Halt rush to force student targets on colleges, say MPs

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, 30 Conservatives warn that pressure on tutors to recruit more undergraduates from poor backgrounds “undermines our universities”. The signatories include two ministerial aides, who are officially members of the Government appointed by the Conservative leadership. The MPs say the Tories must take a “different long-term approach” from the Liberal Democrats, seen as driving the reforms to university admissions.

Their intervention follows the appointment of Prof Les Ebdon as the new director of the Office for Fair Access to higher education. Any university that wants to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year must now agree contracts with Prof Ebdon setting out how they will recruit students from working class homes.

Prof Ebdon suggested earlier this year he would be prepared to use financial penalties on universities that failed to meet targets for increasing their working class intake and has indicated universities should eventually seek to admit equal numbers of rich and poor students.

The signatories include Rob Wilson, the ministerial aide to Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, and Alec Shelbrooke, parliamentary private secretary to Mike Penning, the Northern Ireland minister.

Prof Ebdon said Offa had no plans to change universities’ legal autonomy for admissions or force them to match the numbers of “wealthy” and “poor” students admitted. He said the watchdog’s role was “to ensure that universities put in place sufficient arrangements to widen their applicant pool” and to ensure no student was deterred from going to university for financial reasons.