Bursaries fail to attract poor students to top universities Researchers say efforts to attract disadvantaged teenagers are proving fruitless
Jessica Shepherd, education correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 23 September 2010
The government’s university access watchdog – the Office for Fair Access (Offa) – analysed the applications of a million teenagers between 2003 and 2008. It discovered that efforts by universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to attract a higher percentage of deprived teenagers by offering generous bursaries were fruitless.
Researchers categorised the teenagers by how many graduates there were of their parents’ age in their neighbourhood. In the 40% of neighbourhoods with the lowest proportion of graduate parents, the proportion of teenagers going to the most prestigious universities had stayed “almost flat” between 2003 and 2008. This is despite the fact that since 2006, top universities have offered disadvantaged young people who achieve high grades bursaries of up to £3,500 that they do not have to pay back.
Even when young people from poor families apply to a top university and are offered a place with the promise of a generous bursary, they are reluctant to take it up, the researchers found.
Offa calls on top universities to waive tuition fees for the poorest teenagers, for their first year of study at least. No university uses this strategy to entice students at the moment. Universities should use some of the money they set aside for bursaries to carry out more visits to schools in deprived areas, the study argues.
Next month, an independent review is expected to recommend that tuition fees rise. Lord Browne, who is leading the review, is likely to suggest fees should be increased from £3,290 a year for undergraduates to £5,000, or even £7,000. Sir Martin Harris, Offa’s director, has suggested to Browne that fee waivers could be a more powerful way to influence applicants’ choices than bursaries.
The study – Have Bursaries Influenced Choices Between Universities? – says universities spent £591m on bursaries between 2006 and 2008, compared with £84m on outreach work.
Harris said teachers were partly to blame for teenagers not studying at top universities. “Maybe these students did the wrong subjects or they did not aspire to get to these universities,” he said. Students should be told at 14 which subjects they should choose if they wanted to apply to a top university. However, universities should do more with schools in disadvantaged areas, he said.
Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK – the umbrella group for vice-chancellors – said universities were already working with young people to help them and their parents become aware of what higher education has to offer.
The National Union of Students and the lecturers’ trade union, the University and College Union, said bursaries were too confusing.