Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

More 'will miss out on degrees'

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Lord Mandelson: "Getting into university always has been… a competitive process"

Students who miss out on a university place this autumn should take up an apprenticeship or college place, Lord Mandelson has said.

The Universities Secretary said there would be more disappointed would-be students than usual this year, adding university had always been competitive.

The answer was not to guarantee places for every university hopeful, he said.

The traditional three-year after school honours degree should no longer be a focus for future growth, he added.

This was because the profile of students was changing.

Speaking at a conference in Nottingham to commemorate Lord Dearing, the architect of Labour's policy on student tuition fees, Lord Mandelson gave a strong hint that the existing cap on full-time degree places in England would be maintained.

No student who does not get into university should feel that they have exhausted their options or wasted their efforts
Lord Mandelson
Universities Secretary

He said: "The right response to the very real disappointment, as tempting as it might seem, cannot be to guarantee every applicant a full time university place.

"It makes no sense either in terms of the cost to the public purse or the provision of quality teaching, which remains critical to the credibility of higher education."

Lord Mandelson said universities were not being singled out for cuts, saying: "much of the rest of the public sector will face similar constraints this year or soon after".

He went on: "A large scale, untargeted further expansion of full-time three-year degrees without any real attention to what these additional students are studying, or how well it equips them for life at work" also made no sense when there was a need to focus more closely on strategic skills, he said.

And academics have called for an end for so-called "Mickey Mouse degrees" to be scrapped in favour of science.

Public sector cuts

Chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry Dr Richard Pike said: "No longer should the government be paying 18-year-olds to start courses on celebrity journalism, drama with waste management, or international football business management.

These courses should be "kicked into touch", especially at a time when the UK was desperately short of funding into areas like Alzheimer's and renewable energy.

Lord Mandelson's comments come just days after a record increase in the number of people applying to university at a time when the sector is being asked to make savings worth £450m.

He said although the scope of university education had massively widened, getting into university had always been a competitive business.

He added: "No student who does not get into university should feel that they have exhausted their options or wasted their efforts."

'Constrained'

"Our best further education colleges and apprenticeships can provide a preparation for the world of work that compares in its excellence and market value to the best of our universities."

He said he wanted to see more part-time and two-year intensive courses and there was "no sense at all in which these alternatives should be seen as inferior" to the three-year equivalents.

He said: "We have created new routes into higher education, and new ways to get a degree while working or at work.

"Those opportunities need to and must expand, even in more constrained environment."

General secretary of the University and College Union Sally Hunt said: "It is quite outrageous that 18-year-olds who have been told by this government to aspire to university their entire school lives are now having the door of opportunity slammed shut in their faces."

Vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester Professor Green said the government had strayed from its own policies of widening access to higher education.

He said: "One of the most important principles in higher education, for almost 50 years, has been the Robbins principle - that 'courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so'."

Lord Mandelson said he wanted to see more two-year degrees and young people taking vocational courses.

However, Professor Green said this was a contradiction, given that the government has cut funding for such courses by 5% this year and a further 5% next year.



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