Elite universities fail to attract disadvantaged

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The Independent Online

Britain's best universities are still failing to attract young people from disadvantaged backgrounds despite offering them attractive bursaries, a report out today concludes.

Instead, the Office for Fair Access, the universities' admissions watchdog, is suggesting that they waive fees for poorer students altogether – at least for their first year.

The study of millions of students' university choices since the introduction of top-up fees in 2005 declares: "Disadvantaged young people have not become more likely to apply to universities and colleges offering higher bursaries." These include Oxford and Cambridge.

Figures show that, since the mid 1990s, the recruitment of poorer students has risen from 5 per cent to 7.6 per cent of the total intake in new universities offering lower bursaries – but has fallen from 3.3 per cent to 3.2 per cent at the élite universities.

Students from richer families are now 5.1 times more likely to enter an élite institution compared with 4.6 times in the 1990s. The gap has closed for those offering the lowest bursaries from 2.1 per cent to 1.4 per cent.

Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, said: "These findings show that issues surrounding widening access to the most selective universities go much deeper than purely financial obstacles. Fee waivers are definitely worth exploring, particularly schemes where the benefits can be clearly understood and communicated, such as schemes offering disadvantaged students a free and therefore risk-free first year."