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Government continues push to expand higher education


The government is emphasising its target of greatly increased participation in Higher Education (50% of young people), rebutting charges that this is impractical or undesirable. Lifelong Learning and Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge, speaking at the University of London Union debate yesterday, congratulated universities on their achievements in this area, but demanded more progress. She said both the Government and universities had a lot more to do to widen access further but could learn much from universities such as Liverpool, Imperial College, and King’s College London who were already meeting their benchmarks for social class.

Mrs Hodge said: "It’s been suggested that getting 50 per cent of 18-30 year olds into higher education by 2010 is either wrong or impossible. The fact is that the target is tough but it is achievable. It is not an act of political correctness, but an ambition driven by economic necessity. Our latest estimate is that around 41.5 per cent of young people under 30 are entering higher education. We only need around a one percentage point increase each year to help us meet the 50 per cent target. The record number of UCAS acceptances last year shows we are on our way."

"Labour market forecasts predict 1.7 million more new jobs in occupations which need graduate skills over the next decade. So we are not in the business of creating graduates for whom there are no jobs. In fact, by introducing the Foundation Degree more graduates will leave higher education with the necessary vocational expertise to help us meet the skills gap in future years. I want to make clear that this is a joint challenge between the government and the sector. The government will continue to raise standards in secondary schools so that more students from state schools are getting the right qualifications to enable them to progress."

"However, this is as much about raising aspirations as it is about raising standards. Too many youngsters from disadvantaged areas feel that university is not right for them or that they are not right for university. We know that 4 out of 10 young people in the lower income groups never think about university as an option for themselves during their school years. That is why we have launched the Aimhigher Campaign to change these perceptions and encourage young people to aim higher. Universities are doing some good work already but we need them to convert effort into results. The most recent HEFCE Performance Indicators which take account of subject and entry qualifications show that most of the 19 Russell Group universities are missing their participation benchmarks."

"These universities tell me that they cannot attract applications from students from low income backgrounds. We will do what we can to help them. But, universities must do more themselves to ‘hunt down’ potential talent in secondary schools in disadvantaged areas with the aim of boosting the numbers of suitable students that eventually apply to their campuses. There is a pool of talent which remains untapped and universities must be more proactive in nurturing that talent. We can all learn from the success of Universities such as Liverpool, Imperial College, and King’s College London, who are already meeting their widening participation benchmarks for social class. As a result I will be inviting all universities, along with schools and colleges to attend Widening Participation conferences later this year which will focus on promoting and sharing best practice and reducing the variations between universities."

The 50 per cent target was first announced in general terms by the Prime Minister in September 1999. The Government measures progress towards the 50 per cent target through the Initial Entry Rate (IER). The definition of "Hgher Education" includes all courses of one year or more, above A level and its equivalents, that lead to a qualification awarded by higher education institutions or widely recognised national awarding bodies (eg The Institute of Management). The DfES are also considering including a small number of professional qualifications of less than one year's duration, for example in nursing, law, business and management. They are currently seeking advice from the QCA as to whether the nature and content of these qualifications could appropriately be classified as being of a higher education standard.

There is a three-year marketing campaign, "AimHigher" (previously covered by TrainingZone, providing information to young people aged 13-19 about going to university and the benefits of higher education. It has a particular focus on reaching young people from families and communities who do not have a tradition of entering higher education. 5 Aimhigher trailers will be touring schools across the country using interactive films and websites to interest and engage students.

A Widening Participation best practice conferences will be aimed at lecturers and other academics in further and higher education involved in widening participation programmes, primary, secondary and sixth form teachers and staff from areas covered by the Excellence Challenge programme. They will also be aimed at representatives from partner organisations including HEFCE, Universities UK, UCAS, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and SCOP. The first conference will be held early in the summer of 2002.


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