Universities should consider basing their admissions policies on options proposed by a government-backed committee, education secretary Charles Clarke is expected to say today, writes Alan Thomson.
Mr Clarke is due to announce the remit and membership of the steering committee that will help Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, carry out a project on admissions to higher education for the Department for Education and Skills.
He is expected to tell the House of Commons that not only will institutions be expected to adopt general principles on admissions but they should also consider adopting specific admissions options produced by Professor Schwartz.
Professor Schwartz's project was announced in a recent DFES paper on widening participation that also announced the access regulator, Offa. The paper stresses that Professor Schwartz's role would be to identify good practice and to set out a statement of principles on admissions that the government hoped universities would adopt.
Today's statement by Mr Clarke is expected to contain more of a compulsory element. The minister is expected to ask Professor Schwartz to report on the practicalities of implementing any options he should recommend, and on the principles underpinning such approaches that institutions "would be expected" to adopt.
It is thought that the principles would have to be incorporated into the access agreements that universities must have approved by Offa before they are allowed to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006.
Aware of university concerns over their independence, Mr Clarke is expected to say that Professor Schwartz should give particular consideration to the differences between institutions and students and the need to maintain institutional autonomy in academic matters.
And, in response to claims that some universities are operating a quota system that favours state-school applicants, Mr Clarke is expected to tell the group that it should specifically consider the need to reinforce public confidence in the fairness and transparency of arrangements.
The report should be submitted to the DFES by May next year after consultation with universities and the wider public.
The Steering group members are: John Gardiner, chairman of Tesco; Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust; Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University; Janet Graham, head of admissions at Cambridge University; Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England; Anthony McClaran, acting chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service; Bernadette Porter, rector of the University of Surrey Roehampton; Pauline Davies, headmistress of Wycombe Abbey School; John Morgan, headteacher at Conyers School, Yarm, Stockton-on-Tees; and Alan Stanhope, principal of Cornwall College of Further Education.