The Government's costly drive to encourage poor pupils to go to university has run aground. Claire Sanders reports
The Conservatives are calling for a complete rethink on widening participation after the "dismal failure" of a £2 billion investment in universities to help them recruit poorer students.
Boris Johnson, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, said that there was no question of widening-participation cash being stripped from universities, but he questioned the wisdom of spending such a large amount on "elaborate bureaucracy" rather than on "generous bursaries".
Mr Johnson said: "Last week, we learnt that the Government's drive to widen participation has stalled - despite the millions spent on it.
"The truth is that the problem lies with the schools, not with the universities. The talent is clearly out there. We just do not seem to be using the right tools to get at it."
The Government also appeared to be worried about the stall in its drive to widen participation.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to audit what it did to ensure that money was being targeted appropriately. He wants a response from Hefce by early autumn.
On a visit to a Cambridge University summer school for potential medical students last week Mr Rammell acknowledged a need for better monitoring.
"We need to know more about the impact of many of these initiatives," he said.
However, he also made it clear that many of the initiatives are too recent to show up in last week's performance indicators, which showed a fall in the percentage of young entrants from lower social classes to full-time first degrees.
"The introduction of educational maintenance allowances is having a huge impact on disadvantaged students, and we are yet to see the full impact of Aimhigher and other outreach initiatives targeted at 14-year-olds," Mr Rammell said. He accused Mr Johnson of seeking to undermine widening participation.
Failure to widen participation has major political implications, as it will make it very difficult for the Government to lift the cap on variable fees following its review in 2009. Speaking to the Commons Education Select Committee last week, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, promised that the review would be "very serious".
He also distanced himself from the Government's target to widen participation to 50 per cent in an interview this week.
Over the past few years, Hefce increased its spend on widening participation from £48 million in 2002-03 to £344 million in 2006-07. The significant change came in 2003-04 when Hefce introduced additional funds to improve retention.
This is in addition to the money made available for outreach activities through the Government's Aimhigher programme. The budget for Aimhigher in 2006-07 is £87 million, with 40 per cent of this going to schools.
According to the University and College Union submission to the next Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government spent a total of £2 billion on widening-participation initiatives between 1997-98 and 2006-07.
The union called for a review of widening-participation policies.
Geoff Parks, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges, said: "I think questions have to be raised about the effectiveness of the current systems for monitoring the impact of widening-participation work and the validity of the benchmarks set by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
"It must also be recognised that a lot is being done across the sector, and without these efforts the situation could be worse."
Steve Smith, chair-elect of the 1994 Group of universities and vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said: "Widening participation should not concentrate only on the small number of applicants from the lowest socioeconomic group who get three As (about 850 students a year), but on all those who could benefit from higher education."
Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, said that funding per head at universities had not increased in line with funding in schools and further education colleges.