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Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 13:41 GMT
Widening access is university priority
The education secretary has signalled a shift in priority when it comes to widening access to England's universities.
Charles Clarke told journalists he was less interested in hitting the target of 50% of young people experiencing higher education - and more interested in increasing the number of students from poorer backgrounds.
He was commenting on the latest figures on students entering university, which showed few signs of wider access from last year.
Mr Clarke said universities should focus on appealing to pupils who would not usually think of going.
He said that if he had to choose between the 50% target, and getting "a much better class basis" in the 43% who were currently going to university, "I would choose the latter".
Earlier, in a BBC interview, he said: "The focus needs to be on presenting what universities can offer to schools and children who have not always seen universities as the way forward for them, in order that we can use their talents to the best possible effect."
The Higher Education Minister, Margaret Hodge, said universities should be "building bridges" rather than acting as "ivory towers".
"Clearly some of our brightest students from our poorest neighbourhoods and state schools do not have the opportunity that they deserve," she said.
"Our best universities need to get out more and hunt out potential in their local communities."
Both Oxford and Cambridge have increased their proportions of state school pupils - up to 53%.
They now share the figure for the lowest proportion of state students with St George's Hospital Medical School in London.
But across the United Kingdom, there has been no change in the proportion of state school pupils in higher education, and an increase of only one point in England.
The figures - the most recent to be published - relate to the 2000-2001 academic year.
The proportion of young entrants from areas where traditionally there have been few university students was unchanged from last year - at 12%.
And again unchanged from last year is the figure of 25% of students drawn from working class families.
The government also sets benchmark figures for the levels of access expected of universities.
And on this measure, as with last year, the most elitist remains St Andrews, which missed its state-school pupil target by 20 percentage points, a figure worse than last year.
But there were increases in the state school intake at the London School of Economics, Leeds and Bristol.
Earlier this year, both the LSE and Bristol were accused by private schools of giving an unfair preference to state school pupils.
And once again Northern Ireland had the most inclusive universities, with Queen's and the University of Ulster registering 100% state pupils.
The statistics also provide information on the numbers of disabled students for the first time.
This shows that 1.4% of students are claiming a disability allowance - although this could under-represent the full total of students with disabilities.
This year's figures, published by the higher education funding councils across the United Kingdom, also report on students dropping out of university and show an unchanged average from last year.
New universities tended to be less successful in retaining students than the most prestigious institutions.
While Oxford, Cambridge, Sheffield and the London School of Economics all had drop-out rates of 2% or under, the University of North London had a 24% drop-out rate.
Lack of money
University chiefs have said that the figures showed that higher education was performing well "despite severe under-funding".
"That the sector has maintained performance levels in spite of severe financial constraints and ongoing insecurity is a considerable achievement," said Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK.
But the leader of the Association of University Teachers, Sally Hunt, said that : "It's deeply depressing to see statistics showing that participation in higher education hasn't widened at all.
"However, as students are still being asked to pay upfront tuition fees to attend university it's not surprising that people from poor backgrounds are still being put off. Introducing top-up fees would only make the situation worse."
Mr Clarke said: "I don't think variable fees as such is a disincentive for people from poorer backgrounds unless the level of fee that thereby is created in some institutions is so high that the debt effect starts to become serious."
The Liberal Democrat spokesman, David Rendel, said tution fees clearly had acted as a deterrent to people from poorer backgrounds going to university.
"However, the main difficulty in getting people from poorer backgrounds to university begins with the battle to get these students to stay on at school after GCSEs," he said.
The government must focus on encouraging more poorer students to do A-levels in the first place.
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