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End of an era for educational elite

Neil Merrick assesses responses to the higher education review.

Pressures on universities to move from being the preserve of an educational elite are emerging from responses to the Department for Education and Employment's lengthy higher education review.

But respondents are sharply divided on the question of a single FHE sector. A report on the review is expected by the new year.

Failing standards are a major worry. Concern has been prompted by reports that some of Britain's newer universities are offering places to candidates without A-levels.

But, with more than 300 responses now in to the review from large organisations, the newer universities appear to be most in touch with the needs and views of the majority in industry, further education, schools and all political parties.

Many respondents ask for: * more vocational education linked to professional qualifications; * courses with core transferable skills; * flexible lifelong learning to meet needs of adult students; * more costs to fall on to students.

Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, says universities can no longer afford to concentrate on producing doctors and lawyers. "Universities are catering for the top level of vocations," she says. The nation needs an increasing number of people with qualifications at a supervisory level."

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals says this should stay with FE, with a "distinctive" HE sector concentrating on higher studies.

The National Union of Students says the DFEE was wrong to restrict its review to higher education as the traditional divide between FE and HE is becoming increasingly blurred.

The National Institute for Adult Continuing Education says the argument about a single sector is irrelevant and it is not about institutions. "A national credit framework is needed to cover all post-school education," it says.

Paul Bennett of the lecturers' union NATFHE says vocational courses are often more appropriate for people entering HE. He adds: "The post-16 education system should be treated as a continuum. People will increasingly need access to more flexible post-school systems which can respond to individual needs."

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