Mandelson's blueprint for universities

04 Nov 2009

 There is good news and bad news in the report 'Higher Ambitions', Lord Mandelson's blueprint for universities.

 The good news is that he has put widening participation right at the top of his agenda. He wants universities to look more closely at applicants' potential not just their A-level grades.

 This is not - as some with vested interest in the current system will probably argue - an argument for social engineering. It is about making sure that the brightest young people - who will benefit most from university - are not disadvantaged by their home background or school. The brightest pupils at the most expensive schools will not be threatened.

Middle-class students at schools that fail to provide the best preparation for university entrance will no longer lose out. And there will be positive support - and, critically, advice and encouragement - for students from homes where there is no tradition of going to university.

 The other good news is that, despite putting strong emphasis on higher education's role in developing skills for employability, Lord Mandelson does not ignore the broader role of universities, which is to develop thinking and knowledge for its own sake and for its civilising value. However there are some risks here, if universities feel that the message is that research will only be rewarded if it can be shown to have 'impact' or if they feel they must all chase after the new priority of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.  

It is also good news that Lord Mandelson wants to see expansion in HE and sees the need to improve provision for part-time students and  work-based and distance learning.

So what is the bad news? Well, it is all about funding. Despite the rhetoric about public spending constraint not having an impact on quality, the outlook for government financial support is bleak. 

Lord Mandelson makes it quite plain that government funding allocations will be much more competitive in future. Some universities will have to abandon some of their current activities. More money will go to those which are able to 'leverage' money by attracting private investment.

Critically, he warns that the new priorities will be met by redistributing existing funds, rather than providing new money.

And - as expected - students will have to pay more. 

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