Oxbridge colleges fail to attract working-class students

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The Independent Online

The failure of Oxford and Cambridge to attract students from working-class homes is exposed in university performance tables published today.

Figures show that the universities are languishing at the bottom of a table showing the number of students recruited from poorer homes.

Oxford's record has worsened since last year, with such recruits falling from 10 to 9 per cent; now level with Cambridge's intake. They are the only universities in the country to have less than 10 per cent from this category, despite massive efforts from the Government to encourage them to widen participation.

The figures will anger opponents of the Government's plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees. They claim the charges of up to £3,000 will discourage working-class students from applying to universities which charge the maximum figure.

Alan Johnson, the Higher Education minister, acknowledged yesterday that the failure to widen participation was the "biggest problem" faced by ministers. He said the Government's top priority was "getting more talented people from working-class backgrounds to apply to leading universities".

Of the 19 universities in the Russell Group, which represents the country's top research institutions, only two - Birmingham and the London School of Economics - reached the benchmark, worked out individually for each institution,for recruiting working-class students.

On a separate indicator showing the percentage of students recruited from neighbourhoods where youngsters rarely go to university, only six of them met the criteria. None of the 19 achieved Britain's average of recruiting just over 25 per cent of students from working-class homes.

A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said: "These figures strengthen the case against variable top-up fees. They show that youngsters from poor to lower middle-income backgrounds are already dissuaded from going to these universities, and will be dissuaded from going to the institutions where they feel they will build up the greatest debts because they charge the maximum fees.

"This is borne out by an opinion poll we conducted which showed that, with parents of less affluent youngsters, over 70 per cent felt that, if the maximum fee was introduced, they would be deterred from going there."

Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which produced the figures, said: "The figures show relatively little change on last year. This underlines the scale of the task facing universities and colleges as, for example, they tackle the problems of recruiting more students with potential from poorer backgrounds."

A spokeswoman for Oxford University said: "The university and its colleges are committed to encouraging more suitably qualified, maintained-sector students to apply to Oxford. One thing which can be overlooked is that ... the overall number of applications has been rising year on year, making it more competitive."

The tables show a slight increase nationally in the percentage recruited from low-income backgrounds, from 25.4 per cent last year to 25.8 per cent this year. Also, 13 per cent of young full-time entrants came from areas with little history of going to university compared with 12.4 per cent last year.

The institution with the best record for recruitment was Bishop Grosseteste College in Lincoln. The majority of students at the college are on teacher training courses.

The percentage of youngsters coming from state schools at universities also increased marginally from 85.7 per cent to 86 per cent.

Drop-out figures show a slight improvement, with 15 per cent of full-time students failing to complete courses compared with 15.9 per cent last year.

The University of North London, now merged with London Guildhall into the new London Metropolitan University, still has the worst drop-out rate, with 39 per cent of students failing to complete their courses. But this is down from 45 per cent last year.

The tables also show a rise in the number of undergraduates still unemployed six months after leaving university, with 66.8 per cent gaining employment compared with 67.6 per cent last year.

* One of the country's top-ranking universities is to close three of its science courses because of dwindling student numbers.

King's College London is to shut its biological science, environmental health and microbiology courses at a time of growing concern over science provision in higher education.

The closures have caused embarrassment for the university because they coincide with the 50th anniversary celebrations of its pioneering work on the discovery of DNA.

They follow criticism of the university's decision to freeze all applications from students because of uncertainty over the future of its courses.

The class divide: Trinity and Grosseteste

Oxford and Cambridge, despite their efforts to encourage candidates from poorer families, rank at the bottom of this year's league tables for getting working-class students to university, figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show.

Trinity College, Cambridge, caused a row about Oxbridge elitism this summer when it rejected Candice Clarke, a working-class teenager from Essex, who gained five As at A-level. The college - Cambridge's largest and alma mater of the Prince of Wales, Sir Isaac Newton and Lord Byron - is one of the most socially exclusive in Cambridge. Ms Clarke, who grew up on an Essex council estate and sat her GCSEs while caring for her sick grandmother, was "devastated" by the decision.

The figures reveal that working-class students make up only 9 per cent of the students at Oxbridge.

Ninety per cent of students accepted at Cambridge achieved at least three grade As at A-level, the same as the 3,000 rejected applicants.

But the university says that its efforts to attract state school pupils are paying off: in 2002, 56 per cent of the new intake came from state schools and 44 per cent from the independent sector.

At the other end of the social spectrum is Bishop Grosseteste College in Lincoln, where 47 per cent of the 1,150 students come from working-class homes.

The college's entrance requirements are low: applicants for teacher training - for which the college is renowned - need only two Cs at A-level, and for other degrees only a C and a D or two Ds are required. The college offers degrees in English literature and drama plus a new foundation degree for classroom assistants who are required only to have GCSEs and relevant work experience.

The college - which changed its name from Lincoln Training College in 1962 - does not have university status and its degrees are validated by the University of Leicester. It was founded in 1862 by the Church of England.

College alumni include the theatre producer David Pugh who trained as a teacher and recently produced the Morecambe and Wise tribute The Play What I Wrote.

Muriel Robinson, Bishop Grosseteste College's principal, said she was "delighted" that the college's success in widening access to university had been recognised.

By Sarah Cassidy