High hopes pruned back

It's worrying that initiatives designed to attract students from low-income backgrounds are falling short, says David Willetts.

January 24, 2008

If UK universities are to be among the best in the world, they must attract the best students irrespective of social background. Across the whole political spectrum, there is a firm commitment to widening participation. So I do not doubt the commitment of ministers on extending access. But, to date, it is far from clear that the Government's initiatives, such as AimHigher, are having anything like the sort of impact that is so badly needed.

There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that potential students are missing out on higher education. For example, the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service suggest that the proportion of successful applicants from the lower socio-economic groups was lower in 2007 than it was in 2002.

The new report from the Office for Fair Access, out today, strikes a rather different tone. It says: "An estimated 70,000 students from lower-income backgrounds have received bursaries and every student who has applied for a bursary through the correct channels has received one." This is welcome news as far as it goes. Without such financial help, many of these students might have been blocked from attending university altogether.

But there is a lot that is not so rosy. Offa's report also highlights some important points that the Government cannot afford to ignore. First and foremost, 12,000 eligible students on full state support did not receive a bursary because of problems with the complicated application procedure - far too often across all areas of Government, means-tested support does not reach the people it is designed for. This always causes hardship, but in the case of higher education it is also likely to reduce people's options for the rest of their lives. We do not know how many of these 12,000 students performed less well than expected or even dropped out altogether as a result of not receiving the bursary they were entitled to. And we do not know how many people fail to apply for university at all once they see the complicated process for securing financial support.

Second, Offa found that universities spent almost £20 million less on financial support than was expected during 2006-07. This is an enormous shortfall: around £1 out of every £5 was not claimed. It reflects the low take-up but also widespread confusion over the implementation of the new rules. Ministers need to ensure that such a gap does not occur again.

Third, the report notes there are wide differences between universities. For example, different universities put very different amounts of effort into advertising the additional support that is available. Some examples of good practice exist, but it is not clear that these are being disseminated effectively across the sector as a whole. If we are to reduce the chances of people dropping out of university partway through, we need to make sure they have ongoing information about the support that is available.

The Government is obliged to have a review of the student fees regime in 2009. I have called on ministers to start this now so that it can be as detailed and comprehensive as possible. The Offa report highlights once again why an early start is so important, though ministers have yet to respond to the request.

Other countries are raising their game and expanding higher education opportunities fast. They are catching up with Britain, so we cannot rest on our laurels. Responding to the concerns raised in Offa's report will not be enough. We need to do more. Last week, I visited the independent charity IntoUniversity, which does some fantastic work in raising the aspirations of potential students. It is essential that we evaluate and learn from successful non-state programmes aimed at widening access to higher education.

If we are to have the best possible higher education sector, then improving access to universities at the point of entry is not enough. We need to do even more than simply reviewing the fees regime and helping those on the cusp of higher education. We must also raise the quality of young people entering higher education by improving school standards from the early years onwards.

And if we are to improve access across the board, then we need to promote lifelong learning and second-chance education for those who need it. That is why we have called on the Government to defer, review and consult on its new £100 million funding cut for second-chance education. This hasty announcement should be reconsidered, along with Offa's evidence, as part of the funding review.

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