Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has admitted that the government's widening participation policies have done little so far to increase the numbers of students from poor backgrounds.
She told The THES that introducing undergraduate tuition fees and scrapping grants had not led to a fall in the number of students from skilled manual, semi-skilled and unskilled backgrounds. She said there had been a tiny rise.
"A lot of the Jeremiahs said that the introduction of 100 per cent loans and tuition fees would lead to a collapse in the number of young people from low-income groups, but that is not true. In fact, there has been a tiny increase. It is a very small increase.
"One of the things that has really failed us all - those of us like me who have worked in universities, and even successive governments - is that we have not really been able to greatly widen participation in those groups that have been generally excluded from higher education.
"I am not pretending we are there yet. We have a lot more to do, but I think we are on the road to trying to correct this problem through the Excellence Challenge programme. You have to give us a little bit more time," she said.
The Excellence Challenge initiative, announced last year, comes with £190 million of funding over three years. The aim is to raise participation by the poorest young people by linking universities more closely with further education colleges and the Excellence in Cities initiative. There is more money for universities to recruit people from poor areas and pilot schemes will bring extra financial help for bright young people.
Baroness Blackstone admitted that the expansion in the first four years of Labour rule had been controlled. She said that this was done to avoid the debacle that occurred in the early 1990s when the number of students grew rapidly without being properly funded. The Conservative government had to call a sudden halt to expansion, which caused many universities problems.
Baroness Blackstone said: "The expansion that we proposed over the first Parliament was relatively constrained. It was not that we were suddenly going to go to 50 per cent (participation). We set a target of 50 per cent over a ten-year period. We are at about 43 per cent now, and I think (50 per cent) is eminently achievable."
The minister defended the overall expansion of higher education under the first Blair administration. She was quick to dismiss the ICM opinion poll for The THES that showed that 52 per cent of academics thought expansion should halt and that 78 per cent of them thought expansion had lowered academic standards.
Lady Blackstone said: "I would be a little bit disappointed if I thought this sample was representative of academic opinion because, on the whole, expansion has benefited young people and the UK economy.
"However, expansion needs to be done in a carefully thought-out way. I do not think it is right to simply open the floodgates. We have always argued that expansion should be concerned with recruiting people who have the potential to benefit from higher education. We should not bring in people who do not have that potential."
The minister stressed that the goal of further expansion should be to give those people who need it a second chance at higher education. This is the rationale for foundation degrees, she said.
Baroness Blackstone took issue with the majority of academics and members of the public who want undergraduate tuition fees abolished and means-tested grants reintroduced across the United Kingdom. The fees, which were introduced in 1998, are seen as a deterrent to further expansion. These opinions emerged from polls carried out by MORI and by ICM for The THES .
Baroness Blackstone said there was no evidence that fees deterred people and said the system of loans, repayable after graduation, in lieu of grants was fair. She said that people were beginning to realise that loans, and the debt they generated, were a just price for a degree that would give a graduate an earnings premium worth, on average, £400,000 over his or her working life, compared with someone with only A levels.
The minister backed the decision by secretary of state for eduction and employment David Blunkett to rule out top-up fees over the next Parliament. She indicated that most future funding for higher education would likely come from the public purse.
She said: "I do not think that raising money via top-up fees is the right way to approach improvements in higher education funding. First, there will be big discrepancies between what different universities would be able to recoup by this route. Second, I think it would lead to extreme confusion on the part of parents and students. I think it would also lead to some students making their decisions not onI whether it was the right university for them or the right subject but on what was being charged."
But with Mr Blunkett certainly leaving the Department for Education after the election, there could be scope for his successor, possibly Stephen Byers, to raise the level of fees institutions can charge. Even Mr Blunkett's pledge, now a manifesto promise, on differential fees may not be held as binding if an economic downturn means the next government can find no other way to meet Tony Blair's recent pledges on additional investment for universities.
Baroness Blackstone said that it had been a privilege to work on Mr Blunkett's education team, and she hinted that she too may be moving on after the election. "If I am asked to stay here I should be very happy, but I have been here for four years. Maybe the prime minister will decide to give someone else a chance."