Ministers fail to address Bristol’s ‘mockery’ of widening university access

Education Ministers failed to address concerns raised in the Commons by Bristol South MP Karin Smyth about Bristol University’s ‘Bristol Scholars’ programme.

Earlier this month it emerged that around a third of places on the 2017 scheme, aimed at helping disadvantaged students into higher education, had been offered to private school pupils.

During Education Question Time in the House of Commons on Monday 20 March, Karin Smyth challenged Ministers: “My constituency sends the least children to university. Bristol University’s Bristol Scholars scheme, which is aimed at widening access, has taken a third of its pupils from private schools. Does the Minister agree that that makes an entire mockery of the scheme?

Responding for the government, Edward Timpson welcomed widening participation initiatives in general, but failed to address the specific issue about Bristol Scholars: “We of course welcome initiatives, such as the one the hon. Lady has described, to widen participation in higher education. In 2017-18, universities intend to spend more than £833 million on measures to improve access and student success through their access agreements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—up significantly from £404 million in 2009.”

Karin Smyth said: “By overlooking the key issue, the government is indicating it has no problem with ‘widening participation’ schemes being used by private fee-paying schools.

“I have now written to the Secretary of State for Education, posing the same question I asked in Parliament, and I trust she will take the chance to clarify the government’s position on this specific issue.

“When Bristol Scholars was launched it was widely praised and as south Bristol’s MP I considered it an encouraging step forward for my constituents. Whilst university is not right for everyone, I know from my regular visits to schools in my constituency that there are huge numbers of students with the potential to do well in higher education. The ‘Bristol Scholars’ scheme was trumpeted at helping break down some of the barriers that prevent them doing so. Sadly it seems to have offered false hope.

“But I remain keen to help the University shape its scheme to better meet the needs of students across our city as a whole, and particularly those living in Bristol South.”