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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Prescott re-ignites universities row
Magdalen College
Magdalen's rejection of Laura Spence sparked the row
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has fuelled the row over university admissions for the second time in a week - with an address to northern universities.

In a speech in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, Mr Prescott urged them to open their doors to students from all backgrounds.

It is clear from some of the things being said by ministers that they have not been well briefed

Durham University vice-chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman
His speech is a clear sign that the government is keen to be seen to clamp down on "elitism" in higher education.

Both university chiefs and political opponents condemned his remarks, but government sources insisted that Mr Prescott had intended to praise northern universities for their attempts to widen access, not blame them.

Earlier this week, Mr Prescott made clear that "opportunity for all" would become a key Labour theme.

It follows the furore over Oxford's admissions procedures, when state school pupil Laura Spence, from Whitley Bay, was denied a place despite having outstanding grades, only to be offered a £65,000 scholarship at prestigious Harvard University in the USA.

Chancellor Gordon Brown had described as "a scandal" the rejection of Miss Spence by Magdalen College, Oxford.

'Immoral and senseless'

In his speech, the deputy prime minister said: "We believe many universities north and south could do more to attract people of ability regardless of their backgrounds."

He referred to his admission to Ruskin College in Oxford, "thanks to support from the trade union movement".

Laura Spence
Laura Spence: Heading for Harvard
"I felt lucky because there were many people I felt had equal ability but just didn't get the chance to develop it.

"It is not only immoral to write people off like that, it doesn't even make economic sense because in a world of change, learning and adapting is the key to success for individuals and the whole country - and we still haven't gone far enough.

"So where there are barriers to learning and opportunity our job is to take them down for all people."

Durham hits back

Durham University's vice-chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman hit back swiftly.

He accused ministers of being badly briefed on the issue and stressed the efforts Durham had made to attract students from across all backgrounds.

He said: "It is clear from some of the things being said by ministers that they have not been well briefed about the efforts that universities such as Durham have been making for a number of years.

"Durham is a world-class university. Admission is competitive and is based on academic performance and the ability to achieve.

"We are encouraging people from everywhere to take up these opportunities."

Sir Kenneth sent ministers the university's own briefing papers on the efforts it was making to widen its appeal to students.

Durham is considered one of the top universities in the UK. Latest figures show they take about 38% of undergraduates from private schools.

Tories join the row

Labour Party sources stressed later that Mr Prescott's speech was not intended as an attack on Durham or any other university.

And he deliberately repeated themes first outlined in a speech on Tuesday, about people from all areas of the country sharing values.

Shadow education secretary Theresa May criticised Mr Prescott's stance.

She said: "The way to raise standards in education is to trust teachers to get on with their job and not make them spend hours reading through the latest set of instructions from David Blunkett.

"The Conservatives will give power back to schools and back to parents. We will not spend hour after hour launching attacks on one university after another."

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See also:

31 May 00 | Education
Hague stokes elitism row
26 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour's 'class war' over Oxbridge
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