Universities 'should offer grants to poor sixth-formers'

Media caption,
Report author Alan Milburn: Universities "could provide a financial incentive for poorer families to get their youngsters to stay on at 16 rather than going into work"

England's universities should fund grants, like the scrapped education maintenance allowance, to help poor pupils stay in school and get on degree courses, a former Labour MP says.

Alan Milburn makes the call in a social mobility report for the government.

He says universities spend too much on bursaries and reduced tuition fees for poorer students and should instead target money at schools.

He also says universities should take an applicant's background into account.

When deciding what A-level grades a student needs to get to obtain a place, for example, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds should be given lower entry offers.

While many universities do already do this, Mr Milburn wants to see a more streamlined system by 2014.

The disclosure is likely to fuel the debate surrounding "social engineering" in university admissions and lead to fresh fears privately-educated children will face discrimination.

Early intervention

Mr Milburn, who was enlisted by the coalition to review policies surrounding social mobility, says there has been a great deal of progress in recent years in getting youngsters from non-traditional backgrounds into university.

But he says government and universities must do more to ensure "those with talent and potential" get into university.

Mr Milburn claims poor GCSE and A-level results remain the biggest barrier to higher education and says universities' efforts should be channelled towards intervention at a much earlier age.

Some of the money they currently spend on fee waivers and bursaries would be better targeted at getting 16-year-olds to stay on in education, achieve good A-levels and get into higher education.

This follows the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance in England last year after ministers claimed most of the money was "dead weight" - going to students who would have attended sixth form or college anyway.

Mr Milburn told the BBC: "The best thing that can be done in my view is to try to get kids to stay on at school after 16, to study hard, work well, get their A-level results and then progress on to university.

"So one of the things that universities can look at doing, following the government's decision, which I think is regrettable, to abolish the education maintenance allowance, is to provide a financial incentive for poorer families to get their youngsters to stay on at 16 rather than going into work because that way they stand the best chance of getting into higher education."

Mr Milburn's report, which is being published on Thursday, will also call for a foundation year programme in all universities, where less advantaged youngsters will have the opportunity to catch up with their peers.

He also wants all Russell Group universities to sponsor a city academy school.

Oxford competition

Prior to the report's publication, Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at Oxford University, said his university was already working hard to attract a wider range of student and made tutors aware of students' backgrounds.

Oxford now had 17,000 applications for 3,200 places, compared with 13,000 just five years ago, he said.

Certain groups in society that might previously have expected places at the university would now find competition fiercer, he said, adding that students who may have got in five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago probably would not now.

"But that's not necessarily a bad thing at all - what we're doing is reaching out to a much broader range of students and making it possible for them to see themselves at Oxford," he added.

Professor Eric Thomas president of Universities UK said: "The report recognises rightly that school results remains one of the biggest barriers preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds progressing onto university.

"Although there are many good examples of universities, schools and colleges working together to raise aspirations and academic attainment to support this process, more can be done by working in collaboration."

He said that his group supported the use of contextual data but that this does not have to involve admitting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower entry grades.

"While some universities do consider lowering their requirements by one or two grades, this is part of a much wider process in which the university considers a range of factors alongside an applicant's grades," he added.

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