The Big Question: Why are fewer students from poor backgrounds going to university?

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Why is this an issue now?

This week official figures revealed that the proportion of state-school pupils at university has fallen to its lowest level for three years. The proportion of working-class students has also dropped, as has the number of young people from the most deprived neighbourhoods. Ministers described the figures as "disappointing". The drop suggests that the Government's drive to widen access to higher education has stalled, despite costing £300m.

The figures, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, show that 86.7 per cent of university places were taken by state-school pupils in 2004/05, a drop of 0.1 percentage points on the previous year and 0.5 percentage points down on 2002/03's figure. About 93 per cent of young people are educated at state schools.

Surely universities today are full of poorer students?

This is a popular perception, but is simply not true. Middle-class youngsters have been the main beneficiaries of the recent expansion of higher education. In fact, the latest university expansion, in the 1990s, has widened the gap in opportunities enjoyed by the richest and the poorest families in Britain. Children from the richest 20 per cent of families are about five times more likely to acquire a degree by age 23 than children from the poorest 20 per cent, up from about three times in the early 1980s. In 1999, 46 per cent of children whose parental incomes were in the highest 20 per cent of incomes acquired a degree by age 23, compared with just 9 per cent of children in the lowest 20 per cent. In 1981, the figures were 20 per cent for the highest 20 per cent and 6 per cent for the lowest 20 per cent.

Don't universities let in poorer students with lower grades?

This has been a controversial issue. Universities consider each application on its merits, but a growing number of schemes encourage lower offers to disadvantaged students. In 2003, the University of Bristol faced a boycott by independent schools after allegations that the university was asking for lower A-level grades from applicants from poorly performing state schools, so that private-school candidates with predicted or actual straight-As were losing out. The schools called off the boycott after being reassured that their pupils were not being discriminated against. Bristol admitted it sometimes made marginally lower offers, but only to individuals who had suffered "particular disadvantage", and it would mean AAB offers rather than the usual AAA.

In 2004, a government taskforce ruled out automatic positive discrimination that would favour students from certain groups, such as state school pupils. But it argued that each student's application should be looked at individually, and in certain cases admissions tutors should choose less-qualified candidates from underprivileged or under-represented backgrounds.

Why aren't poorer students taking up university places?

There are two possible explanations: poorer students either aren't applying to university, or they do apply but don't get in. It is still true that many young people from families with no history of university education simply do not think that going on to higher education is for them.

The Government has set an enormous task in changing deep-seated social attitudes among young people and their parents. Research from the Sutton Trust charity found even the brightest students from poor backgrounds may lack the confidence to make the most of their gifts.A government taskforce has criticised the admissions process, arguing that admissions officers often had not had proper training and that poorer, less well-prepared students could be disadvantaged by questions on application forms and in interviews.

Does the background of university students really matter?

Social mobility in the UK has fallen since just after the Second World War. For people now in their thirties, who were born in the 1970s, what their parents did for a living had more of a bearing on their life chances than people who were born in the late 1950s.

In a keynote speech, the then Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, stressed that the profile of university students was a concern. Creating a more balanced cohort was vital to create a cohesive society, she said, arguing that exclusion was the "breeding ground for disengagement, social unrest and a breakdown in community cohesion".

Will this trend continue?

While the Government hopes that the figures will improve, John Selby, the director of widening participation at Hefce - the Higher Education Funding Council for England - warns that increased competition for university places will make it increasingly difficult for disadvantaged students to win places when the demand from middle-class families is growing so strongly.

"The underlying social forces are much more important than the actions of a small group of institutions. It has got much more competitive to get into higher education, which means that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds now have a higher hurdle to jump," he says.

"I think it's going to get even harder. The children of the people who benefited from the expansion of higher education in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties are now likely to apply to higher education and create a high demand. So it is much more difficult for people who come from backgrounds with no history of higher education to compete with that."

Should everyone be able to go to university?

It depends. It would be unjust if poorer students were prevented from fulfilling their potential because of their parents' low income or social background.

However, many young people may not be suited to university, for example, they may not be academically minded enough to cope with degree-level study, or they may want to pursue a career that is best learnt outside of the lecture hall. What matters is that they should have the choice.

Does it matter if fewer disadvantaged youngsters are going to university?

Yes...

* A degree is a passport to higher salaries. The income divide will grow if poorer students are unable to compete on equal terms

* Social cohesion will be damaged if sections of the community feel excluded from opportunities enjoyed by the rest

* It matters to the Government, which wants 50 per cent of young people to go into higher education by 2010

No...

* As long as the brightest get in to university, it is irrelevant what their parents' incomes and social backgrounds are

* Apprenticeships and work-related learning can be a more appropriate start to many careers

* There won't be enough graduate jobs for all, so poorer students would be better off skipping university and staying out of debt

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