We will not set access quotas, Howells says

October 15, 2004

Kim Howells, the new Higher Education Minister, this week insisted that the Government had no "backdoor agenda" to interfere in university admissions and would not fine institutions that missed their benchmarks for attracting working-class students.

In a strident first speech on policy, Dr Howells said he wanted to "tear down the myths" and "conspiracies" about the Government's plans for higher education.

He told Thursday's Universities UK's conference on admissions that there was "no yellow card or red card" and there were "no sticks being raised" to force universities to admit more students from poor backgrounds.

"We are not in the business of using universities to socially engineer our higher education landscape," the minister said.

Dr Howells said that the best way to widen access was to raise school standards, and he strongly endorsed the principle of admitting pupils on the basis of actual A-level results rather than predictions.

The Government would "find a way to make post-qualification applications work", he said. The shift to a PQA system - which could involve changes to the academic year - was recommended by the recent Schwartz inquiry into fair admissions and is now being weighed up by the Government's director-general of higher education, Sir Alan Wilson.

But playing down Russell Group fears about financial penalties if universities failed to hit "benchmarks" for attracting poor students, Dr Howells stressed that the Government had no official targets or quotas.

"They are benchmarks, a snapshot, a barometer measuring where universities are in terms of equal access and where they could be were all things completely equal," he said. "We do not have any admission targets. We will not fine universities that miss their benchmarks."

Dr Howells' speech comes amid growing speculation that the Government is poised to name the £100,000-a-year director of the new university regulator, the Office for Fair Access.

The minister stressed that Offa would have "no remit over university admissions" and said that access agreements between universities and the regulator would see institutions set their own "access ambitions".

"It will be up to universities themselves to decide where they want to get to and by which measure," Dr Howells said.

"As long as Offa is satisfied that the milestones are stretching and ambitious and that the university has done all it can to meet the milestones, they will be allowed to increase fees."

Sir Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group, said: "One welcomes the minister's reassertion of what was in the HE Bill, but many people may still be concerned about the purpose of publishing benchmarks."

However, another conference speaker, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was due to warn against "excessive interference" in university admissions.

Ahead of his speech, Mr Hart told The Times Higher : "I strongly support those universities that try to widen their intake, but artificial targets that don't, in my view, bear relation to statistical analysis are quite dangerous."

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