18 Oct 2012

Universities should ‘do more’ to help poorer students

English universities should give guaranteed interviews and lower A-level offers to poorer pupils, according to the government’s social mobility tsar.

All universities should give guaranteed interviews and lower A-level offers to poorer pupils, according to the government's social mobility tsar (Getty)

Former Labour minister Alan Milburn also called for top institutions to sponsor an academy school in an disadvantaged area, and to provide bright poor pupils with the chance to study for a foundation degree if they have lower grades than they would usually ask for.

And he said all universities should sign up to a pledge to take a student’s background into account when deciding who to accept.

In a new government-commissioned report on widening access to higher education, Mr Milburn says universities need to “redouble their efforts” to ensure that places are open to all those with talent and potential.

And he calls for universities to do more to help students while they are still at school, to help them get the grades they need to secure a degree place.

The report suggests that universities could switch from spending money on bursaries and fee waivers for their students to offering financial help to poorer teenagers so they can stay in school and achieve good results.

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford told Channel 4 News the report represents an “interesting and useful contribution to an important subject” and that the university “will study it and the government’s response with care”.

Oxford says it is spending £2.6m this year on more than 1,500 outreach and access activities.

Read more: Universities fail to recruit poorer students

‘Guaranteed interviews’

Mr Milburn condemns the controversial scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which was a weekly payment given to disadvantaged teenagers to help them continue their studies.

He recommends that institutions give guaranteed interviews, and, where appropriate, lower offers to less-advantaged pupils in the schools that they support, as well as guaranteed interviews to students who successfully complete university preparation courses, like summer schools.

Universities should be able to set their own admissions rules, the report says, but warns that the way these systems often work, particularly at selective universities, means that students who could do well can be “inadvertently excluded” from being admitted.

It says that all universities should agree to using “contextual data” – background information about the type of school a potential student attends, their parents’ education and their family’s income.

And Mr Milburn argues that every highly selective university – the top institutions in the country – should agree to sponsor an academy school in a disadvantaged area, and provide foundation degree opportunities for pupils in poorer areas who have potential, but lower grades than the university’s admissions entry criteria allows.