Britain's poor appear to be shunning training for the professions, according to an analysis of degree applications by the National Union of Students.
In medicine, a huge rise in the number of students masks a downturn in applications from social groups IV and V. Medical schools have recorded a 34 per cent overall increase in recruitment in the five years to 2001, but a 31 per cent decline in applications from students from the poorest backgrounds.
Figures released today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a 16 per cent jump in applications for pre-clinical medicine courses starting this autumn. But the data have yet to be analysed by social class.
The NUS analysis also suggests that other professions are increasingly relying on students from middle-class backgrounds.
Engineering, which has struggled with a 12 per cent drop in applications in the five years to 2001, has lost its highest percentage of recruits from poor families. Applicants where the main breadwinner was classified as semiskilled were down 28 per cent, while applicants from unskilled families declined by 19 per cent.
Nina Williams, of the Engineering and Technology Board, said that the key to attracting more students was to change the perception of engineering as a low-paid profession. Engineering graduates, she said, earn more than the average graduate salary six months after entering employment.
A similar pattern has emerged in accountancy. Overall, applications have fallen 8 per cent, but among semi-skilled families they declined 20 per cent and among unskilled families 17 per cent.
The British Medical Association said that its 2001 survey of student finances showed that 74 per cent of respondents had an overdraft compared with 63 per cent the previous year. The average size of the overdraft had grown by 16 per cent. On average, finalists owed £13,000, a rise of 22 per cent on the year. The BMA found that students from families where the main earner was employed in manual work had higher debts than those from a managerial or professional background.
A spokeswoman said: "We have no statistical evidence on whether this is deterring students from studying medicine, but anecdotal evidence is convincing. This is an issue the BMA is very concerned about and we believe the introduction of targeted grants is the solution."
Applications to education degrees are bucking the trend, however. Although numbers are down overall, the decline is far less marked among those from skilled and semi-skilled backgrounds compared with those from professional and managerial families.
The NUS said that the figures were further proof that changes to student funding, resulting in spiralling debt, had hit the poorest students hardest. A spokesman said: "The government's funding policies have failed the very students they are trying to attract. If they are serious about widening access, they need to listen to the increasing evidence that maintenance support is crucial."
The NUS is holding a rally in London on February 20, when a petition will be handed to the prime minister proclaiming the "grants-not-fees" message. NUS president Owain James said: "We know there is a lot of worry about the emergence of a two-tier higher education system and tens of thousands of students are facing hardship. We need to guard against complacency that grants are back on the agenda - that is something we must fight for."