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Last Updated:  Thursday, 13 March, 2003, 13:53 GMT
Ministers under attack over uni access
The government has come under fire from opposition MPs over its attempts to get more children from low-income backgrounds into university.

Ministers defended the government's aim of broadening the range of people going to university and said students would be given places on merit and potential.

During education questions in the Commons, opposition MPs repeated claims that universities such as Bristol were discriminating against pupils from public schools and top state schools.

Liberal Democrat Vincent Cable said "careless talk" by ministers about targets, quotas and benchmarks had caused "considerable anxiety" amongst pupils, parents and schools about the university admission system.

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke rejects claims that universities are fixing admissions procedures against independent schools
Under the government's plans to shake-up university funding, it is appointing an "access regulator" to make sure universities encourage applications from students from low-income families.

Mr Cable asked the Education Secretary Charles Clarke: "Can you confirm that the access regulator will not approve schemes based on post codes or parental occupation or accents or schools but concentrate on the academic merit of individual applicants?"

Mr Clarke said: "The basis of access will be on merit and what I want to reconfirm is that it is not careless talk in any way from the government that has caused this issue of discussion.

"It is a series of misstatements, wrong views attributed particularly to Bristol University, but also to other universities, which entirely wrongly describe the current admission process of that university,"

Growing anger

Shadow Education Secretary Damien Green told the Commons there was growing anger about the issue.

"What is extraordinary is how the minister and Charles Clarke don't recognise how widespread the anger about the government's policy is spreading," he said.

He called on the government to drop financial pressure on universities to meet government targets on widening access.

Higher Education minister Margaret Hodge praised the universities of Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester, which she said were trying to select people on the basis of merit, talent and potential.

She said Bristol could hardly be accused of discrimination against pupils from independent schools when they accounted for 40% of students there.

She outlined the government's policy: "Fair access to every individual to develop their full potential so it is potential and merit, not class and background that determine who gets a place at the university".

Michael Jack, Conservative, said the government should give people clear guidance on what criteria would be used in selecting students.

"It is clear that young people are deeply troubled and confused about how their admission for university will be determined," he said.

Private schools 'boycott' Bristol
04 Mar 03 |  Education
Bristol denies admissions bias
26 Feb 03 |  Education
Clarke attacks 'foolish' boycott
11 Mar 03 |  Education

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