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Access for Few? Student Funding and its Impact on Aspirations to Enter Higher Education

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In 1989 17% of the United Kingdom's young people entered higher education (HE), by 1997 33% did so (Robertson & Hillman, 1997). Within this total, however, Metcalf (1997) found just 8% of young people from the two lowest socio-economic groups entering HE, compared with 39% from the two highest. Although young people from semi/unskilled backgrounds accounted for just 9% of HE entrants, they represented 19% of households in the 1991 census, whereas young entrants from professional backgrounds took 62% of HE places but represented 39% of households.

In 1997 the new Labour government placed the attack on social exclusion and the widening of access to higher education near the top of its social priorities, but at the same time it also abolished student maintenance grants and introduced a fee payment contribution. This study investigates the impact of these changes on the application intentions of a sample of 185 pupils ending their first year in the sixth forms of three different centres.

The responses collected show the beginnings of a negative trend. Pupils from all backgrounds have concerns about the level of debt, they all have concerns about the potential for social polarisation of institutions and of access to HE more generally, and most feel their choice of university and course to be curtailed in some way. Of the students who were likely to apply for HE at the beginning of Year 12, 40% felt they were less likely to apply at the end of the year. The impact appears to be greatest on pupils from lower income backgrounds.

Far from improving access to higher education, these changes seem likely to add to the barriers already facing young people from under-represented socio-economic groups.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2000

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  • The journal is based on the belief that there are neglected links between research and theory, and policy and practice in the promotion of widening participation in post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. It aims to provide a forum for the development of theory, the addressing of policy questions and the dissemination of innovative practice in the field of widening participation and lifelong learning.
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