Universities in England are spending more on summer schools and outreach projects to widen their intake, according to a monitoring report from the Office for Fair Access (Offa).
The university access watchdog says spending on outreach events with schools rose by 15% to £46m.
The figures show university spending for 2010-11, before the impact of increases in tuition fees.
Student leaders have warned of a reduction in spending on bursaries.
Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, said the university sector overall was making “good progress” – but warned that “progress is slow” at the most selective universities.
The report, published by Offa and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), sets out how much universities are spending to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds.
It shows that overall spending on access, including scholarships and bursaries, has risen to £424m – up from £404m in the previous year.
- The Office for Fair Access was created to make sure higher fees did not restrict access to university – when higher fees meant about £3,000
- This report looks at what universities spent on bursaries and outreach in 2010-11, before fees rise to up to £9,000
- Total spending was £424m, mostly on bursaries, but with a growing amount on outreach
- Offa’s next director will be Les Ebdon, whose appointment caused a political controversy
Most of this was spent on bursaries and scholarships – with £378m for “lower income and other under-represented groups”.
But the report welcomes a move towards putting more money into outreach schemes – which it calls a “promising development and hopefully the start of a gradual shift in the balance of expenditure”.
This study shows university spending ahead of the forthcoming rise in tuition fees – which from this autumn will increase to up to £9,000 per year.
It shows how universities provided financial support when fees were £3,290 per year.
The figures also show the wide differences in the social backgrounds of students at different universities.
At Cambridge University, 13% of students qualified for full state support – based on a combined annual household income below £25,000.
Universities themselves do not have the power to solve the root causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds”
Wendy Piatt Russell Group
In contrast, at Bradford University and London Metropolitan, 63% of students were eligible for full support.
There were also wide ranges in expenditure on bursaries – with Manchester Metropolitan spending almost £11m, compared with £1.1m spent by the London School of Economics.
On outreach, the report says Durham spent £1.6m, compared with £100,000 at Surrey.
Responding to the figures, the National Union of Students (NUS) forecast that in the next few years there would be a reduction in spending on up-front bursaries and scholarships.
By 2015, the NUS says there will be £83m less for such bursaries.
Students have campaigned for bursaries – providing money for students when they are studying – rather than “fee waivers”, which lower the headline cost of fees.
Students have criticised waivers as benefiting the government – by cutting the cost of fee loans – rather than supporting the student with cash to help them with their daily living costs.
“Rather than correct the problems of cash not reaching those who need it most, the problem will get worse by 2015,” said NUS president Liam Burns.
The 1994 Group of research intensive universities backed the move towards more outreach projects.
“By focusing investment on outreach activity universities can widen participation in higher education without compromising academic standards,” said Alex Bols, the group’s executive director.
But Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, warned that there were limits to what could be expected of higher education.
“Universities themselves do not have the power to solve the root causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds: under-achievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course,” she said.