Education & Family

Rise in university spend to attract poorer

Students Image copyright Phil Coomes
Image caption Disadvantaged students were not deterred by higher fees

UK universities spent nearly £140m extra on attracting poorer students in 2012-13, when annual tuition fees trebled to £9,000, a report says.

The Office of Fair Access report says the extra comprised £61.5m on outreach work, £30m on financial support and £48m on a new scholarship programme.

But it said there had been little progress in attracting poorer students to the most selective universities.

The government says universities have taken active steps to boost diversity.

'Remove the barriers'

The Offa report considers the progress universities made in ensuring students from a wide variety of backgrounds are admitted to the 148 university and colleges allowed to charge £9,000 fees.

Higher fees were allowed on condition they invested a proportion of the extra cash on activities and bursaries to attract disadvantaged students.

Overall universities spent £1.2bn from their tuition fee income and government grants on such activities.

There had been serious concerns that trebling university tuition fees would deter students from poorer backgrounds.

Prof Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access, said: "The introduction of higher fees in 2012-13 made it more important than ever that universities and colleges work to remove the barriers to participation that may prevent talented students from entering and succeeding in higher education.

"When I talk about barriers to participation, I not only mean financial barriers, or perceived financial barriers.

"I am also talking about people thinking - erroneously - that 'university is not for me' or 'I won't be welcome there' because social, cultural or educational disadvantages have held back their expectations."

Official admissions figures have already suggested disadvantaged students were not put off university courses in this crucial year.

However, there was less progress on boosting the number of poor students attending the most selective universities.

The rate of increase had been "flat in recent years despite universities' considerable efforts and investment", Prof Ebdon said, adding this was starting to change.

He added: "There must be further, faster change at highly selective universities."

The report says the top 20% of young people from the most advantaged backgrounds were more than six times more likely to attend one of these institutions.

'Wide net'

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, said it was good that Offa had confirmed higher fees had not deterred youngsters from poor backgrounds from university.

"But," she said, "we remain concerned that the government's access policies risk focusing too much on regulation and not enough on resolving the real problems.

"Investment by universities alone cannot solve the deeper causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds - under-achievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course."

National Union of Students president Toni Pearce said: "Universities should be casting the net as wide as possible identifying those with the potential to benefit from a diverse range of higher education options."

A spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Government is committed to supporting wider participation, which is why we launched the National Strategy for Access and Student Success to help improve student levels, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds."

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