Unlocking the potential of all our young people, ensuring that all those with the potential to go to university do so, and go to the university best suited to their talents, are key priorities for the Government. But universities cannot offer places to students, however talented, if they do not apply.
That is why we are working to build relationships between individual schools and universities, as well as reforming the 14-19 curriculum and qualifications in ways that will more fully meet the needs of universities. To widen participation, we must have much stronger partnerships between state schools and universities.
Our aim is for every secondary school to have at least one serious higher education partner. The benefits accrue to all involved. Universities prosper from getting directly involved in local secondary schools; schools benefit from links with universities in terms of governance, teaching and curriculum; and direct experience of universities and what they have to offer can inspire pupils - particularly those without graduate parents - to believe that higher education might be for them.
Universities know what skills and attitudes they want students to have, and playing a leading role in secondary schools can help ensure that schools are better able to deliver.
There are many ways that universities can profitably get involved in schools.
At the end of last year, I joined Universities Secretary John Denham at University College London to launch the initiative Academies, Trusts and Higher Education: Prospectus. This invites universities to consider providing direct support to the new generation of academies and trust schools that are challenging cultures of educational failure in some of this country's most deprived communities; in many cases, these communities are home to the host universities themselves.
To assist engagement, we have changed the sponsorship rules so that universities no longer have to provide academies with Pounds 2 million in sponsorship contribution. There is now no financial barrier to universities applying their educational expertise, ethos and organisation to benefit a secondary school.
Universities are seizing the opportunity. There are already 83 academies across 49 local authorities, many with university involvement. The universities of Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol and the West of England are academy sponsors, and I am in discussions with a further 14 higher education institutions as lead or co-sponsors. A further 21 universities, including the University of Manchester and King's College London, are working with 26 open or proposed academies as partners.
With 50 more academies opening this year, eventually extending to 400, there are plenty of opportunities for engagement with schools.
“The Government has listened to universities and responded with an ambitious programme of reform”
Trust schools are also designed to use joint working to help drive up standards through long-term formal relationships between partner organisations. There are already 13 confirmed higher education partners, including the universities of Warwick and Exeter, with 12 more in advanced discussions. We want more.
Widening participation is not just about individual relationships but also about schools working to nurture students so that they are better prepared for university study, and higher education institutions working to ensure that they are better equipped to identify the best students for them.
Our recent changes to A levels build on the strengths of the qualification to stretch pupils further, to provide greater differentiation to help universities choose between candidates with similar results and to better prepare them for higher study. From this year, A-level students will be able to undertake an extended project requiring a high degree of planning, preparation, research and autonomous working and, in their examinations, tackle more open-ended questions requiring extended essay responses or a synoptic overview of the subject. And to further differentiate the highest achievers, an A* grade will be awarded beginning in 2010.
These changes sit alongside the introduction of diplomas, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the learning of young people to prepare them for 21st-century employment and higher education. Universities have been intimately involved in the development of diploma curricula and are ensuring the relevance of the qualification.
Students awarded an advanced diploma will have undertaken principal study in one of 17 lines of learning and further study to deepen their specialist knowledge or to broaden their study programme; they will also have demonstrated core functional skills in English, mathematics and ICT, developed soft skills in teamwork and self-management, and produced an extended project nurturing applied research skills and independent critical thinking. The diploma uniquely combines theoretical study, hands-on experience and employer-based learning. Last month, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service announced that the full advanced diploma would generate 420 tariff points, the equivalent of three and a half A levels, placing it, in the words of Ucas chief executive Anthony McClaran, "firmly within the spectrum of routes for entry to higher education".
The higher education community is at the absolute centre of 14-19 reform, and many share our enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Julian Skyrme, head of widening participation at the University of Manchester, is not alone when he says that the "introduction of the new diplomas is undoubtedly one of the most exciting developments in education for young people over the past generation. It is clear that they will engage and stretch learners of all abilities and provide universities with students who will be able to present new skills and competencies".
The Government has listened to universities and responded with an ambitious programme of reform. We are at a crossroads where schools and universities have unprecedented opportunities and incentives to collaborate and bridge the gaps that can prevent young people from fulfilling their true potential.
There has never been a better time for universities to engage and bring to bear their enormous and beneficial influence across the communities they serve.