Universities need to be more meritocratic

By Liz Stephens

Universities may offer no-fee degrees for students who stay at home, a controversial all-party report is expected to say.

The report, called Unleashing Aspiration, is due to be published on Tuesday. It was chaired by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn and commissioned by Gordon Brown.

The report, which has grown into a manifesto against social immobility in the UK, is also expected to call for leading universities to do more to end elitism by admitting more students from lower-income homes.

However, Mr Milburn has already said the committee will not call for tuition fees to be reversed.

The news came as the government announced funding today for an extra 10,000 undergraduate places for those studying science, technology, engineering and maths.

Higher education minister David Lammy said: “We want to support people with the ability and talent to go to university because it is good for those individuals and the future of our economy.”

However, Liberal Democrat universities spokesman, Stephen Williams said: “Ministers made the problems facing prospective students worse when they cut the number of places they had originally committed to funding.”

And Martin Freedman, spokesman for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), questioned whether the money was coming from another part of the education budget.

“Robbing Peter to pay Paul, or in the context of this department robbing Peter to pay Peter, would not be good for higher education or the economy,” he said.

“We also note the cynical move to cut the pay back holiday for student loans from five to two years, which will increase the financial pressure on students and seems unlikely to encourage more students from poorer backgrounds to seek a university place.”

Speaking in advance of the launch of tomorrow’s report, Mr Milburn said: “As many as 3,000 students from state schools are missing from the 13 leading universities in the country because their places have been taken by kids from independent schools with the same A-level results.

“All the evidence shows that the professional classes are now recruiting from a narrower and narrower part of the social spectrum.”

Among the other initiatives the report will propose is a voucher scheme for children from areas with under-achieving schools to enable them to go to more popular schools in wealthier areas.

It will also call for part-time students to qualify for student loans.

The report examined barriers to the professions, such as journalism and medicine.

It describes the internships now expected in most professions as out of the province of poorer children and demands a rethink about “qualification inflation” which has seen some careers which were previously ‘entry level’ demanding university degrees.

The initiatives are likely to be accepted by business secretary Lord Mandelson, who took on responsibility for universities last month.

A recent Sutton Trust review found that the least advantaged fifth of young people remain ten times less likely to attend an elite university than the most advantaged fifth.

Evidence shows that state-schooled pupils perform at the same rate as privately educated pupils with higher A-level grades when they get to university.