White working class boys least likely to go to university says NAO

National Audit Office reports that debt is significant deterrent for students applying to university

White working class men are severely under-represented in universities, according to a report to the government which portrays the English university sector as strongly divided along class lines.

The National Audit Office report says that white working class boys are now the least likely group of people to go to university. The Russell Group of research-led institutions - including Oxford and Cambridge - are most consistently failing to attract state school students and both universities and the government have failed to properly monitor the impact of a £392m drive encourage them to apply, it claims.

However, the NAO also suggests that universities could be fighting a losing battle because the biggest barrier to higher education is the fact that children from the poorest neighbourhoods are failing to get the school grades to go to university.

The report says there is no strong statistical evidence that higher top-up fees have put some students off applying to university, but its interviews with teachers reveal a strong sense that debt is a factor in preventing students from applying.

The government invested £392m between 2001 and 2008 to widen participation in England to meet a goal of 50% of 18-30 year olds attending university by 2010, but the range of schemes and sometimes inadequate assessment of their impact has made it difficult to say what works. The NAO also surveyed 2,900 applicants who did not get into university to find out what put them off. It found that those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not receive enough advice on their applications. The proliferation of tests being used in applications - 45 of the 311 institutions officially listed - were also disadvantaging state school pupils because "applicants from certain educational/income backgrounds are more likely to have been coached in interview and test techniques, whereas such tests could be a daunting experience for applicants with little or no experience of them," the report says.

Rick Trainor, president of the university umbrella group Universities UK, said: "Universities are making progress in this area but we cannot do this alone. It is widely recognised that the main obstacle to widening access to university is progression and achievement at age 16.

It is also clear that improving the provision of information and guidance on higher education for school pupils early on is key. Universities cannot admit people who are not applying to enter higher education."

Contributor

Polly Curtis, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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