Red-brick universities 'are more elitist than Oxbridge'

Despite attempts to broaden access, working-class students still miss out

Seven universities have been given black marks for failing to attract enough students from poor backgrounds in official league tables published today.

Seven universities have been given black marks for failing to attract enough students from poor backgrounds in official league tables published today.

Bristol, Exeter, Reading, St Andrews and University College London and two new universities, Oxford Brookes and the University of Western England in Bristol, are more exclusive than Oxford and Cambridge, according to the figures for 1998-99.

The seven do badly on all three indicators used to measure access while Oxford and Cambridge score poorly on two. Oxford was accused of élitism in May for rejecting Laura Spence, a state school pupil from Tyneside who then gained a place at Harvard to study a different subject.

Oxford comes bottom for the proportion of state school pupils. Just 50 per cent of its students are state-educated, up from 47 per cent last year. By comparison, all students at Queen's, Belfast, and Ulster University and 98 per cent of those at Wolverhampton and Thames Valley are from state schools.

Ministers have promised a £150m drive to boost the proportion of poorer students. Baroness Blackstone, the Higher Education minister, said: "Today's indicators confirm the need for a concerted effort to improve access for able students to higher education. Every university which is below its benchmark for participation needs to consider what more they could be doing to widen access."

The great divide between universities is also revealed in the drop-out figures included in the tables produced by the Higher Education Funding Council. At the University of North London, the drop-out rate is nearly four out of ten, compared with just 1 per cent at Oxford and Cambridge.

The expected drop-out rate, based on records of undergraduates, has also changed little. Nationally, it is 17 per cent compared with 18 per cent last year. Drop-out rates are higher at the former polytechnics than at established universities because their students often have poor A-levels and are financially stretched, combining their studies with a job.

The funding council has compared each institution against a "benchmark", the score they would have been expected to get given their student intake and subjects taught. Universities which do particularly badly on this measure are given a black mark.

The three benchmarks for access are proportion of state school pupils, percentage from lowest social classes and proportion from neighbourhoods with low numbers going into higher education. Oxford and Cambridge are given black marks for the first two but not for the third. Sunderland, Teesside, Central Lancashire and Wolverhampton are among those receiving a pat on the back for attracting poor students.

The millionaire Peter Lampl, who pioneered summer schools for disadvantaged children, said: "We appreciate the continuing efforts that universities are making to widen their access for bright students from underprivileged backgrounds, but there is still a great deal which needs to be done."

A spokesman for Oxford University said: "Our initial figures for 1999-2000 indicate that we have increased the proportion of students from the state sector in our undergraduate intake by2 per cent and... we expect to see this gradual trend continue."

Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of the University of North London, said: "The withdrawal of the maintenance grant and the introduction of tuition fees has made it increasingly difficult for many students, particularly those from families with no tradition of higher education, to sustain themselves through a full-time degree course without taking time out to work or look after their families."

University College London said it was committed to widening participation of underrepresented groups in higher education, but there was a complex mix of factors not being reflected in the tables.

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