Alan Milburn calls for more university places to be awarded to young people from poor backgrounds (From Darlington and Stockton Times)
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Alan Milburn calls for more university places to be awarded to young people from poor backgrounds
ALAN Milburn today demanded a radical overhaul of the way top universities choose their students, warning a "huge untapped potential" in the North-East was being ignored.
In his latest report as a government adviser, the former Darlington MP called for more places to be offered to young people from struggling backgrounds - even if their A-levels results were inferior.
Mr Milburn cited research which found state-school students - provided they gained a place - were more likely to achieve a top degree than someone, with identical results, from a fee-paying school.
And he published alarming new figures revealing the North-East has experienced the second biggest plunge in the number of people applying to university, since maximum annual fees were hiked to £9,000.
That number fell by 11.7 per cent this autumn - from 21,396 to 18,899. The only region that experienced a bigger decline was the South West (down 12.1%).
Yet the North-East already sends the smallest proportion of its young people to university (24 per cent), compared with London (36.4 per cent) and South-East (33.3 per cent).
Mr Milburn also demanded the effective restoration of the axed education maintenance allowance (EMA) - grants that encouraged poorer teenagers to stay at school - describing its abolition as a "very bad mistake".
Launching his report, the ex-Cabinet minister told The Northern Echo: "There is a huge, untapped potential in North-East schools - and universities need to do more to find it.
"The North-East would be one of the regions that would benefit most by universities focusing as much on the potential of students as on their A-level results."
On the application figures, he added: "It worries me that the North-East has seen one of the biggest falls in the number of applications to universities. It must be something to do with tuition fees and the fears of less well-off families."
The study - entitled 'How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility' - recommended:
- Guaranteed interviews for bright pupils from poorer backgrounds, including anyone who successfully completed a preparation course, such as a summer school.
- All universities should use "contextual data" - taking into account a student's background - when deciding who to accept.
- Millions spent on little-known bursaries and fee waivers for poorer students be switched to EMA-style financial help to ensure those students stayed in school.
- All institutions should offer a foundation year programme - similar to Durham University's "wildly successful" scheme - so less advantaged youngsters have a chance to catch up with their peers.
Mr Milburn added: "Students should not be admitted according to how well they did at school, but how well they are likely to do at university. It's not a reward for achievement - but a reward for potential to achieve."
In response, universities minister David Willetts said some institutions already offered places to poorer students with lower results, but insisted A-level results would remain a "crucial" element.