More university places for the poor

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The Independent Online
UNIVERSITIES WILL be rewarded with extra funds if they recruit more students from poor backgrounds under sweeping new proposals published today.

A government quango is drawing up a list that will show which universities are the most socially exclusive.

The Higher Education Funding Council, which distributes funds to English universities, aims to encourage them to take on more working class students and to cut drop-out rates.

At present, students from wealthy backgrounds are 12 times more likely to go to university than those from poor families. The latter are more likely to drop out. The initiative from the Higher Education Funding Council is also designed to bring in more Muslim women, young black Caribbean men and people with disabilities, all of whom are under-represented at university.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, is determined to open up higher education to students from a wider variety of social backgrounds.

A consultation document from the council outlining the new scheme accepts that middle class students tend to do better at A-level. It argues: "We must be careful not to penalise institutions for failing to be socially inclusive simply because they have particular entry requirements.

"On the other hand, it appears that institutions could do more to recruit appropriately qualified students from poor backgrounds."

Universities will be expected to set targets to increase recruitment from these groups and also for lower drop-out rates. They should also take more bright students who have been on access courses or who have vocational qualifications rather than A-levels, says the document.

New funding arrangements to be introduced from next year aim to offer pounds 30 million for success in attracting non-traditional students. The money is to take into account the additional costs incurred, for example in preventing people dropping out.

Universities will need to show that they are working hard to recruit students from poor backgrounds.

There will be funds for collaboration with schools and further education colleges to encourage a wider variety of students to go on to higher education.

Universities will be invited to put in bids for extra students from groups which, traditionally, have shunned university. Money will be awarded to those with the best records in preventing such students dropping out and in helping them to succeed.

Council officials are drawing up the first-ever official table of university drop-out rates.

Another document released by the council yesterday aims to encourage universities to put a greater emphasis on teaching.

Academics who are good teachers will be eligible for grants in the same way as talented researchers. Universities will have to bid for the money.

Brian Fender, the council's chief executive, said: "I am confident that these proposals will benefit a wide range of students by raising the profile of teaching and learning in higher education, and encouraging participation of under-represented groups."