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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Universities ordered to widen access
Estelle Morris
Estelle Morris wants 50% of youngsters to enter university
England's universities must work harder to recruit students from deprived backgrounds, says the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.

Speaking at the London Guildhall University, she said that universities should not only be "the birthright for the middle classes", but should be available to young people of all social backgrounds.

"None of us can defend the position where five times as many young people from professional backgrounds enter higher education compared with those from unskilled and manual backgrounds," she said.

Universities are not a birthright for the middle classes

Estelle Morris

And she warned that universities needed to make more sustained efforts to widen access, beyond the "occasional open day or summer school".

This will mean establishing more structured and sustained links between schools and universities, she said.

"This work is not a sideshow that can be confined to the admissions or careers office. Universities need to grow demand for places," she said.

The drive to make universities more attractive and accessible to a wider number of younger people will be vital if the government is to meet its targets on higher education expansion.

The government wants at least half of all young people to enter higher education by 2010.

But Ms Morris indicated that while there had been a substantial increase in numbers at university, there was a need for a clearer sense of direction within higher education.

"The higher education system has seen a huge shift from being an elite to being a mass system, but without anyone necessarily thinking strategically about what we want universities to be achieving. As we expand further we need to give this more thought."

But the Conservatives accused her of using this keynote speech to deflect attention from the government's review of student funding.

"There's a strong whiff of blaming universities for problems which are not their fault," said Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green.

"If it's not improving, the problem is with the system of student support that the government has admitted has failed."

Wider reach

Ms Morris's speech revives the debate over university elitism, famously sparked by Chancellor Gordon Brown's attack on Oxford's refusal to take state school pupil Laura Spence.

But many institutions said it was "unfair" of Ms Morris not to recognise the work that has been done to far to boost universities' reach.

There's a strong whiff of blaming universities for problems which are not their fault

Shadow education secretary Damian Green

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said the sector had been saying for years that more had to be done and added that her members worked very hard at widening participation.

Baroness Warwick said Teesside University, for example, gave 600 primary school pupils the chance to experience university life.

And the London School of Economics ran Saturday schools for young people who came from families where no one had been to university.

'More student support'

But she warned that more money was needed from government to achieve such aims.

"We would welcome an integrated and properly funded approach to raising attainment and achievement."

The Association of University Teachers (AUT) welcomed attempts to stamp out elitism, claiming universities had reached "middle class saturation point".

But the AUT warned the government it had to look again at student support.

See also:

29 Jun 01 | Mike Baker
Breaking with Oxbridge elitism
20 Nov 00 | Scotland
New drive against elitism
17 Jul 01 | Education
Oxford was right, says Laura
04 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Labour widens attack on elitism
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