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Last Updated: Friday, 4 April, 2003, 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK
Can university admissions be regulated?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker
So will it be a tough policeman or a friendly probation officer?

In the next few days we should get the details of the body that has been dubbed Offtoff, the watchdog to regulate university admissions, which some think is designed to discriminate against those from posh homes and schools.

The official title has, until now, been the "access regulator".

Not surprisingly perhaps, ministers have now decided that this name is too authoritarian.

It does, after all, rather suggest someone who can turn on and off the supply taps directing different types of young people into university.

'Agitated'

The new name will try harder to stress that the watchdog is there to guide universities rather than to pounce and punish them.

In short, we can expect more of a friendly retriever than a growling Alsatian.

The fears about the access regulator - most strongly voiced by the independent schools, but shared by university admissions tutors - have been that it would force universities to take a higher proportion of students from either state schools or poorer neighbourhoods, irrespective of merit.

To be fair to ministers, they have never said this was their intent. They have simply said the social class gap among university entrants is too wide.

Alsatian
Will the 'access regulator' show some bite?

But the moral fury over admissions at Bristol University was a sign of just how agitated many independent school head teachers had become over fears about government-encouraged, positive discrimination, in favour of students from disadvantaged homes.

The powers of the new access regulator will continue to be as planned: to veto any increase in a university's fees. But the criteria for imposing any such veto will depend not on university admissions but on applications.

In other words, it will be each university's responsibility to ensure it is attracting interest from students across the full socio-economic range.

Providing they are doing enough to boost their applications from under-represented groups, the universities will remain free to select the successful candidates in their own, independent, way.

So the access regulator will not so much look at admissions policies as at how universities are marketing themselves and reaching out to under-represented groups.

'Taster'

I do not know what new name government advisers will come up with, but a reflection of its role would suggest something more like the "widening access monitor".

It could not still be called a regulator, as that would produce the acronym, War.

Its job will be to check that universities are operating outreach and widening access schemes, summer schools, school visits and partnerships, and mentoring initiatives, all designed to encourage a wider range of applications.

The "applications monitor" will presumably seek out, and encourage wider use of schemes like that of the Sheffield University medical school, which I described here last week.

But will this be enough? Most universities already do a great deal in this area.

Oxford and Cambridge, for example, run many outreach and "taster" schemes, yet they still struggle to get as many applicants from state schools or deprived backgrounds as they, or the government, would like.

Dog in kennel
Public schools fear their pupils may be left in the doghouse

It can be very difficult for a university to overcome its image among 18-year-olds.

It has been true for a very long time that certain universities have an image of being dominated by middle-class, independently educated students.

This may not reflect in any way the efforts being made by those universities.

But it is generally the case that young people (like older people) like to be surrounded by others who are like them.

So while universities like Bristol, Durham, and Exeter continue to be very popular with independent and grammar school students, there will continue to be many others who, after reading the unofficial university guides or listening to the grapevine, decide they will be happier elsewhere.

This is a touchy subject and there is a real risk of being patronising towards those 18-year-olds who, whatever their family and school background, do have the confidence to apply to Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol or Durham.

Grapevine

But I believe there are many others, bright enough to go to the best universities, who will still opt for the safer option at a less prestigious university where they think they will fit in better.

There is also the money issue. The increasing cost of going to university has already caused a rise in the proportion of students applying to their local university, so they can continue to live at home and save on rents.

This will further limit the applications that some universities will be able to attract.

Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol or Exeter may not be the cheapest options if you live in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool or Birmingham.

So there is a real risk that, however hard some universities try, they will not be able to change the social mix of their applications, never mind their admissions.

What does the regulator do then?


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.




SEE ALSO:
Private schools 'boycott' Bristol
04 Mar 03  |  Education
Clarke attacks 'foolish' boycott
11 Mar 03  |  Education
University aims to be less elitist
20 Feb 03  |  Scotland
'Why Bristol is right'
22 Mar 03  |  Education
Private schools claim university bias
30 Sep 02  |  Education
Oxford seeks state school students
15 May 00  |  Education
Bristol denies admissions bias
26 Feb 03  |  Education


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