Success is as important as access in broadening the composition of the student body at the leading universities, the Sutton Trust summit heard this afternoon, writes John O’Leary

Universities are told to focus on success as well as access

Both Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access and Sir Michael Barber, the Chief Education Advisor at Pearson Worldwide, argued that universities should focus as much on retaining students from low-income families as on recruiting them in the first place.

Sir Michael said academic and social support were needed, as well as financial assistance, to ensure that students from non-traditional backgrounds were able to thrive as undergraduates and find good jobs. “Students are thinking about the labour market,” he said. “If you are paying now or racking up big debts for the future, you can’t help but think about employment prospects.”

Professor Les Ebdon said there was a “mixed picture” on widening participation in higher education. There had been a significant increase in recruitment from under-represented groups across the whole system, but there were still problems in the most selective universities, where those from wealthy families were eight times more likely to win a place than those from the lowest-income homes.

Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said all access measures were expensive. At MIT, fewer than a third of the students paid the full undergraduate fees of $43,500. Those with a family income of less than $75,000 paid nothing.

Dr Sally Mapstone, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, challenged the apparent consensus, supported by Professor Ebdon, that bursaries and scholarships were ineffective in widening participation. Particularly in an intensive teaching environment like Oxford’s, it was essential to give students the time to focus on their course, rather than taking term-time employment.

Dr Mapstone said Oxford had the most generous support for low-income undergraduates at any UK university, but postgraduate support was allocated on merit alone. The university was aware that this was a growing problem.

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