Lack of self-belief deters poor students

February 2, 2007

Students from working-class backgrounds could be put off applying to university because they underestimate their own academic abilities, according to new research, writes Rebecca Attwood.

Academics asked new students to sit a literacy and numeracy test and to judge how well they had performed in comparison to their peers. Although the students were of equal ability, the researchers found that those from working-class backgrounds consistently perceived other students to have performed better than themselves in both tests.

The paper, published in The Higher Education Quarterly , argues that a key obstacle to widening access is the erroneous belief among potential entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds that they will not be as capable of succeeding in higher education.

The findings were published as the Higher Education Council for England announced that it would plough millions more pounds into its Aimhigher summer schools programme, which could see it double in size.

Since 2003-04, funding for the summer schools, which aim to give a taste of university to students in Years 10, 11 and 12 from groups underrepresented in higher education, has been split between Hefce and the European Social Fund. Some £21 million has been spent on the scheme in the past three years, but ESF funding will dry up in August 2008.

Hefce this week said it would inject £10.5 million between 2008-09 and 2009-10 to support and expand the programme. A further £3.5 million of Hefce funding will be available for summer schools funded jointly by higher education institutions.

John Selby, Hefce acting director for widening participation, said: "We had set aside money to cope with the introduction of variable fees or significant underrecruitment. As that hasn't happened, we are now able to spend this money on summer schools."

He said the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review meant funding for any programme after 2008 could not be certain. But the summer schools funding is secure because Hefce already has the money.

It was also confirmed this week that from next year applicants would be asked if their parents had a degree in an effort to help universities select more working-class students.

* A Department for Education and Skills study published this week found that ethnic minority students were less likely to gain first-class degrees than their white counterparts.

The Higher Education Academy, working with the Equality Challenge Unit, Universities UK and Guild HE, has set up a project to investigate the issues raised by the report.

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