Exclusive elite fails to attract poorer students

Twenty-three higher education institutions failed to hit their targets for attracting students from poor families, new figures show.

September 29, 2011

The universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Warwick, King’s College London and University College London were the five Russell Group members that did not receive enough applicants or students from poor families or socially deprived areas to fulfil their own targets in 2009-10, the Office for Fair Access announced today. Others that failed to reach their goals included the University of Durham and University of Exeter.

Commenting on the figures, David Willetts, universities and science minister, said that “social mobility in this country has stalled”.

“While universities have met their financial commitments to students, we need to see real progress in fair access, especially at our most selective institutions,” he said.

“That is why our funding reforms ensure that from next year universities will redouble their efforts to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Newer institutions which missed their targets included the University of Bath, Bath Spa University, the University of Bournemouth, Kingston University, Leeds Metropolitan University, the University of Loughborough, the University of West London, Cumbria University, the University of the Arts London and the University of Westminster.

The statistics released jointly by Offa and the Higher Education Funding Council for England also show that the proportion of Russell Group university students from poor backgrounds is half that of post-1992 institutions.

Only 20 per cent of students at Russell Group institutions received full means-tested bursaries available for those whose families earned less than £25,000 in 2009-10 compared to 40 per cent at Million+ universities.

Rates were even lower at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, where low-income students made up 12.6 and 14.4 per cent of undergraduates respectively.

This was about half the rate of some of their Russell Group peers, such as the University of Liverpool (.4 per cent), the University of Manchester (26.6 per cent) and King’s College London (24.9 per cent).

The most socially inclusive universities were University of Bradford and University of East London, where 69.3 and 57.2 per cent of students respectively picked up the full bursary, which was £935 on average.

The data also show that universities spent 25.1 per cent of their fee income above £1,285 on access measures in 2009-10 – a total of £395 million, including £38 million on outreach.

Under the new fee regime from 2012, universities will devote an average of 26 per cent of their fee income above £6,000 to bursaries for poorer students and outreach.

However, Liam Burns, president of National Union of Students, said financial support would fall by £56.7 million – from £354 million in 2009-10 to £297 million in 2015-16 – under the new arrangements.

None of the additional £150 million National Scholarship Programme funds would reach students’ pockets, being used instead to fund fee waivers, he said.

“The government is offering £150 million of scholarships with one hand and taking every penny, and more, back with the other to fund the fee waivers they’ll use to keep their borrowing down”, Mr Burns said.

“Not enough money is reaching the pockets of vulnerable students when they need it.”

Meanwhile, the University and College Union said low numbers of students from poor families at elite universities meant they could pay higher bursaries than more socially inclusive institutions.

The University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and Imperial College offered poorer students bursaries of more than £2,000 in 2009-10, while poor students at the University of Bradford, University of Bedfordshire and the University of Northumbria received an average bursary of just £679, £754 and £628 respectively.

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “It is over-simplistic to suggest that it is the size of bursaries alone that determine where students study. However, we need to provide better support for students from poorer backgrounds wherever they study.”

Sir Martin Harris, director of fair access, said universities needed to spend more on outreach. “When children are 14, 15 or 16 is the point when you can change their minds about university,” he said. “I want to see universities reaching out to those students who might not consider university or perhaps would not apply to a certain type of university.”


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