Proportion of working-class students still low

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THE chances of children from working-class families going to university or polytechnic have scarcely increased during the last 20 years, according to a report published yesterday.

The paper from the National Commission on Education argues that there is little sign of John Major's classless society in higher education which is still dominated by the children of professional and managerial people despite a big expansion in numbers. Its author, Professor A H Halsey, of Nuffield College, Oxford, says the middle class still gets more than twice the proportion of degree holders one would expect if graduates were distributed randomly through the population whereas the working class gets less than half its share.

He said last night that the proportions had changed little since the First World War. 'There is nothing mysterious about this. The best school you go to is at the beginning and the resources are much better in some homes than others.'

The paper predicts that the Government's decision to replace grants by loans may 'well produce greater class inequality in British higher education in the future'.

Professor Halsey also argues that the big expansion in the number of places from 216,000 in 1963 to 1,086,300 in 1990 has not led to a decline in standards as some traditionalists had feared. Indeed, entry standards have risen during the last 20 years. 'The pool of ability has not been exhausted: on the contrary it is expanding.'

In 1971 just over a quarter of university entrants had a very high score in three A-level subjects whereas in 1984 it was 35 per cent. Since then it has fallen to 31 per cent. Professor Halsey said: 'The output of the secondary schools is improving and the quality of the best higher education so far doesn't seem to have changed.'

But he warned that a further deterioration of staff-student ratios which worsened between 1971 and 1990 from 1:8 to 1:11 could endanger the quality of higher education unless more staff and resources were provided. The Government wants to increase the proportion of young people going to college from a fifth to a third.

The paper says that the position of women in higher education has been transformed since the Sixties and in 1989 they formed 42.8 per cent of all students but they have made greater advances in the polytechnics and on part-time courses than on traditional university degree courses.