Suddenly - with some prodding from the Labour Government, and Lord Dearing's report on the future of higher education - the universities as a group are doing something about the problem. Next month, the results of a national survey will be published. It was commissioned by the vice-chancellors' committee together with the funding councils and principals of further education colleges, to look into what has been done by universities to introduce to higher education young people from lower socio-economic groups.
The research shows that it can be done - and examples of good practice will be explained at a conference organised by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) and sponsored by The Independent, to be held on 2 November. Two examples are described on these pages.
The issue is controversial because admissions tutors in traditional universities are loath to lower their standards to take students who may impress their teachers, but have failed to perform in exams. And the issue is particularly sensitive today because of widespread concern about falling standards.
Universities' concerns are evident in the examples given here. Dundee, a traditional university, is adamant that standards must not be lowered. Students have to demonstrate that they can cope with degree-level work. Glamorgan, however, is prepared to drop the A-level entry requirement by four points - although not all admissions tutors at the university like it.
"Children who are under-achieving are likely to hit the learning-curve a bit later on, and therefore you should offer them lower grades," says Professor Danny Saunders, head of education development at Glamorgan. "That's controversial."
The majority of the 14 universities in the report are former polytechnics, whose mission was to reach out to the local community, and which were always prepared to relax entry requirements for those students who showed promise. But there are also a number of pre-1992 universities in the examples of good practice, including Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford and Dundee.
According to the report, all universities in the UK should be finding new ways to attract disadvantaged young people - those aged 18 to 21 - to take up opportunities in higher education. That includes venerable institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, and other "Ivy League" universities such as Bristol and London University, which have traditionally taken the cream of the A-level crop - and not bent over backwards to attract young people who might not normally consider applying to them. Oxford currently has a working party looking at the issue. It will report by Christmas.
"The expansion of universities in the Eighties and Nineties has seen significant improvements in the relative participation rates for women, most minority ethnic groups, and mature students," says Maggie Woodrow, of Westminster University, the author of the report.
"However, young people from the lower socio-economic groups continue to be under-represented and this has become one of the last frontiers in widening people's access to UK higher education."
The conference `From Elitism to Inclusion: Good Practice in Widening Access to Higher Education' will be held at the Commonwealth Conference Centre, London W8, on 2 November. Speakers will include George Mudie, Minister for Lifelong Learning, and Diana Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP. For details, call 0171-240 9393, or fax 0171-240 8833
DUNDEE SUMMER SCHOOL
Typically, the youngster may be the only person going out of the house in the morning because everyone else is unemployed
DUNDEE, FAMOUS in the past for jam, jute and journalism, is today developing a name for education. Just as well, since the region contains several areas of acute deprivation.
Unemployment in the worst districts is 28 per cent, compared to the local rate of 7 per cent. Higher education is shunned. Only 2.9 per cent of the population has a degree.
Enter the University of Dundee, which has a long history of trying to widen access to higher education. In the Eighties, it introduced a programme of opening up access to people with different, or non-existent, qualifications. And, in 1991, it commissioned a research project which confirmed that school pupils in the area suffered from disadvantages that prevented them from doing well in national exams and therefore in gaining entry to university. As a result of this research, the Access Summer School was born.
Aimed at children whose parents have little or no experience of higher education, the summer school takes on those it thinks need help in preparing for and gaining entry to university. The pupils are carefully selected by their schools. They need to show evidence of disadvantage.
Most of the students have been handicapped in their educational achievements by family poverty, unemployment, living in a bad neighbourhood, bereavement or divorce, or a combination of those factors.
"Typically, the youngster may be the only person going out of the house in the morning because everyone else may be unemployed," says Dr John Blicharski, director of Dundee's intensive entry initiatives.
"We look for students who are living in circumstances that are not conducive to study. It may be that they are going home to an environment where they're having to work in the evenings to bring in an income. Or it may be where they have lots of brothers and sisters, and nowhere quiet to study."
Almost all are either doing or have done Highers (the Scottish equivalent of A-levels), but they have not done well, or are not expected to do well. The summer school gives them an intensive 10 weeks' study in three subjects, at first-year undergraduate level, which demonstrates whether they can do degree-level work.
