Page last updated at 03:10 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

Poor still shunning universities

lecture theatre
Universities say they do try to draw in a wider range of students

The government has given universities 392m to get more working class youngsters in England to attend but progress has been slow, MPs say.

The Commons public accounts committee says it is "dismayed" the government seems to have little idea what they have done with the money.

Participation rose by two percentage points over five years to 2007-08 - newer universities doing better.

The government says the committee's report has been superseded.

Its report, Widening participation in higher education, points to a continuing large class divide.

"Although the gap is narrowing, more than twice the proportion of people from upper socio-economic backgrounds go into higher education than those from lower socio-economic groups."

Outdated advice

It says: "Men from lower socio-economic backgrounds are significantly under-represented, particularly those from white ethnic backgrounds, as are young people living in deprived areas -compared with the general population."

While information on financial assistance is available from a range of sources, it is not easily accessible or understood
Select committee report

Youngsters can end up making the wrong choices because of poor guidance about which subjects to study.

One of the reasons is that some teachers base their advice on their outdated experiences of higher education.

And some teachers and parents may be reluctant to recommend the more selective universities because of perceived prejudices about the types who go there.

So the MPs say it is essential that parents and teachers be included in the work universities need to do with reaching out to children while they are in school.

'Not discriminating'

Width of participation varies by the type of university, with those in the Russell Group of research intensive institutions having the poorest record.

But there are reasons for this.

"The Russell Group universities offer a mix of subjects such as medicine, law and engineering, which appeal to students from backgrounds with a tradition of attending university," the MPs say.

"As a result, the funding council believes that the Russell Group is not discriminating against applicants from under-represented groups, as they have a smaller pool of such applicants from which to select."

In any case the data on participation are suspect. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) did not have information on the backgrounds of a large proportion of students.


In 2006-07, some 12,000 students did not apply for a bursary although many were likely to have met the necessary criteria.

"While information on financial assistance is available from a range of sources, it is not easily accessible or understood," the report says.

"The department should develop a single source of information to enable potential students to identify easily the bursaries and grants for which they may be eligible."

Even then, the amount of tuition fee income that universities choose to redistribute as bursaries varies considerably, as does the amount students can get.

In 2008-09, the value of bursaries for students receiving full maintenance grants varied from 310 to 3,150.

'Strong progress'

Committee chairman Edward Leigh said: "It is of crucial importance to raise the aspirations of talented pupils from backgrounds where going to university is considered 'not for people like us' or the idea of doing so is never even entertained."

Higher Education Minister David Lammy said the findings had already been superseded by actions taken by government, universities and schools to widen participation.

"Strong progress is being made on widening participation due to our continued long-term investment."

Admissions service figures showed that the number of applicants from the poorest backgrounds in 2008 increased by a further 1%, he said.

The MPs' report relates to England in the UK's devolved education systems.

It notes that Dius does not routinely compare performance in widening participation with that in other countries.

This is mainly because of significant differences between systems, but means it may not be learning valuable lessons.

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