Efforts to end class divide at universities are failing

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The Independent Online

A young person's chance of going to university is still largely determined by whether or not he or she lives in a good neighbourhood, despite government attempts to widen access to higher education, according to a study published yesterday.

Teenagers from well-off backgrounds were six times more likely to go to university than those from deprived areas, according to the report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

However, it also saidthe introduction of tuition fees and the replacement of student grants with loans did not appear to have deterred students.

The report, which analysed university attendance rates for students living in every parliamentary constituency and ward in the UK between 1994 and 2000, found that the educational divide had changed little.

Sir Howard Newby, the chief executive of HEFCE, said that the report showed "stark inequalities" and "just how entrenched the divisions are" between children from rich and poor backgrounds.

The report also revealed the growing divide in university attendance rates between men and women. Women were 18 per cent more likely than men to go to university in 2000, up from 6 per cent in 1994.

Male students from poor backgrounds were also most likely to drop out of university.

The study, Young Participation in Higher Education, also found that a student's month of birth had an impact on their chances of going to university.

The oldest children in a school year, born in September, were 20 per cent more likely to go to university aged 18 than children born in August.

Mark Corver, the HEFCE analyst who compiled the report, calculated that 12,000 students a year missed out on university places because of the educational disadvantage they had suffered as a result of the month of their birth.

This was because they were less likely to stay on into the sixth form after falling behind at school, Mr Corver said.

He said: "What probably happens is that children fall behind at the start of primary school because they might be six months to a year younger than some other children in the class.

"Then there is no process of catching up and once the pattern is established for them to be at the bottom of the class that is where they stay."

HEFCE insisted that its analysis showed that the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 and the replacement of grants with loans had not deterred students. This was despite figures showing that the proportion of school-leavers going to university grew by just two percentage points between 1994 and 2000 after it had doubled during the previous seven years.

Sir Howard called for universities to do more work with primary schools in poor areas in order to encourage children to aspire to go to university from an early age.

Kim Howells, the Higher Education minister, said the findings demonstrated the difficulties of recruiting more poor students. He argued that the situation would improve as school reforms produced more teenagers with the results needed to apply to university.

Tim Collins, the Conservative education spokesman, pledged that a Tory government would encourage more people from poorer areas to apply to university. He said: "It is clear from this report that children from disadvantaged areas are far more likely to have encountered poor standards in their secondary education."