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Friday, 11 August, 2000, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Universities 'failing to widen access'
Students in university bar
University life: A true social mix?
Universities' efforts to attract more students from poorer backgrounds have largely failed, a study suggests.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) indicate that the proportion of students from lower income families has only risen slightly in six years.

Last year, 2.9% of undergraduates came from council estates, compared with 2.44% in 1994.

In contrast, the study indicates that last year, students from high income and suburban backgrounds took one third of full-time degree course places - despite making up just 20% of the UK population.

Laura Spence
Laura Spence: Rejected by Oxford

The study, to be published next week, is set to increase the pressure on universities to widen access following this year's row about Laura Spence, the Tyneside comprehensive pupil rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford.

Laura went on to gain a scholarship to Harvard University in the United States, and the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, sparked a furore by accusing the Magdalen of elitism.

Black and Asian students

As the Ucas figures were revealed on Friday, ahead of the publication of the study, Lifelong Learning Minister Malcolm Wicks said progress had been made, but there was still more to be done.

A significant improvement identified in the study is a steep rise in the number of black and Asian students during the second half of the 1990s.

Between 1994 and 1999, the number of black undergraduates rose by 40%, and the number of Asian undergraduates, by 53%.

Despite the high percentages, though, the actual numbers of black and Asian students were still relatively low.

Last year, there were 8,300 black and 25,000 Asian undergraduates, out of a total intake of 277,340.

'Long way to go'

Ucas chief executive Tony Higgins said: "This report shows that UK universities are becoming more and more inclusive but there's still a long way to go."

Mr Wicks said: "Standards are rising in our primary and secondary schools and we must build on that progress to open up new opportunities for study at the highest levels for able young people."

He added that the extra 20m to widen access to higher education announced in the recent comprehensive spending review would build on the "excellent work" already happening in summer schools, through the Sutton Trust, and other university access schemes.

But opposition politicians said the figures showed the government had been wrong to abolish maintenance grants for students.

Tory higher education spokesman Tim Boswell said: "These figures are disappointing - we want universities to be able to draw on the widest possible pool of ability."

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Evan Harris said: "If the current Government's aim was really to increase access for less well-represented groups then these figures show it has patently failed.

"It is not surprising when one considers the effect of the imposition of tuition fees and making poor students even poorer by removing the maintenance grant."


A spokeswoman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) said universities acknowledged much more needed to be done to widen access.

"This is a challenge to everyone in the education system - schools, universities, parents, and pupils.

"Universities are working with schools to raise aspirations among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and draw many more of them into higher education."

The CVCP was leading the way in spreading "best practice" on access schemes, she added.

See also:

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