Baroness Blackstone, the minister for higher education, told university vice-chancellors in Manchester that the traditional post-16 curriculum had been designed for a world that no longer existed, when higher education was the preserve of a highly specialised elite. It was not suitable for a world where a third of young people entered higher education and where the jobs they would be applying for would demand a far wider range of skills than those of 10 years ago, never mind 40.
She challenged the vice-chancellors - and university admissions tutors - to translate into action Labour's "absolute commitment" to widen access, saying that nearly three times as many people with middle-class homes went into HE as from working-class backgrounds.
"I want to encourage you to look at your admissions policies," she said. "Are you missing promising, perhaps potentially brilliant, candidates by not being imaginative enough in the way you select?" Lady Blackstone stressed that she wanted a broader and more demanding curriculum for 16 and 17-year-olds, not an easier one. "It is a fact that young people in England and Wales typically follow a narrower programme of study at advanced level, and are taught for less time, than young people in other countries," she said. "There is, frankly, no good reason why this should be so."
She listed Government reforms designed to broaden the sixth-formers' fare: the new AS level, to be introduced in the year 2000, representing the first half of the full A-level; new GNVQs, equivalent to a single A plus at AS level, that can be taken alongside A-levels; and a new qualification in "key skills", covering information technology, communication and application of number, that will be available to all 16 to 19-year-olds whatever their programme of study.
Vice-chancellors welcomed the idea of broader sixth-form study. But Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chairman of the committee, stressed that this could have a knock-on effect on the shortest degree courses in the developed world.