University loses appeal for school leavers

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The Independent Online

The number of school leavers applying for university places has fallen this year, prompting claims from opposition MPs that the Government is failing in its attempt to widen participation in higher education by those from deprived communities.

The number of school leavers applying for university places has fallen this year, prompting claims from opposition MPs that the Government is failing in its attempt to widen participation in higher education by those from deprived communities.

The drop, masked by a big increase in mature applicants (over-21) and overseas students, also casts doubt on whether ministers can reach their target of getting 50 per cent of young people to go on to higher education by the end of the decade.

Figures published today by Ucas, the universities and colleges admissions system – the last before clearing takes place after A-level results have been published – show the number of under 21-year-olds applying has dropped by about 350 this year to 298,676.

Among 21 to 24-year-olds it has increased by 6 per cent to 33,756 and it has gone up 1.7 per cent in the over-25 age group. Overall, when foreign students are taken into account, the rise is 1.9 per cent.

The reduction in applications from school leavers may indicate that many young people are looking for a break from the pressure of tests. This year's second-year sixth-formers are the first to have taken external end-of-year exams in each of their final three years at school – GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels.

The figures will increase pressure on the Government to conclude its review of student finance, now delayed until the autumn. They also show a continued shortage in the number of students opting for maths and science – maths alone is down by 11.4 per cent.

MPs on the Education Select Committee have urged Gordon Brown to extend the means-tested education maintenance allowance for 16 to 19-year-olds – worth up to £1,500 a year – to the first year of higher education.

David Rendel, higher education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "These figures make a mockery of the Government's claim to be widening participation." He said the "most damning" figure was the drop of 0.4 per cent in the number of under 21-year-olds from England opting for higher education – a bigger drop than the figure for the UK.

Tony Higgins, the chief executive of Ucas, said: "The challenge for the UK higher education sector is to encourage more students from diverse and non-traditional backgrounds to consider higher education. Many universities and colleges are actively developing initiatives with their local communities. I hope that over the next few years these developments will be reflected in rising figures for applicants in the under-21 age group."

Margaret Hodge, the minister for Higher Education, said she was "pleased with the steady rise in applications" and insisted the 50 per cent target was "achievable".

"We already have a participation rate of 41.5 per cent for those aged 18 to 30," she added. "The Ucas figures do not include those applying for part-time study, which also contributes to the target."

Applications from overseas students are up 9.6 per cent to 32,868 in the under-21 sector, up 13.5 per cent to 14,258 in the 21 to 24 age group and up 15.1 per cent to 6,243 among those aged 25 and above.

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