Record amounts spent on bursaries are failing to woo enough youngsters from disadvantaged homes into universities, according to the head of the higher education admissions watchdog.
His comments come on the day a report reveals that UK universities spent £192m last year on providing financial aid to students from low income groups.
The annual report of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), published today, reveals the money has provided subsidies averaging just over £1,000 a year to youngsters from poorer backgrounds.
However, Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa writing in today's education supplement, says: "Children and young people from the most deprived groups continue to be highly under-represented in higher education. Much talent continues to be lost and opportunities for upward social mobility stunted."
Sir Martin says universities must spend more time trying to inform younger children of the benefits of higher education – rather than trying to convince 16- to 19-year-olds that the financial assistance they need will be there.
"To my mind, such support, particularly support for those at 11-to-16 schools, will do more to encourage widening participation than anything further that can be done at 18," he says.
His conclusions coincide with a report from the National Council for Education Excellence, the new think-tank established by Gordon Brown, which recommends that every child should pay at least one visit to university while at primary school.
Sir Martin concludes that, while rises in student fees have failed to deter youngsters from going to university, "it cannot plausibly be claimed that the population of undergraduates is representative of the array of ability found, for example, among seven-year-olds". "Vital though grants, loans and bursaries are in assisting those who currently become undergraduates, we will not move closer to a socially inclusive cohort entering higher education by more of the same," he says.
Today's report reveals that the take-up of bursaries by students from the lowest income groups went up from 80 per cent to 92 per cent in the past year. It also shows that universities are spending, on average, 22 per cent of their income from student fees on financial support. Nevertheless, it says, this still meant that about 6,500 students from less well-off backgrounds missed out on bursaries this academic year. This compares with an estimated 12,000 last year. Offa believes the take-up will increase in 2009-10.
David Lammy, the Higher Education minister, insisted: "The number of students entering higher education is at an all-time high with a steady increase in the numbers from poorer backgrounds and this government is determined to ensure that finance is not a barrier to going to university."
Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrats' universities' spokesman, said: "Ministers and universities need to make sure that young people know what extra money they can get and how they go about claiming it."
Case Study: Green Lane Infants School
Zakir Chowdhery, seven, and his classmates have just completed their first day at university.
The children, from Green Lane Infants School in Leicester, with a largely Asian intake, were taking part in a scheme promoting the idea of going to university to primary age children. In other words, catch them while they're young. They were given lessons in geography at Leicester University's botanical gardens. Zakir reckoned he already knows a bit about universities. "It's where you write stuff," he said. The children were welcomed by Janet Hodgkinson who told them it was "for big boys and girls who have left school and come to university to do some studying". "Who knows? One of these days when you're older you might come to university," she added.
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