Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has called on universities in the United Kingdom to improve access and participation for disadvantaged students and put an end to the high rates of students dropping out of courses.
“My message is clear – up your game and get on with it,” he said.
But Universities UK called on the government to back its own message up with a commitment to bring back maintenance grants for students and better support foundation years and degree apprenticeships.
While the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has risen, new data from the Office for Students shows that mainstream state school pupils from the most advantaged areas are 2.4 times more likely to go on to higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas.
There also remains a stubborn disparity in drop-out levels, with students from less well-off backgrounds more likely to drop out of university, the ministry says.
Data published earlier this year showed that in 2016-17 disadvantaged students were more likely to drop out of university in their first year (8.8% of full-time first degree students under 21) compared to their better off peers (6%) – a figure that slightly widened from the previous year.
Speaking on a visit to King’s College London on Thursday, Williamson said: “It is not good enough that white working-class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others. We cannot let this wasted potential go unchecked any longer.”
While acknowledging the work that “some universities” are doing, he said he wanted “all universities, including the most selective, to do everything they can to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education, but they also need to keep them there and limit the numbers dropping out of courses”.
Williamson was visiting King’s College London, which offers a range of initiatives to help disadvantaged students, ahead of the publication of new statistics on access and participation published by the university regulator, the Office for Students.
The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) figures show that a record rate (21.2%) of disadvantaged English 18-year-olds are starting university this year, up from 19.9% at the same point last year.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said in a letter to the education secretary that this progress has been made in the context of the numbers of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) student numbers in England increasing by 17% since 2013-14 and the proportion of students across the UK who disclose as disabled more than doubling since 2003-04.
She said Universities UK has been working with its member universities to review admissions practices, implement a framework for tackling the attainment gap between white and BAME students, collaborate with schools to increase access to university for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and improve support for disabled students.
Call for return to maintenance grants
But she said universities need more support and called on the government to reintroduce maintenance grants for those who need them.
“The switch from maintenance grants to student loans had a more significant impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds who need to take out higher loans to cover living costs, resulting in higher lifetime loan repayments,” she said.
She also called for more funding for the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education; more funding for collaborative work on access between universities and schools and universities and business, with the latter enabling paid internships and work placements for disadvantaged students; more support for expansion of degree apprenticeships; and better data on disadvantage to properly measure and track access.
Buckingham also stressed the need for government to “champion the vital role” that foundation years play in providing a stepping stone into universities for “individuals with high potential but non-traditional entry qualifications”.
Analysis from Universities UK shows that in 2017-18 some 86% of foundation year students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds progressed to degree study, many of them entering “strategically important courses” such as engineering, physics and biological science.
Buckingham said it was a “personal priority of mine as president of Universities UK to ensure everyone has an equal chance of accessing and thriving at university”.
Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Progress is being made to ensure that more disadvantaged young people are going to university than ever before, but it’s not enough to get students through the door – they must then get the right support to complete their courses too.
“Drop-outs will be a key focus of mine as universities minister and I will be watching carefully to see how universities respond to this challenge.”
He warned that he fully supports the Office for Students in “taking action if providers fail to do all they can to deliver on their commitments”.
Williamson praised King’s College London for blazing the trail through a number of projects to widen participation for under-represented groups, such as the K+ Attainment Raising programme, which offers intensive revision sessions for disadvantaged students.
The university also partners with charities like IntoUniversity, which aims to raise aspirations among young people who may not have thought university was for them, and Parent Power, which educates parents about their child’s post-18 choices so they can help them choose the best option for them.