Universities join academy rolls

September 28, 2007

Labour emphasised broader participation at its conference, Rebecca Attwood reports. The Tories, meanwhile, want to encourage business-focused learning.

More than a dozen universities around the country are responding to the Government's calls to enter into partnerships with academy schools to help pupils better prepare for higher education.

At least 15 universities confirmed they were already are sponsoring academies or had plans to do so, according to a survey by The Times Higher carried out this week during the annual Labour Party conference.

The Government has made it clear that it views partnerships between universities and academies as key to its drive to boost the number of state school students entering higher education.

In his recent speech to vice-chancellors at the Universities UK annual conference, John Denham, Secretary of State for Universities, said partnerships with schools through academies and trusts could help drive up school standards and end the "social bias across higher education". Universities could not offer places to those who did not apply, he said, adding that "even the most talented must be sufficiently well prepared to study and succeed".

But academies are meeting resistance from some university staff. Critics of academies cite the involvement of private business, whereby a £2 million contribution gives a firm a measure of control over a school. The academies are also unpopular with teachers' unions, which have criticised plans to expand the programme to 400 schools.

University College London's trade union branch is worried that the university's plans to sponsor an academy in Camden could harm relations with the local community and says the plans rely on voluntary support from already overworked UCL staff.

Malcolm Grant, UCL president, said concerns about the project were mainly ideological, and that he was impressed with the number of UCL staff who had already contacted him to say they wanted to contribute to the project.

"What we bring to it is intellectual capital. We are the biggest employer in Camden and we feel that carries with it some sort of moral obligation to be attentive to what is occurring around us."

The University of the West of England was the first university to sponsor a city academy, working with Bristol City Football Club. "It wasn't about applications to UWE - they all now apply to Bristol University," a spokesman said. "It was about our mission to be engaged in supporting the local community and widening participation."

Bristol, City, Coventry, Liverpool, Aston, Southampton Solent, Warwick, Oxford Brookes and Leeds universities and Imperial College London and the University of Central England all sponsor, or plan to, or have involvement with academy schools.

This year, the Prime Minister said he would like every secondary school to have a higher education partnership.

In July Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Schools, writing in The Times Higher , urged every university to plan to sponsor an academy after the Government announced that it would exempt universities from the £2 million sponsorship fee.

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