Universities were last week urged to strengthen efforts to attract more working-class students to degree courses as figures revealed that the participation of students from poor backgrounds had hardly increased over the past seven years.
Unions demanded an independent review of widening participation policies after publishing a study showing that the proportion of young full-time undergraduates from working-class families in England had risen from 25 per cent in 1997-98 to 28.6 per cent in 2003-04 - despite government funding of some £900 million.
A conference on widening participation last week heard that the sector must work harder to retain students once they have been attracted to higher education.
But university officials said it was far too early to judge widening access efforts because much of the focus was on raising the aspirations of schoolchildren.
The figures, compiled by the Association of University Teachers as part of its submission to the ten-year government spending review, chart participation rates and funding levels over the past seven years.
The percentage of undergraduates from working-class families in England remained at 25 to 26 per cent between 1997-98 and 2001-02, rising to 28.6 per cent in 2002-03 and 2003-04. But this rise may have been due to a change in the measurement of social class.
Meanwhile, funding for widening participation work in English universities rose from £22 million just from the Department for Education and Skills in 1997-98 to £364 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the DfES in 2003-04. Total funding was £915 million in that period.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, called for an independent inquiry into how widening participation could be improved. "We are concerned that little appears to have changed since 1997 for students from a disadvantaged background," she said.
"Although a lot of public money has been pumped into widening participation and universities have set up initiatives, this is a tough nut to crack."
A joint statement from the AUT and lecturers' union Natfhe said that more funding should be targeted on institutions with "a high share of less academically well-prepared students".
Liz Thomas, senior adviser for widening participation at the Higher Education Academy, told a Universities UK conference: "Widening participation is still being interpreted as getting people into higher education rather than what happens when they are there." She said that universities needed to look at their culture, policies and courses.
But Geoff Layer, pro vice-chancellor at Bradford University, said that although the proportion of working-class undergraduates at universities had increased only marginally, the overall number had gone up as the total number of university students had risen.
John Selby, acting director for widening participation at Hefce, said: "We are not surprised by the data and not surprised widening participation is taking a while, but I have reservations about what we can read into the figures." He said the data did not show that a growing proportion of the population was middle class and that school results indicated increasing inequality, which would depress the proportion of applications from working-class children.
A DfES spokesman agreed that children who took part in government outreach initiatives were not old enough to have reached university age.
But in the annual letter to Hefce last month, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said that "in spite of the recent progress, we do not perform well enough" in widening access.
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