Government plans to widen participation in higher education suffered a blow this week as figures showed that spiralling student debt is deterring the poor and disadvantaged.
For the second year running, English and Welsh institutions are falling short of recruitment targets for students starting full-time courses. In Scotland, where Scottish students do not pay tuition fees upfront and poor students get maintenance grants, institutions have met their targets.
Some 7,000 full-time places went unfilled in 1999-2000, figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England reveal. These places have been reallocated for the present year but, on the basis of early Hefce estimates, are likely to remain empty.
Despite the government's efforts to widen participation, a report published this week by the National Union of Students shows that the number of males from skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled backgrounds applying to full-time undergraduate courses fell by nearly 7 per cent between 1997 and 1999. The figures in the report, Equal Access or Elitist Entry?, were based on statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Applications from black males of African and Carribean backgrounds fell by nearly 11 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively.
Evan Harris, higher education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said:
"This is the beginning of the evidence that Cubie and the Scottish experience were right and that the government is wrong.
"If there is a widening discrepancy between recruitment in England and Wales compared with Scotland, then that is very strong evidence that the government policy of making poor students poorer by removing means-tested maintenance grants is actually destroying the government's aim of expanding access."
NUS president Owain James pointed to the effect of potential debt on student recruitment. He said: "Black students and students from low-income families are far less likely to enter higher education if they are liable to get into significant debt. Numbers of students from within these groups have fallen as a direct result of the imposition of tuition fees.
"It's not just us: Andrew Cubie called the government's student support system 'discredited'.
"The government is seeking to deny the evidence that is clearly there. If the government really wants to widen access, it should abolish tuition fees, oppose top-up fees and reintroduce targeted grants."
A spokeswoman from the Department for Education and Employment dismissed the NUS data as "misleading".
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said: "Young people from poorer backgrounds do not pay tuition fees. The social class and the ethnic mix of both applicants and entrants to full-time higher education has been stable since 1997. From next year, half of all students will not pay tuition fees."
Another barrier to expanding the number of British undergraduates is that institutions can lose money by doing so. A pilot study of nine leading universities has shown that, under the current funding method, large institutions can each lose up to £8 million a year through teaching British and European Union students. The deficit is covered by tuition fees charged to overseas and privately funded students.
Hefce said that a further complication was the big jump in student recruitment that took place in 1997, when tuition fees were announced for the following year. With most of these students having now graduated, institutions are struggling to replace them.
In the short term, a sector-wide shortfall in recruitment could result in an increase in the unit of funding per student, Hefce officials said. Universities and colleges are cushioned financially from under-recruitment - any clawback would be phased by the funding council.
- About 15,000 students marched through London on Wednesday in what was billed as the biggest student demonstration in a decade.
The demonstrators called for the elimination of the possibility of top-up fees, the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants targeted at the poorest students.
Ed Tyler, president of the University of Bath students union, who marched on Bath, said: "The future and fortune of this country is dependent upon a well-educated society. Access to higher education on the grounds of wealth instead of ability will prevent us from competing on a world scale.
"Tuition fees and the threat of top-up fees go against the hard work that has already gone towards equality of opportunity in education."
The demonstrators in London were addressed at a later rally by Ken Livingstone, London mayor; David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers; Keith Sonnet, assistant general secretary of Unison; Owain James; and Evan Harris.