University bursaries 'not attracting poorer students'

Graduation Universities spent £395m on financial support and access schemes for poorer students

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The bigger bursaries offered by wealthier universities do not necessarily attract more poorer students, says a lecturers' union.

The University and College Union has analysed bursary figures for 2009-10 from the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt says it is "oversimplistic" to expect bigger bursaries to translate to poorer students entering elite universities.

The report shows universities spent £395m on bursaries and outreach work.

But the lecturers' union says that students from poorer backgrounds are still likely to be clustered in the non-elite universities, even though the bursaries are bigger at the more prestigious universities.

Missing targets

"The universities with the best records of recruiting students from the poorest backgrounds have higher dropout rates and cannot offer bursaries to match the elite institutions," said Ms Hunt.

"We need to provide better support for students from poorer backgrounds wherever they study."

Start Quote

A-level results in the right subjects are more important than money in deciding whether a student will go to a Russell Group university”

End Quote Wendy Piatt Russell Group

The Offa figures show the amount spent by higher education institutions in England on bursaries, scholarships and other efforts to widen access, during the year 2009-10 - before the changes to the fee system which will be introduced next year.

It shows that when students were paying £3,225 per year, universities were spending about 23% of their higher fee income on access schemes, providing support for 271,000 students from low-income families.

The average bursary for a student from the "very poorest" background was £935 per year.

There were also 23 universities and 21 further education colleges which failed to reach their target levels for recruiting students from low-income families.

But the UCU lecturers' union suggests that there is no clear relationship between offering more generous bursaries and attracting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As an example, it shows that bursaries are substantially bigger at a university such as Cambridge than somewhere such as the University of Northumbria - but Northumbria's proportion of poorer students is four times higher than at Cambridge.

'Heavy lifting'

Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group which represents new universities, says the report shows "the great majority of poorer students in receipt of state support study at modern universities".

He said: "It is modern universities that are doing the 'heavy lifting' in terms of social mobility."

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, also challenged the "haphazard" bursary system, which he said meant that the universities "recruiting those from non-traditional backgrounds have the least money available to spend per student".

But the Russell Group of prestigious universities defended their record of offering the most generous levels of financial support.

"Not only are our bursaries bigger, but our universities spend more in total than others," said the group's director general, Wendy Piatt.

"With one in eight universities, we provide nearly a quarter of all spending on bursaries and scholarships. About one in three Russell Group students receive a bursary or scholarship."

But Dr Piatt highlighted: "A-level results in the right subjects are more important than money in deciding whether a student will go to a Russell Group university.

"Misinformation, lack of confidence and misunderstandings about the costs and benefits of university education contribute to the under-representation of students from lower-income backgrounds."

Offa's director, Sir Martin Harris, said: "Expenditure on access measures remains steady, demonstrating universities' continued commitment to seeking to ensure that all those with the potential and aspiration to go to university are able to do so, regardless of their background."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "Social mobility in this country has stalled. While universities have met their financial commitments to students, we need to see real progress in fair access, especially at our most selective institutions.

"That is why our funding reforms ensure that from next year universities will redouble their efforts to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds. By 2015 universities will be investing more than £600m to widen access, with an annual review of the progress being achieved."

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