Mandelson mandate

Ruth Holmes - News Reporter 5 November 2009

Lord Mandelson, First Secretary of State, made a speech to the House of Lords on Tuesday outlining the new Higher Education Strategy published this week. This puts an emphasis on the university system as a vehicle for social mobility as well as dealing with issues of economic recovery and student finance. Mandelson told the House of Lords, “Nobody should be disadvantaged or penalised on the basis of the families that they come from or the schools they attended, and the way in which a simple assessment based on A-level results might exclude them.”

This follows Mandelson’s comments earlier in the week backing discrimination in favour of those from poor families and attending under-performing schools. He argued that adopting this policy during the admissions process is vital to social mobility. It is thought there will be funding incentives to encourage universities to adopt a more discriminative stance taking into account contextual data. This “contextual data” would take the form of statistics such as a school’s average GCSE results. The shake up will also see an expansion of services such as the Open University to allow mature students to advance their education without the need to give up work.

Cambridge University does exercise an extensive bursary system to accommodate those from poor backgrounds without disadvantage. However, in her annual address to the university earlier this term the Vice Chancellor, Professor Alison Richard reiterated a point made last year that Cambridge is not an engine of social justice. She asserted that emphasis in the admissions process must remain on academic excellence not on issues of context. Mandelson did reassure the House of Lords on Tuesday that he was not seeking to dictate or control admissions policies.

Joe Farish, CUSU Access Officer told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “The Cambridge admissions system not only considers applicants’ achievements but it also assesses them in the context of their school background. Cambridge admissions tutors are therefore able to look not only at the ability but at the potential of applicants throughout the assessment process.”

The Higher Education Framework will also herald a review of university funding. Ideas floated in the press over the summer suggested the introduction of no-fee degrees for those choosing to stay at home during their studies.

The President of the National Union of Students (NUS), Wes Streeting, has this week expressed strong concern over this suggesting it will lead to pressure on those from a poor background to stay at home during their studies and so have options restricted. He commented that it is “wrong to suggest that these groups will be helped by having their fees and loans scrapped”.

Sophie Harrold, a first year student benefitting from the Cambridge Bursary Scheme, said: “I think it’s a great idea that students from less affluent backgrounds are given the opportunity to study at fore-running educational establishments by way of financial help. However, I don’t see how more help can be given to poorer students when tuition fees are also set to rise?”

The NUS Town Takeover campaign is already protesting against fee rises with Cambridge students planning to march next month. Many suggest those in the so called ‘middle income trap’ will bear the brunt of increased fees while those from disadvantaged backgrounds will also be discouraged.

Joe Farish told TCS: “CUSU is working hard to ensure more students from under-represented backgrounds apply. Cambridge has one of the most generous bursary schemes in the country and when combined with subsidised food and rent it makes Cambridge more affordable than many other universities.”

Mandelson aims to disband the middle class stronghold within universities by widening access. A review will be produced next spring identifying ways access can be widened within the most selective institutions by the Director of Fair Access, Sir Martin Harris.

However, policy is unlikely to be made until after a general election with both Labour and Conservative parties refraining from making any specific announcement before this time.

Ruth Holmes – News Reporter