Tories slam new participation 'red tape burden'

November 27, 2008

A new requirement for universities to report on their widening-participation strategies has been criticised by the Conservative Party as "an extra burden they can do without".

In spring next year, universities will have to provide the funding council with a Widening Participation Strategic Assessment setting out their admissions policies and outreach strategies over the next three years.

John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said the aim was not to impose "a new burden without a reason" but to take "some of the heat out of the recurrent controversy over admissions".

A report on widening participation by the National Audit Office (NAO) in June said there was "insufficient" information about universities' access activities.

Until 2003-04, widening-participation funding was conditional on institutions presenting strategies and action plans to the funding council, but this requirement was removed "to minimise the administrative burden", the NAO said.

The NAO said the new document should include "an assessment of performance as indicated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency's performance indicators, institutions' own information on these and other underrepresented groups not reported on by performance indicators and progress against the objectives set out in the institutions' access agreements".

At an evidence session on widening participation held by the Commons Public Accounts Committee last month, Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), was asked why the department had apparently withdrawn its requirement for strategies and action plans, only to reintroduce it.

He said DIUS was keen to ensure that widening participation and fair access were "integral with the policies of the university system as a whole".

David Willetts, Shadow Universities Secretary, said: "It looks like the department removed the requirement to cut red tape, and it is now reimposing it.

"The workings of DIUS are increasingly mysterious - this is a department that increased maintenance grants and cut them again, that claims to be committed to lifelong learning and cut funding for ELQs (equivalent or lower-level qualifications). This looks like an extra burden that universities can do without."

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said it intended to bring the new document into line with its annual "single conversation" with institutions, with the annual monitoring returns currently requested by the Office for Fair Access forming a separate annexe.

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