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Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the university bursary system on the number of university students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (164258)

The university bursary system is an integral part of the wider student finance package that ensures access to higher education. The system is working. Applications have increased this year by more than 6 per cent., the proportion of applicants from the lowest four socio-economic groups has increased too, and universities are committed to paying more than £300 million in bursaries to students.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. However, in my constituency, potential university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds still have concerns about the financial cost of going to university. When the Government raised the upper limit for top-up fees last year, they said that they wanted each institution to prove that it was widening access. What more can the Government do to encourage and reassure potential students that they will get the necessary support from bursaries or whatever if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds where their families have no history of going to university?

I think the challenge of ensuring that we get people from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential and to access higher education is one of the most significant that we face. We have done more to bring in our fairest and most progressive system of student financial support, but we are going even further with a series of changes for next year. We are significantly increasing the proportion of students who will get non-repayable grants and, crucially, we are guaranteeing to young people who get the education maintenance allowance at 16 the amount of money that they will get when they go to university at 18. That is a positive and important step forward, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that last point, in that a much earlier intervention in the individual’s aspiration to go to university is required. What steps is he taking to work with other Departments to ensure that university remains an option to children earlier on in their schooling, not just because of the financial background but because of an aspiration that university is part of their education and a gateway to a much better life in terms of training and their ability to earn as they go on?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Student finance is important, but I think that aspiration is the most critical challenge that we face. That is why the Aimhigher programme, for example, which runs taster weekends and taster schools to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to go to university, is so important. We also need a much better relationship between universities and the school system, with universities taking responsibility for widening access. The recent announcement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the importance of more partnerships between universities and schools is particularly important.

Further to that question, could the Minister expand on the success of the Aimhigher programme so far in reaching those groups who do not have a tradition in their families of going to university?

I think that the Aimhigher programme is particularly important, and we have recently announced the continuation of the funding of that programme for the next three years. The evidence shows that the scheme is working, but we also need to ensure that it is targeted as effectively as possible. That is why last year we asked the Higher Education Funding Council to ensure that that is happening and we will bring forward proposals to make it happen.