Another major road block this week for the coalition government’s new tuition fees policy, which relied on bolstered bursary and scholarship schemes to justify the rise of fees to £9000. Besieged by equal access campaigners and concerned unions, the government parried claims that the fees hike would be disastrous for poorer applicants by promising increased financial measures and better support. So it was a serious blow for the scheme this week when the highly respected University and College Union used figures from the Office for Fair Access to prove that higher bursaries actually play very little part in attracting poorer students to apply to more prestigious institutions.
The figures show that in spite of the more generous bursaries offered by top universities like Oxford and Cambridge, students from less traditional backgrounds are still far more likely to be found clustered in newer and less prestigious institutions. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt explained that it is lazy and “over simplistic” to think that just raising bursary levels will even out equal access problems, as a lack of intervention and information at a much earlier stage is preventing students from poorer backgrounds from reaching elite universities. It was suggested, for example, that a lack of support towards higher education in more disadvantaged areas means that many young people are unaware of the importance of A-level choices and the impact these will have on their chances of being accepted into a top university.
Furthermore, even Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the elite Russell Group of universities, admitted that the problems were more deeply rooted, acknowledging that “misinformation” and “lack of confidence” were creating barriers to prevent students from lower income backgrounds reaching top universities. This is a fairly serious admission from the director of a group which prides itself on the millions of pounds it spends on access outreach schemes each year, especially as one imagines the most basic primary aims of such schemes must be the provision of information to poorer students and an attempt to build up their confidence with the goal of making elite universities seem accessible to them.
Meanwhile, Universities Minister David Willetts once again impaled himself on his own sword as he admitted that “social mobility in this country has stalled” and claimed “we need to see real progress in fair access, especially at our most selective institutions”. Unfortunately it is becoming more and more likely as further evidence like these figures emerges that it will be his own university funding reforms that will send fair access spiralling backwards into the dark ages.
Campaigners who have worked tirelessly since the initial announcement of the new fees plan to prove its potentially disastrous impact on equal access to university pointed out that these figures only serve to further support their warnings. They claim the true “heavy lifting” on social mobility is being done by newer, poorer universities with fewer grants and lower incomes, who are accepting vast numbers of students from low income backgrounds but do not have access to the funds to give them the financial support they need. As a result, many drop out early, impacting negatively on the university’s finances and creating a vicious circle. If the government truly wants to improve fair access to university, claimed Hunt, a good place to start would be by providing “better support for students from poorer backgrounds wherever they study.”