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Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 00:10 GMT
MPs back bigger student 'bounty'
An influential committee of MPs has said that there should be a big increase in the "premium" universities get for recruiting students from deprived backgrounds.
The Commons education select committee says in its interim report on access to university that the government should give "immediate consideration" to raising the premium from 5% to 20% - with an eventual target of 50%.
They also back the idea that students should sit A-level exams earlier - so they can apply to universities knowing what their results are
The committee makes about three dozen recommendations aimed at improving access to higher education - but it has upset some by not mentioning the impact of the abolition of student grants, except to say that the new arrangements should be monitored closely.
The "participation premium" for students in postcode areas from which, traditionally, few people have gone on to higher education is currently 5% of course fees.
Because fees vary, the 5% equates to between £70 and £210 per student.
It is intended to help to defray the extra costs of recruiting and retaining so-called "non-traditional" students.
Raising it to 20% would, on figures in the report, cost an extra £50m a year in total.
Doing so "would capture the attention of higher education decision makers and encourage them to put social diversity at the heart of their strategy," the report said.
The committee chairman, Barry Sheerman, told BBC News: "That gives real money, real resource, to help a university go out, find these kids, bring them in and then keep them."
'Hot spots' conundrum
The MPs said they did not like the proposal from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that extra funds for widening access be given to institutions where less than 80% of the students are from state schools.
They said this "rewards those who fail" to recruit students from lower socio-economic groups.
They have asked the government to investigate why some parts of the country have "hot spots" within areas of economic deprivation, from where many youngsters go into higher education.
Equally there are unexplained "cold spots" in otherwise relatively affluent areas.
"More should be done to address under-representation from other areas than inner cities, including areas of rural deprivation," the report added.
Spring exam season
Moving A-level exams to April and May would mean students no longer had to apply to universities on the basis of predicted exam grades.
The committee said evidence showed these were often inaccurate and led to students making the wrong choices.
Proposals for a six-term year were put forward last autumn by an independent commission set up by the Local Government Association.
"The independent commission's report is an import contribution to this debate, and should be acted upon with all possible speed," the MPs said.
Applications to Oxford and Cambridge, and for medical courses, currently have to be submitted in mid-October, earlier than the general mid-December deadline for most university places.
The MPs recommend that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) apply the same closing date for all courses and do so "at the earliest possible date".
The report did not conclude that the abolition of grants and their replacement with loans was putting students from poor families off going to university.
It agreed with the Higher Education Minister, Tessa Blackstone, that the mixture of loans, with bursaries and hardship funds for poor students, was not too complex for people to understand.
But it did recommend that the Department for Education should "monitor closely and report on the operation of the new financial support arrangements".
MPs also called on ministers to raise the earnings threshold at which graduates have to start paying back their student loans.
The current level of £10,000 a year "places too great a burden on graduates' income", they said, and suggested it be raised - although without giving a figure.
It ruled out quotas of state school students as "inappropriate" but said universities should set themselves recruitment targets and publicise them.
They should make sure their admissions criteria were clear and that, where interviews are still held to decide between candidates, all those involved in the selection should be suitably trained.
The committee was unconvinced by summer schools, which give prospective students a taste of university life - many of which have received government funding.
It said they must not be "enrichment activities for the most able" but should interest those whose backgrounds would not lead them on to higher education.
"There is a danger that the limited number of places which are available at these summer schools could be 'captured' by students who already have a keen interest in higher education," said the report.
The MPs said state schools also had a role to play in widening access - partly in raising awareness, but also in raising educational standards nearer to those in independent schools.
They said exam boards should make available students' names and GCSE results - so universities could invite them to consider higher education.
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