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Unions 2000 Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Universities 'failing the poor'
David Blunkett
David Blunkett: "Children's futures should not be determined by where they live"
Universities have again been accused of failing to reach out to pupils from deprived backgrounds.

The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, said that a third of pupils in the country - attending schools in disadvantaged areas - were missing out on the opportunities of higher education.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) he said that it was "no longer acceptable that in this new century" there were still universities and medical schools which took less than half their student intake from state schools.

This cultural divide between families with "no tradition of sending children into higher education" and universities could even extend to local dialects causing misunderstandings in interviews, said the education secretary.

students studying in library
The government wants to widen access to higher education

In an attempt to bridge the gap between higher education and youngsters from areas that sent few pupils to university, he gave further details of "opportunity bursaries" which will provide up to 1,000 to help A-level students achieve university places.

These will be distributed through schools in deprived areas, and with 10m a year available from next year, this is expected to provide funds for 10,000 young people.

The initiative, first trailed at the beginning of the year, follows a pilot project with schools in the south Yorkshire coalfields.

'Moral responsibility'

Emphasising his personal commitment to widening access, Mr Blunkett said he had been "the only person within a square mile on his council estate" to go to university.

Mr Blunkett also announced grants totalling 4m to help universities attract more applications from gifted youngsters from low income families - supporting schemes such as mentoring and summer schools.

At present, he said that only 17% of young people from lower socio-economic groups continued into higher education, and that a pupil from a private school was 30 times more likely to enter a leading university than pupils from disadvantaged areas.

"Universities and colleges have a social, economic and moral responsibility to provide opportunities to all who are able to benefit from higher education," he said.

Partner schools

"The futures of children should not be determined by where they live or where they went to school."

However, Mr Blunkett rejected "quotas or lowering thresholds" or any other "dilutions of entry requirements" to achieve a greater social balance in university intakes.

He also rejected the suggestion that tuition fees were responsible for reducing applications from students from poor backgrounds, saying "there is no evidence that the current system of financial support is deterring applicants".

Among the examples which could be followed by universities in the UK, Mr Blunkett pointed to projects in the United States which were encouraging wider access to higher education.

These included the "gear up" scheme, launched in 1998, in which universities adopt partner schools in deprived areas and establish links which will give pupils an insight into higher education, and might give them the confidence to apply for places.

The education secretary also called for a greater equality in gender and a cracking of the "glass ceiling", condemning universities for only having five women Vice-Chancellors out of 72 universities in England.

'Costs need to be met'

Responding to Mr Blunkett's announcements, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) applauded the 4m grants for universities.

But it added that recent progress in widening participation in higher education which had been made had not been reflected in the figures quoted by Mr Blunkett.

Chief Executive Diana Warwick said: "The effort to bring students from all backgrounds into higher education is one that all universities engage in.

"The cost across the board of recruiting and supporting non-traditional students will need to be met for the government's own targets on student participation to be achieved."

See also:

22 Jun 99 | UK Education
22 Jun 99 | UK Education
14 Sep 99 | UK Education
27 Nov 99 | UK Education
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