Working-class students setback

STEVE DOWNES The government admitted last night that its drive to get more working-class students into university had stalled amid fears that rising tuition fees have deterred young people from the poorest homes from continuing their studies.

STEVE DOWNES

The government admitted last night that its drive to get more working-class students into university had stalled amid fears that rising tuition fees have deterred young people from the poorest homes from continuing their studies.

New figures have revealed that about 17,000 fewer people have applied to start higher education in September than last year - and that the proportion of working- class applicants has dropped.

Experts believe the “disastrous” performance is, in part, due to the introduction from this autumn of tuition fees of up to £3,000 per year - almost three times the current level.

The rise in fees followed a bitter Commons battle that saw the biggest rebellion of Labour MPs since 1997.

Ironically, the Bill included the re-introduction of maintenance grants, and the then education secretary Charles Clarke sold the policy to doubters as a package of measures that would persuade the poorest youngster to continue their studies.

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The figures are a major setback for East Anglia, which has areas with some of the worst higher- education participation rates in England.

And the news is particularly worrying in Norfolk, which has a history of low ambition and a low-skilled workforce.

But the figures for UEA, near Norwich, are not as bad as for England.

The university has seen a small drop in the percentage of young people coming from areas with traditionally low rates of participation in higher education.

And the percentage coming from state schools has also fallen, although the drop-out rate has halved.

Norman Lamb, MP for north Norfolk, said: “This is disastrous. In a global economy it's critical that we have a highly educated workforce.

“It may be partly down to the impact of tuition fees, which we as a party warned against and campaigned against.”

The figures released today by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) show:

t the percentage of under 21s from lower socio-economic groups starting degrees in 2004/5 fell from 28.6pc to 28.2pc

t the proportion of young first years (under 21) who went to university from state schools or colleges dipped from 86.8pc in 2003/4 to 86.7pc in 2004/5

t the projected drop-out rate for students who started courses in 2003/4 rose from 14.4pc to 14.9pc

t employment levels among graduates fell slightly, with 93pc employed or studying six months after graduation in 2004/5, down from 93.1pc.

The figures from UCAS, which manages applications to UK higher education institutions, show a 3.5pc drop in the number of students applying to start courses in September.

So far, 469,731 have applied, compared with 486,915 at the same point last year.

Higher education minister Bill Rammell said: “We are disappointed that the percentages of young full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds have not increased since last year.

“Although over the last five years we have seen some overall increases from these groups, the percentages have fallen from last year, which is disappointing.”

He said improvements would materialise “in future years”, and added: “There remains an economic need for more graduates, and to achieve this we need a more representative student population.”

At UEA, the drop out rate has almost halved from 6.7pc of young first year's in 2003/4 to 3.4pc in 2004/5.

But the percentage of first years in 2004/5 from “low participation areas” fell from 8.2pc to 7.8pc - below the target of 9pc.

Those from state schools fell from 88pc to 87.5pc (target 80.7pc), while the percentage of first years from the lower socio-economic classes improved from 21.4pc to 22.6pc - better than the 22.1pc target.

Annie Ogden, a UEA spokeswoman said: “We are pleased that our continuous work on improvement is reflected in the drop-out rate, making UEA one of the top 20 universities for student retention.

“UEA remains a top class university which draws significantly from the state school sector. It is a long-term process changing the culture of low participation in higher education in the region, but we remain committed to our programmes for widening participation.”

The Hesa figures revealed details for individual universities.

Leading institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge fell far short of target levels.

At Cambridge, 56.8pc of young first year degree students in 2004/5 came from state schools, down 0.1 points on the previous year and well below the 75pc benchmark.

Oxford took 53.4pc of new undergraduates from state school or college backgrounds, down 0.4 percentage points from the previous year. The benchmark was 74.6pc.

Shadow higher education minister Boris Johnson said: “These figures are not completely discouraging, for example, the number of both young and mature part-time entrants from low participation neighbourhoods has increased as has the number of mature full time students.

“However, these figures do indicate how much work there is still to be done.”