Wider access threat to autonomy

July 11, 1997

This might be the last year that universities have true autonomy over their entrance requirements.

Twin moves to broaden the range of qualifications leading to university entrance, and to encourage students from low-income backgrounds look set to chip away at a fundamental tenet of academic autonomy - universities absolute right to exercise discretion over who they admits as students.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service believes that universities may soon be offered financial rewards for recruiting school-leavers with a broader range of post-16 qualifications.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, said this week that his team was preparing for the possibility of a link between the admissions system and the funding regime. He stressed, however, that there were "big ifs" hanging over the proposals.

"The funding implications are not for us to determine," he said.

UCAS is revamping its entrance points system, designed to encourage those holding vocational qualifications. "We're just looking to get sense out of the points system and see if we can offer rewards to encourage broader 16-19 study."

Mr Higgins added that the notion of rewarding universities for taking students with a broader study range made sense to him.

The proposals would, he said, fit neatly with Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry's apparent enthusiasm for a 2+2 degree system. "2+2 is essentially a four-year degree, and it may well be that universities would want to take students with a broader base on such courses."

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has warmed to UCAS's proposals to broaden post-16 study and match students and courses more closely. But a source said that any attempt to impinge on an institution's right to have its own admissions criteria would cause "concern if not outrage".

The UCAS option would skirt around the question of university autonomy and may also avoid the need for legislation. It would also be in line with Government policy to discourage the specialisation associated with the traditional route of three linked A levels.

The Government is pledged to widen access to universities and to establish "parity of esteem" between vocational and academic routes into higher education.

Higher education minister Tessa Blackstone has long been associated with parity for vocational qualifications at university entrance level.

She was a founding member of the Institute for Public Policy Research, which proposes to "broaden university entrance requirements" to ensure that students do not specialise too early.

Last month she announced that the Government's plans for a "single overarching certificate" will be developed to become "the basis for progression into higher education". The implications of this for university autonomy have not yet been made clear by the minister.

Universities, especially the old institutions, have been very slow to accept school-leavers with the controversial General National Vocational Qualification, the "vocational A level". Repeated attempts to coax the economically disadvantaged into university have met with little success.

It seems back-door plans are already in motion to overcome the problem by forcing universities to change their admissions policies.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England seemed to be anticipating broader entry initiatives when it told Sir Ron Dearing earlier this year that young people in affluent neighbourhoods were more than five times more likely to go to university than their counterparts in the least affluent areas.

HEFCE is working on the funding method for 1998/99 which is likely to weight cash distribution in favour of adult and part-time learners. A spokesman said: "As far as HEFCE is concerned, we fund the students once they're in place in higher education. I'm not sure how we could fund through the application route."

Dearing has said that widening access will be a key element in his report into higher education, due out this month. Helena Kennedy QC's call last week for a post-code-based further education funding system won the tacit approval of Government. Colleges would get more money for recruiting students from the "betting shops, billiard halls and pubs". She hinted that she had been in cahoots with Sir Ron Dearing.

Lifelong learning minister Kim Howells agreed the education system was blighted by "shameful inequities" and said that dipping in and out of a modular further education programme should be as "valid and respected as going to Oxbridge".

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