How university recruitment drive became a £10bn flop


Last updated at 22:30 27 March 2008

A £10 billion drive to get half of 18 to 30-year-olds into university has increased enrolments by a mere 0.6 of a percentage point in eight years.

Progress has stalled despite sharp rises in spending on student grants and recruitment schemes.

Ministers had set a 2010 target of 50 per cent of young people entering higher education by the time they are 30.

Official figures yesterday revealed that the proportion in 2006/07 was 39.8 per cent - down from 42.5 per cent in the previous year and only 0.6 percentage points higher than in 1999.

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Ministers said record numbers of students were going to university and blamed the introduction of top-up tuition fees for what they insisted was a temporary dip in numbers last year.

But the trend renewed a row over the rationale for the 50 per cent target and the spending of billions to achieve it.

Conservative universities spokesman David Willetts said: 'At this pathetic rate of progress it will take a further 118 years to hit the Government's target.

"We need to do far better to spread opportunities for young people to go to university. Under this Government we are completely flat-lining."

Professor Alan Smithers, an education expert from Buckingham University, said the drive had led to "some eyebrow-raising degrees, such as surfing and equestrian psychology".

He added: "In the recent past the Government has been intent on expanding university education, but has neglected practical education.

"In consequence, while there is unemployment among our young people, the country has become ever more reliant on skilled workers from abroad."

The 2010 target appeared in Labour's 2001 manifesto but by 2004 had been downgraded to progress "towards" 50 per cent by 2010.

Last year, it changed again to "increase participation in higher education towards 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30 with growth of at least a percentage point every two years to the academic year 2010/11".

Statistics released yesterday by the Department for Universities showed the proportion entering higher education since 1999/00.

The figure then was 39.2 per cent, with 238,000 new students. It reached a high of 42.5 per cent in 2005/06 when thousands attempted to begin their degrees before top-up fees were introduced the following year.

In 2006/07, the so-called participation rate stood at 39.8 per cent, or 269,000 students.

Between 2001/02 and 2006/07, £9.53billion was spent widening access to university. Annual spending has nearly doubled from £1.3billion in 2001/02 to £2.17billion last year.

The lion's share goes on maintenance grants and subsidising student loans but there has been a sharp rise in cash for outreach schemes.

• University has come under fire over an £82,000 taxpayerfunded grant to research the lives of Irish homosexuals living in London.

Essex University will use the cash to interview lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Irish migrants on what drew them to the capital and to examine how "sexual citizenship" is tied up with ideas of the city.

The grant came from the Economic and Social Research Council, which gets its £181million budget from the Government.

A spokesman for the Taxpayers' Alliance said: "It sounds like it's come straight out of a political correctness joke book."

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