Leading article: An urgent university challenge

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The Independent Online

Figures released today show that British universities spent a record amount on bursaries to help young people from poorer homes enter higher education. And that is excellent news. When students were first required to pay for tuition, many feared that this could deter those from less advantaged backgrounds. This concern became a rallying cry for all those opposed to the principle of tuition fees, from would-be students, to MPs and academics.

So far, this does not appear to have happened. Successive reports have shown that the number of students from poorer backgrounds has remained stable. Tuition fees, which this newspaper has supported as essential to maintaining the competitiveness of British universities, appear to be with us to stay.

Indeed, so established a part of the educational landscape have they become that further increases in fee levels, if not imminent, look inevitable. When the BBC reported recently that two-thirds of vice-chancellors in England and Wales wanted a steep increase in fees – in some cases up to as much as £20,000 a year – the public response was less shocked than weary. The idea that higher education is something worth paying has become entrenched here, if not yet so deeply or universally as in the United States.

There is, however, one cloud on the generally bright horizon. While the number of students from poorer backgrounds has remained stable, it has not grown. Not only does this frustrate the Government's hopes of having 50 per cent of school-leavers going on to higher education – a target always more laudable in principle than in practice – it means that the very young people the Government had aimed to draw into higher education remain excluded.

This matters still more because young people from poorer backgrounds gain the most powerful "leg-up" from a degree or similar qualification. So the very people who ought to be benefiting most from the vast expansion of higher education are not doing so. It is true, as the latest figures show, that a higher proportion of students from poorer households are now claiming the financial help they are entitled to, but the bursary system has so far failed to expand the pool of those who apply.

The director of the university admissions watchdog suggests that introducing all children to the concept of a university education much earlier could help. And this should certainly be encouraged. More immediately, though, all available financial assistance needs to be much better publicised and the system for obtaining it greatly simplified. We also note that the average amount paid out last year to each qualifying student was only a little over £1,000. We doubt this is sufficient to encourage those who would otherwise not aspire to university, especially at a time when the salary premium attaching to a degree seems to be falling.