Under new plans announced by the Universities Secretary, John Denham, ‘new universities’ – polytechnics elevated to university status since 1992 – may soon begin to revert back to their traditional role. According to the plans, former polytechnics should stop trying to ape leading universities and provide vocational courses for practically- minded students.

The announcement marks something of u-turn in government policy, which has for years attempted to promote the research credentials of new universities alongside the more established universities. Also indicated by Mr. Denham was his belief that post-1992 institutions should be expected to take more of a lead in attracting students from backgrounds associated with lower levels of participation in higher education. This will come as a relief to leading universities, who have come under relentless pressure from successive Labour governments to increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds.

Mr. Denham will outline in full his strategy for higher education this summer, with changes including a new form of vocational degree. This will be mainly offered by new universities and will be aimed to benefit those with vocational qualifications rather than A-levels. “I want to nurture the different parts of the system,” said Denham, who added: “the truth is a Classics degree from a traditional university is not the same as a degree in mining and engineering at another.”

However, the government’s plans may run into opposition from those within the academic profession. Malcolm McVicar, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancaster, a former polytechnic, warned that dividing institutions was “outdated”. He further added that any such move could result in a dispute that would make “the 2005 fees row look like a Sunday afternoon tea party”.

Jamie McClymont

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