A social divide is emerging in Britain's universities, with increasing numbers of students from poor backgrounds opting to study locally or live at home to minimise their debts, writes Rebecca Attwood. New research commissioned by the Sutton Trust shows that students from independent schools are 21 per cent less likely to study at a local university than those from poor backgrounds.
Just over 70 per cent of students planning to live at home said the need to minimise debt played a part in their decision.
The research, by academics at Staffordshire University, warns the trend could lead to possible "bottlenecks" in the graduate labour market and to social divides in universities.
"Students from lower income families may cluster more in certain universities 'local' to them and may also form peer groups of similar 'at home' students," says the paper, due to be presented by lead author Amanda Hughes at a Higher Education Academy conference, University Life Uncovered , this week. "If this is the case, increased university participation does not necessarily go hand in hand with the social cohesion sought by the Government."
The research came as another paper, published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education , described the bursary system as a "bewildering" mess.
The £350 million system of bursaries and scholarships is "unsatisfactory" when it comes to attracting students from lower income backgrounds, according to Lavinia Mitton of Kent University. Finding out what bursaries are available and how to apply for them is a complex challenge, she says in "Means-tested higher education? The English university bursary mess".
The variety of packages available is unlikely to benefit those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds because disadvantaged young people are more likely to choose to live at home when they are at university and are not at liberty to "shop around", says Dr Mitton, who argues for universities to rationalise their bursary schemes.
Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The current bursary system is overly complex and not fit for purpose. We remain concerned that the prospect of increased debt has led to more and more students being forced to live at home while they study, restricting their choice of university and course."
David Barrett, assistant director of the Office for Fair Access, said it was not difficult to find out what bursaries were on offer.
"A bit of web surfing is generally all that's needed," he said, adding that Offa recognised that there was "a challenge" to make information clearer and further raise awareness of bursaries and scholarships.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "Admissions for 2007 were up 6 per cent on the previous year, so if it really is 'too difficult' why have applications and acceptances to English universities reached an all-time high?"