones, and the new access regulator is there to help encourage more applications from students from poorer backgrounds.

"But all the work to encourage applications - including the work not associated directly with higher education such as Surestart - will take years to feed through the system. To set targets would be superfluous and do more harm than good. The focus has to be on ensuring that universities carry on doing what they are doing and that the new regime of variable fees does not cause any additional problems," he said.

Labour's "five-year plan" for education says simply that it hopes that "significant progress" will have been made towards "fairer access" by 2008.

Mr Johnson said that an independent review of the new fees system, planned for 2009, would indicate whether the policy had closed the class gap in universities.

A campaign is about to be launched to explain how the system of deferred fees and grants for poor students will work from 2006.

Mr Johnson said that this week's spending review had repeated the Government's pledge to maintain funding per student in real terms up to 2008 to "reassure" universities that there would be no clawback of funding by the Treasury once fees were introduced.

But he said he hoped that extra money might be found once the Department for Education and Skills had "thrashed out" its departmental budget.

Mr Johnson said: "I would love to move forward in these areas, but you have to be realistic."

The minister added that developing foundation degrees and fostering links between further and higher education would also be keynotes of a third-term Labour government.

In the light of speculation over a reshuffle, Mr Johnson said: "Last year, I was assured by a whole series of people that I was staying at the Department of Trade and Industry," he said. "Now everyone is saying that I'm going to move. Perhaps they'll be equally wrong."

Meanwhile, the Government has released further "guidance" about the role of Offa. The regulator will expect institutions with "the furthest to go" in widening participation to offer larger bursaries and do more outreach work than other universities.

The guidance enshrines the Government's concession that gap-year students in 2005 cannot be charged higher fees from 2006. It adds that Offa can comment on internal targets set by a university if they are "not stretching enough".

Offa has the power to refuse to approve an access agreement - preventing an institution charging higher fees - or instruct the funding council to reduce a university's grant by up to £500,000.

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