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Students: Low Incomes

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's policies to encourage people from low income households to study at university. (172395)

This Government have instigated and supported a range of policies to encourage a wider range of people to be able and willing to participate in higher education (HE). We have done this because of economic need and to support social justice. Forecasts show that half of the 12 million jobs that should become vacant between 2004 and 2014 will be in occupations most likely to employ graduates. And higher education offers significant benefits to individuals—over their working life, the average graduate can expect to earn comfortably over £100,000 more than a similar person with just A levels, and graduates experience better health, are less likely to commit crime and are more likely to engage in civil society. It is right that these benefits should be available to all, regardless of their background, but the issues affecting HE participation patterns are varied and need to be addressed across the education system.

In recent years we have made good progress. There has been a steady increase in the number and proportion of entrants to HE who come from lower social class backgrounds. This is reflected in recent UCAS application data for 2008 entry—in England, the proportion of applicants coming from lower social class backgrounds is up from 28.2 per cent. in 2007 to 28.9 per cent. this year. The numbers and proportions of entrants to HE from lower social class backgrounds are at their highest ever levels, as are the numbers and proportions of entrants from state schools and low participation neighbourhoods. Similarly, the proportion of young people from lower social class backgrounds is at it highest level.

There is a range of interventions which contribute to this progress—the Aimhigher Programme, improvement in student financial support both from the Government and from higher education institution bursaries, institutions’ own outreach activity working directly with schools and the Government's broader efforts to raise attainment across the board and to narrow attainment gaps.

The Aimhigher Programme has been operating nationally since 2004 although similar, predecessor programmes began in 2001. The programme is designed to increase opportunities for people from under-represented groups to participate in HE. There have been various evaluations of the programme which show that it has had a positive impact on participants' attainment and their attitudes towards HE. In the programme's early years (2001 to 2002 when it was known as Aimhigher: Excellence Challenge (AH: EC)), and before it became a national programme, research showed that being part of AH: EC:

(a) led to an improvement in the proportion, by 4.6 per cent., of year nine pupils attaining levels four, five or six in maths at key stage 3;

(b) involved improvement in nearly all measures of year 11's GCSE results, with an average improvement in total points scored of 2.5, which corresponds to an increase of between two and three grades in one GCSE; and

(c) led to participants being more likely to say that they intended to take part in HE (by 3.9 percentage points).

Additional research conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) showed that over 70 per cent. of universities responding to its survey said that Aimhigher as a national programme added value to their widening participation policies and activities, that Aimhigher provided a positive and welcome boost to their own efforts to widen participation in HE and that this translated into increased applications.

Widening participation requires long-term address and we have announced the continuation of Aimhigher to 2011. We will continue to work with HEFCE to commission a national study to report before the end of 2011 on outcomes across the whole programme since 2004, when the unified, national Aimhigher was introduced. And at local level, Aimhigher Partnerships will determine the extent to which the Aimhigher programme has raised HE awareness, aspirations and attainment among participants and within participating institutions.

There is less accumulated evidence about the effectiveness of other interventions given that they were introduced relatively recently. But we do know that the Office for Fair Access, which agrees access agreements with HEIs, showing what they will do to attract students from lower-income backgrounds, reported that in the first operational year of access agreements, 2006-07:

(a) HEIs paid £96 million to low income students in bursaries in 2006-07 (21.4 per cent. of additional income went back to students in support), benefiting well over 70,000 low income students;

(b) for those on the lowest incomes (entitled to full state grant) the mean bursary was £870. A typical bursary (median and mode) by institution for the lowest income is £1,000 per year;

(c) £21 million additional income spent on additional outreach in 2006-07; and

(d) by 2008-09 institutions estimate that they will be disbursing over £300 million a year in bursaries and scholarships to students on low incomes (OFFA definition of low income is family incomes up to £47,425 (2006-07 values).

We continue to support the work of universities and colleges through the Department's own communications activity and make efforts to raise awareness of bursaries alongside all other elements of the higher education student finance package.