Poor students are still being left out

A new government report shows that nearly one in four universities failed to meet their own targets to recruit more poor students last year. In total, 44 institutions, including 23 universities, five of which are elite universities, did not meet their own goals in 2009/10. The figures are included in the Office for Fair Access’s (OFFA) fourth monitoring report, which looks at how much money universities and colleges are spending, and how well they are doing at attracting and supporting candidates from poorer backgrounds. It shows that overall, English universities and colleges received £1.57 billion in additional fee income in 2009/10. This is additional fee income gained from tuition fees charged above the basic rate of £1,285. The maximum fee in 2009/10 was £3,225.

OFFA’s report shows that a quarter of this extra income (25.1%) – £394.7 million – was spent on recruiting and supporting poorer candidates, with £355.7 million going on bursaries and scholarships. In return for charging above the basic fee rate, institutions must submit access agreements to OFFA setting out how they plan to help poorer students. This includes setting their own targets on increasing the numbers of applicants or entrants from poor or under-represented groups. The report raises concerns that while 77% of institutions have either met or exceeded all or most of their targets, 23% (44 in total) are falling short.

OFFA director of fair access Sir Martin Harris said: “The large majority of universities and colleges are also meeting their statistical targets. Where they are not doing so, I am concerned to understand the reasons why. “Over the coming months, we will therefore be discussing performance with a range of institutions, including those that have reported the least progress.”

The report shows that more students are receiving financial support, but the average bursary awarded is smaller. Three-quarters (75%) of money spent on bursaries and scholarships in 2009/10 went to students from the poorest backgrounds, helping more than 271,000 youngsters on full state support. On average, these students receive a bursary of £935 a year, down from £942 in 2008/09 and £1,019 in 2007/08.

Sir Martin said institutions can decide to give funding to “more or less everybody” or decide it is only for students on the very lowest incomes. “What we’ve tried to do is encourage universities to focus money more on students that are genuinely disadvantaged,” he said. Smaller average bursaries are “going in the wrong direction”, Sir Martin suggested. “It is better to focus more on students whose income level is particularly low.” He added that the latest report is for 2009/10 and universities are likely to be encouraged to focus on giving large sums to smaller numbers of very disadvantaged students in the future.