Universities are spending more money on improving access for students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds – but fewer students are receiving financial help, research shows.
A report published today by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) reveals that about 358,000 students from low-income and under-represented groups received a financial award in 2013-14, down from 401,500 in 2012-13. The figures relate to those studying at higher education institutions and further education colleges with access agreements.
Although fewer students received financial help, those who did tended to receive larger sums, the report found, with the average value rising from £1,268 in 2012-13 to £1,638 in 2013-14.
It also found that universities had significantly increased their budgets for “widening participation activity” in ways that did not include financial support. These included programmes to raise aspirations among potential applicants and to mentor and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds once they had entered university.
The report said total investment in widening participation through access agreements, including financial support and other activities, stood at £628 million in 2013-14, up from £564 million the previous year. However, it found that the proportion of this spent that was on financial support had fallen to 69 per cent, from 74 per cent in 2012-13.
“We were pleased to see this continued refocusing of access agreement investment away from financial support and towards outreach and student success activity, as this was in line with our guidance, which emphasised the contribution of these activities to improving the diversity of the student population,” the Offa report says.
The report also finds that universities and colleges had met, or were on course to meet, 90 per cent of the targets that they set themselves in their 2013-14 access agreements – documents that set out how they will promote fair access to people from lower income backgrounds, which are a condition of being allowed to charge higher fees.
In the foreword to the report, Professor Les Ebdon, director of Offa, writes that although this progress was “something to celebrate”, it was “not enough – not yet”.
“Although there are record-breaking rates of entry among disadvantaged groups, too many of these entrants are still getting lost by the wayside," he adds.
“Some will never graduate and those who do are more likely to underachieve than students who are the same in every respect apart from different backgrounds, gender or ethnicity.
“These inequalities in attainment and progression are the hidden face of fair access and they are unacceptable.”
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “Over the next few years, Russell Group universities will pump millions more into outreach activities and financial support… However, we remain concerned that Offa’s access policies risk focusing too much on regulation and not enough on resolving the real problems – namely underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course.”