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Bursaries help turn the social mobility turnstile

A decade is a generation - and you would think that a lot of progress could have been made in 10 years. However, recent research reports indicate that despite the raft of policy initiatives taken by the Government over the period, this is sadly not the case when it comes to improving access to and widening participation in higher education for disadvantaged students from FE colleges.

I became a passionate advocate of the UK's college sector when I worked in the mid 1990s with FE colleges on the committee of inquiry that produced the report Learning Works on widening participation in further education. In this, we set out a clear agenda to catalyse a step-change in improving access to post-16 learning that we hoped would have been achieved by now.

In 1997, the participation rate for those from social classes I and II (professionals and intermediates) was considerably higher, at 62 per cent, than the rate for those from social class V (unskilled manual workers), at 1 per cent. This gap has narrowed over the years, but the report published by the National Audit Office last year noted that still more than twice the proportion of people from upper socio-economic groups enter HE compared with those from the lower socio-economic groups.

The findings of the recent Universities UK report on financial support available to HE students reveal significant weaknesses in university bursary schemes set up to try to widen participation: many students now at university fail to claim bursary monies for which they are eligible. This is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Despite initiatives and millions of pounds of government money spent on attempts to widen participation among disadvantaged groups, there has not been a significant enough change in the profile of the overall university population and in those from non traditional backgrounds entering HE and gaining employment in the professions.

This week, the Helena Kennedy Foundation, the charity set up in my name by then college principal Dr Ann Limb to take forward the recommendations of Learning Works, celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Southbank Centre in London. Students, graduates, colleges, universities and employers came together with a glittering array of celebrities to sing the praises of our colleges and universities and their critical role in enabling social mobility and achieving social justice. It was a proud moment for me, for the foundation and for the college sector, to which I remain deeply committed.

The foundation does not have all the answers, but we were pioneers in the establishment of a national bursary scheme that has grown exponentially. The students we support are living proof that by taking social action - the provision of an easily accessible and administratively low-cost bursary with personalised support - growing numbers of disadvantaged students from FE progress to and succeed in higher education and employment.

Working with our partner FE colleges, we identify students in the right place, in the right way and at the right time. Well before entrance to university, we work with FE tutors who know individual student circumstances, culture and background and who are best placed to provide advice and assistance.

When the findings of Learning Works were published, I had no idea that a decade later the foundation would have made such a direct, significant and personal impact on the lives of so many disadvantaged students.

Baroness Kennedy QC, President, Helena Kennedy Foundation.

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