Universities in England should switch cash from bursaries towards building links with schools to boost the number of students from poor homes, Business Secretary Vince Cable has said. His call was echoed by the head of the admissions watchdog the Office for Fair Access (Offa) Les Ebdon.
Both told a conference that “outreach” did more to boost applications from poorer students than offering money.
But a university admissions chief said students wanted more bursaries
In order to be able to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year, universities in England have to satisfy Offa that they are working to increase applications and university entry from people from low-income backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups.
Prof Ebdon said: “There is a need for smarter spending based on evaluation of what works and what works are outreach programmes. Most of the money universities are spending goes on bursaries and most of the evidence is that money would be better spent on outreach programmes.”
Some talented people felt university was “not for them”, Prof Ebdon told the conference, which was organised by the Sutton Trust educational charity. “Outreach raises aspiration and it makes them feel university is for people like me.”
He said this work needed to “start early” – at primary school – before key decisions on exam subjects were taken.
Mr Cable told the meeting: “Evidence we have suggests the best way of encouraging social mobility is to do outreach. Getting pupils doing the right combination of GCSE and A-levels is much more effective than bursaries and fee-waivers; targeted outreach is what really works.”
Prof Ebdon said he had been asked by the government to help draw up a national strategy on access to university and student success. This was now with ministers, he said, adding that the “indications are that they are in favour of the proposals we have made”.
He said the sector as a whole had succeeded in opening up universities to less-advantaged groups since the mid-2000s, but the increase had been “from a very low base” and there was a particular problem with “the most selective universities”.
In a report earlier this year, he said there had been “little or no progress” on widening access in those institutions. At the time the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, said “considerable efforts” had been made to improve access but poor schooling meant some pupils were not getting the grades required.
At Wednesday’s conference, Mr Cable said the coalition’s decision to raise tuition fees in England up to a maximum of £9,000 a year had been “immensely unpopular” but applications to universities had recovered to the “second-highest ever” and the proportion applying from disadvantaged areas had increased. “What we did on fee loans was difficult and unpopular, but I feel we have been partially vindicated,” he said.
He was challenged by delegates over the big fall in numbers of people applying to study part-time or as mature students and admitted this was a “big source of concern”.
Prof Ebdon said it was “too early to be certain about the impact of reform”. “More dire predictions have not come about but we will watch with anxiety,” he said. “The general picture is encouraging but there are two groups we are concerned about who seem to be adversely affected… mature and part-time students.”
Cambridge University’s director of undergraduate recruitment Jon Beard told the meeting while Offa was telling the university to spend on outreach, students were telling it to spend on bursaries – and Offa wanted it to listen to its students. He told the conference Cambridge had increased the proportion of state school pupils it was taking to 63% on its measures.
Its outreach work included hosting Sutton Trust summer schools, where teenagers got a taste of life at Cambridge, plus a series of regional events. “The big issues for us are attainment and misconception,” he said, adding that outreach helped by giving people the message that they could fit in.