Page last updated at 16:07 GMT, Wednesday, 24 September 2008 17:07 UK

Talent pool for university access

Birmingham University
Birmingham is one of the universities taking part in the scheme

Nine English universities are to work together to ensure bright pupils from poorer homes take up degree courses.

Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, King's College London, Leeds, Warwick, Newcastle, Southampton and Exeter universities will be "pooling" talent.

Under the scheme, students identified as able by one university's access programme would be able to apply to the other institutions taking part.

The initiative will begin for students applying to start degrees in 2010.

The institutions will continue with their own widening participation programmes, but will be formally able to recommend students to the other universities in the scheme.

Lesley Braiden, director of marketing and communications at Newcastle University, said the pooling scheme built on what was being done already.

"We're happy to be involved in this scheme - we're only too conscious of the fact that there are young people who have the potential for higher education study but have problems in their context," she said.

The scheme formalised universities' work to try to ensure these people did not "fall through the net", she added.

Professor Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said the initiative reached out to students from the state school sector who got good A-level results but did not apply to the most selective universities.

"What this is about is universities as a group trying to work together to recognise each other's compact schemes," said Professor Smith.

Compact schemes are initiatives in which universities work with schools to provide master classes, summer schools or visits for students.

"If a student was on a compact scheme with Exeter and wanted to apply to another university, it could mean that university treating the student as if they had been involved in their own compact scheme."

Social engineering

But critics of the scheme said it amounted to social engineering.

Dr Martin Stephen, head teacher of the fee-paying St Paul's School in London, said it obscured the real reasons behind underachievement.

"After 13 years of compulsory education... why are we having to make excuses and provide a back door for many of our pupils?"

Universities Secretary John Denham highlighted the initiative at the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

"No-ne should feel their ambitions are blocked," he told delegates.

"Ten year ago too many of our kids though 'university - not for me' now more than half say 'I want to go to university'.

"I am delighted that some of our most selective institutions are working together to make progress in widening participation."

The Russell Group, which represents the top research-intensive institutions, said it was fully committed to working with the government on these proposals.

The University and College Union said it was only right that everybody had the opportunity to fully maximise their potential.

General secretary, Sally Hunt, said: "We know that A-level results alone are not a good indicator of potential and ability and studies show that students from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower A-level grades actually outshine students from higher socio-economic groups when they get to university."

The National Union of Students said they were "fantastic".

President Wes Streeting said there were too many universities "at the higher end of the market" that did not seem a realistic prospect for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

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