Melanie Newman reports on the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool
A minimum entry hurdle Melanie Newman reports on the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool A national minimum university entrance level should be set to help cut dropout rates, John Redwood, chairman of the Conservative Party's Economic Competitiveness Policy group, argued in an interview with The Times Higher this week.
Speaking before the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, Mr Redwood said student numbers had been expanded "for the sake of it". High dropout rates, caused by the admission of underqualified students, had undermined the Government's target to get 50 per cent of under- 30s into university by 2010, he said.
The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham, has already condemned Mr Redwood's recommendations, which were made earlier this year in a report, Freeing Britain to Compete , which was commissioned by Conservative leader David Cameron.
Mr Denham told a fringe meeting at last week's Labour Party conference that Mr Redwood had "explicitly rejected the idea of widening participation in higher education".
"The Redwood report says that only people with certain specified A levels should be allowed to go to university," Mr Denham said.
Mr Redwood condemned the remarks as "a typical Labour lie", adding: "We're happy to widen [participation] to the extent that there are suitably qualified people."
His wide-ranging report recommended that students be funded by the state only if they have met a standard that is decided every few years "in conjunction with the universities".
"This standard would approximate to the minimum standard that those wishing to qualify for a full maintenance grant under the old regime had to attain [two grade Es at A level]," the report said.
Although Mr Redwood said the state would not fund entrants with qualifications below the national level, he denied he was advocating central control over entrance criteria. "The minimum should be set by the universities.
We have to trust institutions to be independent. We want them to come to a sensible view of what the qualifications should be."
He said the move was necessary to tackle high dropout rates, which had rendered the Government's targets of 50 per cent participation by 2010 meaningless.
While the current university participation rate of 42 per cent was high by world standards, he said, it was combined with a 14 per cent dropout rate and masked the fact that just over a third of students complete their courses successfully.
"There is a higher dropout rate from those universities whose entry requirements are less onerous," he said, which suggested students have "realised the course is too difficult, that they haven't done the basics at school".
While Mr Redwood has not recommended the abolition of top-up fees, despite an earlier Tory policy to scrap fees, he advocated an increase in access funds to help poorer students. But he called for the abolition of the Office for Fair Access. "We do not believe that [universities] seek to exclude students from poorer backgrounds."
He warned universities not to expect an increase in public funding from a Conservative Government, however, as he believed universities were too dependent on the state. He recommended that they boost their income by seeking more endowments, increasing numbers of overseas students and attracting investment from businesses.
New tax incentives attached to donations to "leading university institutions" would encourage individuals and businesses to give.
Universities should also boost their income through more collaboration with business, he added, pointing to Warwick University's School of Manufacturing, which has an annual external income of £100 million per year.
"There aren't enough universities that have broken through in that area," Mr Redwood said.