Universities should give guaranteed interviews and lower A-level offers to poorer pupils, says Alan Milburn


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Universities should fund poor bright teenagers to help them to stay in school and achieve good results, the Government's social mobility tsar has said.

Alan Milburn said there was a "good case" for universities to provide financial support to help them achieve the grades they need to apply for degree courses.

The former Labour minister called for all institutions to give guaranteed interviews and lower A-level offers to disadvantaged sixth-formers, and he said they should sign up to a pledge to take a candidate's background into account when offering places.

Leading university groups reacted angrily to the proposals, with one saying higher education should not be made to foot the bill for scrapped Government funding schemes.

In a Government-commissioned report on widening access to higher education, Mr Milburn condemned the controversial decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and called on universities to take responsibility for replacing it.

The EMA, a weekly £30 payment for students with household incomes of less than £20,817 a year, was scrapped last year by Education Secretary Michael Gove, who decided it was badly targeted.

Mr Milburn said: "Given the abolition of the EMA and the inadequacies of its replacement, there is a good case for universities helping to provide financial support to promising disadvantaged pupils so they can achieve the necessary exam results to be able to successfully apply to higher education."

The new report said that universities must "redouble their efforts" to ensure that places were open to all of those with talent and potential.

He called on the sector to do more to help students while they were still at school, to help them get the grades they needed to secure a degree place.

Universities should offer guaranteed interviews, and, where appropriate, lower offers to less-advantaged pupils in the schools that they supported, he said.

And there should also be guaranteed interviews to students who successfully completed university preparation courses, like summer schools.

Mr Milburn argued that while universities should be able to set their own admissions rules, the way that these systems often worked, particularly at selective universities, meant that students who could do well could be "inadvertently excluded" from being admitted.

He recommended that all universities agreed to using "contextual data" - background information about the type of school a potential student attended, their parents' education and their family's income.

Research suggests that around 40% of institutions use this data, and more than 60% plan to in the future, Mr Milburn said.

He also suggested that every highly selective university - the top institutions in the country - should agree to sponsor an academy school in a disadvantaged area, and provide foundation degree opportunities for pupils in poorer areas who have potential, but lower grades than the university's admissions entry criteria allows.

"No university can exempt itself from playing a part in expanding the pool of talent from which students are drawn," Mr Milburn said.

"It is simply not good enough if some universities exempt themselves on the basis that their entry criteria are sacrosanct and that responsibility for raising attainment levels, so that less advantaged pupils can be admitted, rests purely with schools rather than universities.

"The blame game - where universities blame schools, schools blame parents and everyone blames the government - has to end."

Mr Milburn also said that the Government should set a five-year goal for every school to make progress on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils, and new Free Schools should only be set up on the condition that they increase the numbers of their students going to leading universities.

Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group, which represents a body of research-intensive universities said that the report was an "important contribution" and that higher education did have an important role to play in aiding social mobility.

But he said that some of the recommendations "give real cause for concern".

"First, while Mr Milburn says that universities are autonomous institutions that should be free to determine their own admissions criteria, he proposes measures that would serve only to erode university autonomy," he said.

"His proposals for the sector to collectively set out 'statistical targets' for the next five years, for a blanket requirement to offer lower entry requirements to those meeting certain social criteria, and for a nationally imposed form of contextual data are alarmingly centralist."

He added: "Mr Milburn also suggests universities step in with financial support to encourage students to stay in school beyond 16.

"In effect, this is a call for universities to replace the EMA.

"It is entirely wrong to expect universities to foot the bill for withdrawn Government funding in this way, even though many may choose to include such support in their outreach work."

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK's top universities said: "Our universities already want to make sure they are not overlooking the brightest and the best and like Alan Milburn we recognise that poorer students are not as well represented as their middle class peers.

"But there is no simple solution to this complex problem and offering financial incentives to take students from disadvantaged backgrounds fails to address the root cause of the problem and may have unintended consequences."

She added: "We offer millions of pounds in bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds which we know both they - and their representatives - value and it is something that we are asked to do by the Office for Fair Access.

"Of course we are always looking at how money can be better spent and we are happy to consider extending outreach schemes where their impact has been proven - particularly in the light of Alan Milburn's recommendations.

"But it is problematic to expect universities to take responsibility for replacing the Educational Maintenance Allowance."