Universities in England will be asked to establish new schools or to sponsor “an existing underperforming school” if they want to charge “higher fees”, Theresa May has announced.
The prime minister included the proposal in a speech today on social mobility and education, in which she said that she wants to scrap the ban on creating new grammar or selective schools – as well as to allow existing non-selective schools to become selective “in some circumstances”.
It remains unclear what the government means by “higher fees”, but a press release from No 10 appeared to indicate that universities would have to establish schools to charge above the basic tuition fee threshold, currently set at £6,000 for English institutions.
The No 10 statement says: “As part of the wider commitment to increasing the number of good school places, the prime minister will also say that universities who want to charge higher fees should be required to set up a new school or sponsor an existing underperforming school.
“Research shows that prior attainment is one of the biggest factors determining access to university.”
The statement adds: “This will create a talent pipeline, through which pupils from all backgrounds will have a greater opportunity to get the grades and skills they need to go on to university, and help universities in their efforts to widen participation of lower income students.”
The statement highlights examples of schools established by universities, including King’s College London’s specialist sixth-form college, the University of Brighton’s work with five schools and the University of Birmingham’s free school.
“Following the transfer of responsibility for higher and further education policy to the Department for Education, today’s announcement marks the start of the process of bringing England’s school and university systems closer together – with a culture of high expectations for all placed right at the heart,” the statement adds.
No 10’s briefing indicated that the government would set out new guidance for the director of fair access, with an expectation that universities should contribute school attainment as part of their access agreements, through which they gain permission to charge fees above £6,000.
Universities minister Jo Johnson, speaking at the Festival of Higher Education, being held at the University of Buckingham, said universities "need to do more" to help children gain a high level of education.
“The decision to move the responsibility for universities to the DfE underlines the prime minister’s desire to make more opportunities for universities and schools to work together more closely. There’s a lot that both sets of institutions can teach each other," he said.
"Where universities do engage they achieve great results. We want to see more collaboration between schools and universities all around the country."
University Alliance chief executive Maddalaine Ansell said that universities should be “part of the solution” in improving the attainment of school pupils at 16 and 18, given the “broad consensus” that this was “the most significant barrier to progress in widening access”.
“There are already examples of Alliance universities collaborating with others to boost educational attainment in schools, and more of these partnerships are under development,” she said.
However, Ms Ansell also took aim at the proposal to introduce more grammar schools.
“We should also remember the key debate here is about selection in the secondary system – if implemented, this might well make the task of widening access to higher education much harder, and the case for allowing it is unconvincing.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, also emphasised the work that its universities were doing with schools.
“Many Russell Group universities already sponsor academies, free schools and university technical colleges, and all of our universities work in close partnership with many more schools,” she said.
“These partnerships include direct interventions focused on giving extra academic support to highly able students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as sharing facilities and giving advice and guidance to students on applying to university.
“It will take time, commitment and sustained action from a range of agencies to raise pupils’ aspirations, increase attainment and improve the advice and guidance offered. We will study the government’s proposals closely and respond in detail in due course.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said that about half of universities in England already sponsored a school.
“It is important that any new proposals allow universities the flexibility to consider the evidence and target funding in a way that works best for the school and students to help raise attainment,” she said.
“We agree that prior school attainment is vital in terms of improving social mobility and there is more that universities can do in this area.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, said the timing of Ms May's announcement "raises questions" given fees and access agreements for 2017-18 have just been agreed.
"It is also likely that students and graduates will have number of questions about these proposals as they will effectively be asked to pay higher fees in order to support the school sector,” she said.
“We fully support the prime minister’s ambitions to improve social mobility, but the road map she has outlined today needs to be subject to full scrutiny.
“Modern universities have an excellent track record in working with schools and are agents of social mobility in their own right. Universities already work with academies and university technical colleges, and it is wrong to suggest that universities give nothing back."