Members of groups that are under-represented in full-time higher education are turning away from study, according to analysis by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The turnabout appears to correspond with the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of tuition fees.
In the five years leading up to 1998, an increasing number of people from under-represented groups enrolled at universities and colleges. In October 1998, however, the trend reversed.
Fewer students from unskilled social backgrounds enrolled on degree courses, while the majority of ethnic groups experienced a fall in the number of students accepted to Higher National Diploma and degree courses. Mature students drifted away from full-time education, fewer students with non-traditional entry qualifications enrolled on degrees, and the rise in the number of non-traditionally qualified enrolments on HNDs slowed.
"The relationship (between the decline in enrolments from under-represented groups and the introduction of the new funding arrangements) may be complex but it is causal," said Colin Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford. "The most important aspect is the loss of the maintenance grant because students now have to find the money to support themselves. It is about attitudes to loans. The middle-classes think loans are good value but for lots of people, the cost of university - some Pounds 10,000 - is more money than the family has ever borrowed."
Maggie Woodrow of the University of Westminster, author of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' report From elitism to exclusion, said:
"It is a major concern. Although it is too early to say for sure, it looks as though there has been a reversal of widening participation. It is not really surprising given that funding decisions affect those who have less money. Lower income families have an aversion to debt. It is no use offering funding (student loans) that is culturally insensitive and saying 'take it or lump it'."
Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College, London, said that enrolments at his college, which accepts only part-time students, had kept rising in all under-represented groups. This indicated that students from under-represented groups are switching from full-time to part-time study, he said.
Professor Bell said that since many elite universities do not offer part-time degree courses, any shift from full-time to part-time study limited the choices available to students. Part-time students also study locally, further limiting choice.
The UCAS study examined students who accepted a university or college place between 1994 and 1998. It found that while more students from under-represented groups took part in higher education over those five years, numbers fell between 1997 and 1998, showing that "the foundations for widening participation were unstable". The study concluded: "Analysis of 1997 to 1998 data highlights large decreases in accepted applicants within those age, socioeconomic and ethnic groupings which were the primary focus of the widening participation initiative."
The number of students starting degree courses rocketed by almost 20 per cent over five years but fell back between 1997 and 1998. Students from unskilled backgrounds were hardest hit, suffering a 6 per cent drop in accepted places. At HND level, enrolments were up by 14 per cent between 1994 and 1998; however, between 1997 and 1998 they fell. The proportion of students from unskilled backgrounds remained static in this case. Overall, students from unskilled and partly skilled social backgrounds remain greatly under-represented in higher education.
More students from ethnic backgrounds started HND and degree courses between 1994 and 1998. But between 1997 and 1998, the majority of the ethnic groupings experienced large declines in numbers at HND level. At degree level, no falls were noted in most ethnic groups with the exception of black Caribbean, black African and some Asian students. In 1998, these groups accounted for 30 per cent of non-white degree students.
Fluctuating mature student numbers at HND level took a downturn between 1997 and 1998. Over the five years to 1998, a third more mature students started an HND. But between 1997 and 1998, figures fell by 8 per cent. At degree level, mature students were up 1 per cent over five years but down 11 per cent between 1997 and 1998.
The UCAS study states that reasons for the change in the profile of accepted applicants since 1997 "invariably focus on the change in student funding arrangements and introduction of fees and loans for 1998 entry".
However, UCAS was reluctant to draw a causal relationship between the two "in the absence of further quantitative and qualitative analyses" and called for more research. A spokesman said that comparing 1997 and 1998 entry was difficult since many students cancelled gap years to avoid tuition fees.
Labour market, page 4 Leader, page 16