Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


Section 4: Conclusion - Access as a system-wide issue

112. As previously mentioned, the evidence we took on access was strongly influenced by the prominence being given at the time to admission to a small number of high status research-intensive universities. This interim report reflects that emphasis. We must, however, make clear that we recognize that the problem of ensuring greater participation from under-privileged groups is not just about who gets in to Bristol, Cambridge, the LSE, Oxford or Warwick.

113. Such improvements as have taken place in recent years in the proportion of students recruited from minority groups or under-privileged backgrounds are due to the efforts of all the universities and colleges that constitute the higher education system. The so-called 'new universities' have built on their local and regional college and polytechnic traditions in continuing to recruit strongly from local communities. They also provide flexibly-constructed courses, combining both day and evening study. The sub-degree courses they offer create opportunities for mature candidates and those who have under-performed at school to acquire the necessary standards for successful completion of degree level courses, either in the same institution or elsewhere. Many of their programmes are oriented to the professional and vocational needs of students, a large proportion of whom work within daily or evening travelling distance. Whilst new universities have also developed their own post-experience and post-graduate work, and significant research programmes, they also co-operate with more research-intensive universities in providing opportunities for advanced study.

114. Similarly, the former civic universities, many of them founded through local endeavours a hundred years or more ago, and the so-called 'green field' universities of the 1960s, have recognized that access is not just a problem for their older counterparts, or a speciality of the 'new universities', but a responsibility of all. The Colleges of Higher Education, which still provide a significant proportion of higher education places, and some of which now have degree-awarding powers, are proud of their success in not only recruiting but also retaining so-called 'non-traditional' students, and seeing them go on to succeed in the occupations for which they have trained. And last but not least, the Further Education Colleges, which in association with neighbouring universities and colleges of higher education provide nearly a tenth of all higher education places, are also well placed to encourage access and to widen participation.

115. Higher education in the modern world thrives on institutional diversity. We live in a country whose traditions compound, rather than counter, the tendency to convert diversity into hierarchy. In higher education there must be room for a great diversity of missions and objectives, unified by common commitments to the search for truth, the rule of law, respect for evidence, freedom of expression, the maintenance of academic standards and democratic accountability. We have well over one hundred excellent universities and colleges of higher education, with a range of different strengths. Very often this fact is obscured by the misuse of league tables.

116. Our values and democratic commitments press us to answer the old question 'Can we be equal and excellent too?'with a resounding 'yes'. To achieve both, however, requires that diversity does not harden into differentiation. Whatever arrangements we make to ensure the success of our world-class universities in the global economy—success which benefits us all—we must recognize and value the work of all our other higher education institutions, and the part they play in providing opportunity and realising potential.

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Prepared 8 February 2001