Working-class applications stay down…

Daniel Heap 30 September 2007

The battle to get more students from lower social classes applying to Cambridge is being lost, a high-level report has claimed.

Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show the number of students from lower socio-economic bands starting their first Cambridge degree has dropped from 12.4% to 11.8%.

The report has dealt a blow to the University’s access scheme, which sees £3 million each year spent on redressing the long-standing imbalance in Cambridge applications – where lower-class students and ethnic minorities are hugely under-represented.

And the figures only compound the common-held view that the University is a stronghold of the rich middle and upper classes.

University director of admissions, Dr Geoff Parks, said he was disappointed by the findings, but voiced concerns over the study’s reliability.

He said: “There’s no denying that Cambridge still has an access problem, but this particular piece of evidence is not the best one to use.”

The study asked respondents to define their own social class – something Dr Parks believes could lead to a misleading slant. He also claims the advent of widely-reviled top-up fees has forced many students to apply to universities in their home towns.

He said: “The main motivation for opting to attend a local university is obviously economic, and therefore students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to make this decision. This will disproportionately affect universities in less densely populated parts of the country – such as Cambridge.”

Cambridge is one of a group of top universities which has hit out at supposed ‘soft’ subjects on offer for GCSE and A-level examinations.

Opponents of league tables claim they exert undue pressure on state schools to encourage pupils to take these black-listed exams – putting them at an automatic disadvantage when they apply for university spots.

But Cambridge access officers insist they are committed to breaking down class boundaries – and have shifted bursary thresholds to give more financial support to students from low-income households.

Before, only students whose household income was lower than £18,000 were eligible for a full bursary of £3,150. But this threshold has been shifted to £25,000 – and the University intends to offer one-third of all students some level of financial support by 2012.

Families with an income of less than £60,000 will be in line for cash boosts. The previous upper limit was £38,500.

The University access team believes 1,000 more students are set to benefit from the boundary shifts. University pro-vice chancellor Prof Melveena McKendrick said: “This University must be accessible to all outstanding students whatever their background.

“These extensions to our already substantial bursary scheme show our commitment to attracting and supporting the ablest students regardless of need.”

Daniel Heap