The subjects are chosen from a list that includes biology, chemistry, physics, English literature, French and philosophy, as well as accountancy, architecture and psychology. And all the students are required to pass all three subjects to pass the course.
In addition to this, they have to take a course in personal transferable skills in which they learn how to study - how to plan and write papers, and how to use the library effectively. Each student is allocated a personal tutor and a student leader, the latter being a trained undergraduate who has completed the previous course.
All students are guaranteed entry to courses at Dundee University if they succeed at the summer school. And the results have been heart-warmingly good. Of the 68 students on the course last year, 82 per cent went on to university. This year, the results were even better: 76 students started the summer school, only six dropped out, and 68 of the 70 who stayed the course went on to higher education.
One of the successful students this year was Tristan Murray Reid, who met the Prime Minister when he visited Scotland in the summer. Reid had a history of educational failure - four Fs in his GCSEs - and joined the Government's New Deal initiative for the unemployed. Through that, he managed to get on to the summer school. Now he is starting his first year at Dundee University, looking forward to studying for a BSc in ecology.
UNIVERSITY OF GLAMORGAN SCHOOLS' COMPACT
They've got so much ground to cover comapred to more privileged kids that they're not going to get a spectacular grade
THE SOUTH Wales valleys may be beautiful, but they are far from thriving. The closure of the pits has left despair for many. The best and brightest get out, leaving joblessness and deprivation behind. So chronic is the problem that a third generation of unemployed people is emerging, in extended families where no one has ever set foot on a university campus or in a further education college.
A former polytechnic, the University of Glamorgan, is trying to cure that syndrome. It has established a compact with local schools in the most deprived areas to target sixth-formers who may be intimidated by the thought of higher education.
As one teacher said in the report: "They've got so much ground to cover compared to more privileged kids that they're not going to get a spectacular grade [at A-level].
"But we argued the case that they're on a learning-curve and they won't yet have peaked. They've got this kind of appetite, and they've got the potential to get a degree."
From seven schools in a pilot compact three years ago, the scheme now covers almost 50 schools. Each signs an agreement with the university to emphasise the close working relationship. Compact students visit the university at least three times a year.
The university in turn sends 100 undergraduates - known as "student tutors" - into the schools each year to act as role models for pupils and to help teachers in the classroom.
"These students acted as our best ambassadors," says Professor Danny Saunders, the university's head of education development. "They really did us proud."
In addition, the University of Glamorgan has recently embarked on a pilot project to teach study skills to pupils in the compact schools - how to write essays, how to revise and how to sit exams. This 12-week course, involving four hours a week, has served to motivate pupils, increasing their confidence and enhancing A-level performance.
The great thing is that pupils receive higher education credits for this course (something that Dearing recommends in his report on 16-to-19-year- olds). The university also holds master-classes in specific subject areas. Pupils visit the campus for these lectures and are stimulated by coming into contact with lecturers, who may have a different teaching style from their teachers, and by meeting sixth-formers from other compact schools.
Younger children are not being neglected. Aiming for a College Education (ACE) days are held (sponsored by BP) which bring year nine and year 10 pupils to the university, where they meet staff and students and become familiar with what life could be like after school.
"They see what the accommodation is like," says one teacher. "They see what the libraries are like; they see what the lecturers are like; they see what people wear at university. So the socialisation process of preparing for university begins."
All compact pupils are guaranteed an interview at Glamorgan. The policy is to admit them on lower entry requirements than others need. If they fail to gain a place on their first choice of course, the university does its best to find them a place on another course. In practice, some departments have been more amenable to taking compact pupils than others. The less popular departments - such as mathematics and engineering - have been more relaxed than popular departments such as English and history. This has caused some frustration in the schools.
The project's biggest weakness is that there is no quantifiable evidence that it works, though Professor Saunders says there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pupils from the compact schools going to university.
"Compared with five years ago, I would guess we have 30 per cent more going on to higher education," says Professor Saunders. "The most significant issue is that the teachers are more aware."