Universities in England should redirect money from bursaries to help build closer links with schools and boost the number of students from poor homes, Business Secretary Vince Cable has recently said.
His comments echoed those made by Les Ebdon, the head of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) who, speaking alongside Cable at a conference, highlighted the crucial role that this kind of “outreach” could play in increasing the number of undergraduates from poor households. For them both, this is an essential endeavour.
Both Cable and Ebdon believe that this strategy is more effective than offering money in the form of bursaries.
Cambridge’s current Director of Undergraduate Recruitment Jon Beard told the meeting that while OFFA was encouraging the University to spend on outreach, students were telling it to spend on bursaries instead, and OFFA wanted it to listen to its students.
He added that Cambridge had increased the proportion of state school pupils to 63 per cent after a number of outreach projects, including summer schools and regional events.
However, this call for more spending on outreach comes alongside a report released earlier this year, which revealed that there
had been “little or no progress” made on widening access to selective universities since the mid-2000s.
Currently, universities that charge more than £6,000 per year in tuition fees have to demonstrate to OFFA that they are taking steps to increase the number of applicants and entrants from low-income backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups.
Professor Ebdon said, “Most of the money universities are spending goes on bursaries and most of the evidence [suggests] that money would be better spent on outreach programmes.”
Likewise, Cable insisted, “Evidence we have suggests the best way of encouraging social mobility is to do outreach.
“Getting pupils doing the right combination of GCSEs and A-levels is much more effective than bursaries and fee-waivers; targeted outreach is what really works.”
He acknowledged that the coalition’s decision to raise tuition fees in England up to a maximum of £9,000 per year had been “immensely unpopular.”
However, Cable also pointed out that applications to universities had recovered, marking the “second highest ever”, and that the number of applicants from disadvantaged areas had increased, saying: “What we did on fee loans was difficult and unpopular, but I feel we have been partially vindicated.”