Number of poor students entering top universities rises by 50 per cent

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The Independent Online

The number of students from the poorest backgrounds entering Britain's top universities has increased by nearly 50 per cent since Labour came to power, according to a new analysis of institutions' admissions records.

The number of students from the poorest backgrounds entering Britain's top universities has increased by nearly 50 per cent since Labour came to power, according to a new analysis of institutions' admissions records.

Poor neighbourhoods sent 49 per cent more youngsters to Oxford, Cambridge and 11 other leading institutions between 1997 and 2002. There were 2,587 students from the poorest areas admitted to the universities in 2002, out of a total intake of 33,575 compared with just 1,741 in 1997.

The poorest students now make up eight per cent of the intake to those universities compared to six per cent in 1997, according to the analysis by the Sutton Trust, the educational charity founded by Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist. However, Sir Peter, who has spent £14 million since 1997 on schemes to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children, argued that the number of poor students at top universities was still far too low.

Sir Peter said: "This is a most welcome turnaround in life chances and suggests the beginning of a much needed levelling of the playing field... It is being achieved without any dumbing down. But the numbers are still small."

The analysis also revealed that the average A-level grades of entrants to these top universities had increased since 1997 - countering fears that poor students were being allowed in with lower marks. The charity said it was "a clear indication" that there was no "dumbing down" to admit poorer students.

Students achieve average grades of at least ABB in order to join the universities examined in the study: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial, London School of Economics, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York.

The greatest increases were at Birmingham, which raised its annual intake of poor students by 87 per cent, or 230 students. Bristol and Durham increased their intakes by 68 and 67 per cent respectively, while five of the others rose over 40 per cent.

Oxford achieved a 55 per cent rise, from 118 to 173 poor students. Cambridge's numbers rose 48 per cent from 108 to 161. The London School of Economics had the lowest number of poor students. Only 43 of its 2002 intake were from poor areas, up from 35 in 1997. The smallest rise was at St Andrews University, at eight per cent.

Kim Howells, the higher education minister, said: "This has been a good week for widening participation ... First, the Secondary Heads Association produced a report on Post Qualifications Applications which could help widen access.

"Then the new Director of OFFA argued that as much as £200m could be raised each year for bursaries for the poorest students. Now, this Sutton Trust research shows some of our leading universities have successfully increased their proportion of students from low participation neighbourhoods and have done so without weakening standards."

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