Universities discriminate against the poor by rejecting qualified applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, Parliament's public-spending watchdog has warned. Institutions also fail to make a proper case for extra funds to widen participation.
The National Audit Office called on the Higher Education Funding Council for England today to "monitor and measure" fairness in admissions to ensure that universities stop "creating unnecessary obstacles for students from poorer social classes". The NAO also warned that more needs to be done to improve achievement by poorer students.
Institutions that recruit few students from lower socioeconomic groups have argued that such students do not apply in sufficient numbers. They have argued that the key to widening access is to improve school exam performance and raise aspirations. But an NAO study has found that while work needs to be done to improve school performance, university selection procedures remain unfair.
Qualified working-class applicants are 30 per cent less likely to be offered a place at some universities compared with their more privileged counterparts, the NAO study says. It found that subjects such as medicine, veterinary science and dentistry remain particularly elitist. In medicine, working-class applicants are 20 per cent less likely to be accepted than richer students.
In two separate reports covering access and achievement, to be presented to Parliament today, the NAO says that universities have made tremendous headway in coping with a huge expansion of student numbers in the face of deep funding cuts. The endorsement is likely to be seized upon by universities and unions lobbying for more money in the comprehensive spending review.
But the NAO warns that much more could be done by both universities and the funding council to recruit students from non-traditional backgrounds.
Poorer students are forced to take a higher financial risk to go to university, are less certain about their ability to succeed and are less convinced of the benefits of a university education. Indeed, the NAO found in its report on student achievement that students from poorer backgrounds can expect a lower return on their investment in higher education on the jobs market than their richer counterparts, earning only 7 per cent more than non-graduates, compared with the 14 per cent premium enjoyed by the more privileged counterparts.
The NAO studies also say that resources are being misdirected. Hefce allocates special funding premiums for students from poorer backgrounds, inadequately identified by postcode, the NAO says, and for part-time and mature students.
But some 20,000 of the part-time entrants who attract extra funding each year already have a degree or some other higher-level professional qualification.
The NAO declines to endorse universities' arguments that they need higher levels of premium funding for widening access to reflect the additional costs of teaching poorer students because the sector has been unable to properly identify the additional costs. "Six of the seven higher education providers we visited were unable to identify relevant costs," it said.
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