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Higher plans stumble

Tony Blair will underline the importance of getting more young people into higher education in his speech to the Labour party conference next week.

The Prime Minister has told the cabinet he will focus on the subject of "securing Britain's future", including by giving people equal access to educational opportunities and by providing British workers with the higher-level skills to compete with China and India.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is also expected to stress the key role that education can play in creating a "knowledge-based" economy.

But figures published yesterday suggest the Government's drive to widen access to higher education may have stumbled. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate that the proportion of state-school pupils getting places at universities fell to 86.8 per cent in 2003-4 from 87.2 per cent the previous year.

Elite universities were among those that saw significant drops, with the proportion of state school pupils gaining places at Oxford falling from 55.4 to 53.8 per cent - a fall of 95 students and from 57.6 per cent to 56.9 or 50 students at Cambridge.

Both results are below a benchmark level for state school admissions which the Government has set at 75.2 per cent.

The Independent Schools Council joined Oxford to call for a scrapping of the benchmarks.

Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of the ISC, said the benchmarks were absurd and meaningless as they ignored the many pupils from under-privileged backgrounds who attended fee-paying schools.

There was also criticism for the Government's pound;400 million Aimhigher programme, which encourages students from poor backgrounds to attend university through school visits, summer schools and mentoring.

An interim evaluation of the project by the National Foundation for Educational Research said there was no conclusive statistical evidence to show it had raised aspirations of pupils in low-income groups.

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