Tuition fees favour the rich - new study

Children from poor familes say fear of debt deterred them from university

Teenagers from poorer families are turning their backs on a university education because of fears they will be saddled with thousands of pounds of debt, new research shows. The study on the impact of tuition fees reveals today that nearly two-thirds of pupils who decided not to seek higher education cited anxieties about money.

The number of students planning to study at universities close by, so they can live with their families, has risen from 18% in 1998 to 56% today, the research shows. By comparison, pupils from independent schools are now significantly more likely to move to a university in a different city, opening up the option of Oxbridge and other leading institutions, says the influential charity the Sutton Trust.

Its findings set the government's fee-charging regime at odds with ministers' ambitions to "unlock the potential" of children in the poorest areas of the country and boost the number of them attending top universities, student leaders claim.

Government figures out today suggest a 7% rise in the number of students applying to university - taking applications to record levels - but opposition MPs say the statistics mask a stagnation in the number of pupils from low-income homes applying - and in particular, boys.

The Sutton Trust research, seen by the Guardian, concludes that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer options, while students at independent schools told the researchers their decisions were based on the "reputations" of the institution, rather than the costs.

"Independent schools, it would seem, develop an ethos in which going away to university is perceived as being the 'natural' choice," the report says.

Researchers from Staffordshire University interviewed 1,628 students aged between 17 and 20 from 20 schools across the country. Some 72% of those who were planning to live at home did so because they wanted to minimise their debts. Students from homes with an annual income below £35,000 were more likely to consider a local university.

"Many students from poor backgrounds are being put off university because they are afraid of getting into debt," the report says. "Very few of them know about bursaries or maintenance grants on offer."

In one set of interviews only seven of 37 students had a clear understanding of how the bursary system works and what they might be eligible for. Very few had researched the bursaries on offer, and some had already dismissed the idea of applying, despite the fact they could have qualified for thousands of pounds.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: "Young people need better information on the complex system of bursaries and grants, and this needs to be provided before they have made their higher education choices."

Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said: "If the trend continues, prestigious universities will only be accessible to the rich. "

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and Colleges Union, said: "It is not acceptable that the increased cost of going to university means that students unable to, or unwilling to, build up huge debt levels may have to abandon their dreams."

The Ucas figures for applications to universities this year, published today, reveal a 7% rise in applications and a modest rise in the number of students from the lowest social-economic groups. Opposition MPs pointed out that this includes, for the first time, applications for students to study nursing and midwifery degrees, which have traditionally attracted large numbers of working-class applicants.

Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, welcomed the figures. "We want to ensure that money is not a barrier to higher education, which is why we have introduced an improved student package of financial support, starting this autumn, that has been well publicised to students, their parents, careers advisers and schools ... Nobody should be put off considering higher education for financial reasons."


Polly Curtis, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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