Student finance schemes are an "absolute nightmare", an Education minister admitted yesterday, minutes after university vice-chancellors called for a return of maintenance grants to attract more youngsters from poorer homes.
Professor Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, the umbrella body representing vice-chancellors, demanded "an urgent rethink on student support" when he addressed his annual conference in Southampton yesterday.
Margaret Hodge, the Higher Education minister, later admitted to the conference there were too many piecemeal schemes set up to aid students from poor families to help them overcome the abolition of maintenance grants by the Government in 1998. "We've ended up with a myriad of schemes and it is an absolute nightmare for ministers to understand, let alone any brand new student going into higher education," she said. Mrs Hodge said the schemes needed simplifying.
Professor Floud said vice-chancellors were increasingly worried at the level of student support. "The costs of going to university may be putting off the very people we are all anxious to see more of in our universities – those from the poorest household," he said.
"The real area of concern is not fees but living costs. Subsidised loans are available, but they are not adequate to sustain a reasonable standard of living."
He said some students at his university, London Guildhall, were forced to work more than 20 hours a week on top of their studies to make ends meet.
Vice-chancellors will be submitting a fully costed package of proposals to the Government for a restoration of student support to be included in Gordon Brown's 2002 spending review.
Professor Floud's plea comes as Tony Blair has set up an urgent review of student finance, which, as The Independent revealed yesterday, is expected to recommend an increase in "opportunities bursaries" at present worth £2,000 and available to students from less privileged backgrounds.
"We will be calling on Government to swap the present bursary schemes for a single, uncomplicated system of student living awards for people from low-income families drawn widely enough to ensure that finance is no longer a barrier to participation in higher education," Professor Floud added.
Evidence showed universities with the largest number of students from less well-off families had the highest drop-out rates. "Although people leave university for a range of reasons, we know finance is an issue," he added. He said the present myriad schemes meant "mean and unequal opportunities for individual students to fund their living costs". Tuition fees – introduced by the Government in 1998 – were not the problem, because only 50 per cent of students had to pay them.
Professor Floud went on to warn that secondary school standards would also have to improve if the Prime Minister was to meet his target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by 2010. "Things are improving, a decade ago only 15 per cent of young people from unskilled, manual worker households achieved five top A-C grades [at GCSE]," he said. "That's now risen to 30 per cent, but it's still too low."
Ms Hodge said that 90 per cent of all youngsters with A-levels now went to university, but the chances of a youngster from a deprived background getting a place in one of the country's top universities was still only one in a hundred.
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