Fewer students given financial help
The number of students who received financial help from universities and colleges has fallen for the second year in a row, an official report shows.
But those who did receive help did get bigger awards, according to information published by the fair access watchdog.
In a report, The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) also said universities and colleges have met, or are on course to meet in the planned time, 90% of the targets that they set themselves in their 2013-14 access agreements.
The report says institutions will be asked to "build on this success to make further, faster progress".
One in three targets has been met three years ahead of deadline, the report said.
Eight seven per cent of targets relating to disabled students, 87% of targets related to gender and 79% of targets related to ethnicity have been met, or are on course to be achieved in the planned time.
W riting in the foreword to the report, Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said that while this progress is "something to celebrate" it is "not enough - not yet".
He wrote: "Although there are record-breaking rates of entry among disadvantaged groups, too many of these entrants are still getting lost by the wayside.
"Some will never graduate and those who do are more likely to underachieve than students who are the same in every respect apart from different backgrounds, gender or ethnicity.
"These inequalities in attainment and progression are the hidden face of fair access and they are unacceptable."
Around 358,000 students from lower income and under-represented groups studying at higher education institutions (HEIs) and further education colleges (FECs) with access agreements received a financial award in 2013-14, down from 401,500 in 2012-13.
The number of students who received financial help in 2011/12 totalled 442,000.
Although there were fewer awards in 2013-14 than in 2012-13, they were of higher average value, the report said.
In 2013-14 students in receipt of full state support received financial support of £1,638 on average - while in 2012-13 the average figure was £1,268.
The total expenditure on financial support for lower income students and other under-represented groups through access agreements for 2013-14 was £532.7 million.
It was £462.5 million in 2012-13.
In value terms, 88.3% of the £532.7 million that institutions spent on financial support in access agreements went to students who were in receipt of full state support, up from 86.4% in 2012-13.
The report said it was "pleased" that financial support is "increasingly being targeted at those most in need".
Overall, in 2013-14 the total investment in widening participation activity - ie activities to improve access, student success and progression, as opposed to financial support - by all higher education providers (with and without access agreements) was £802.6 million.
This was an increase from £743 million in 2012-13 and £682 million in 2011-12.
Prob Ebdon added: "Of course, as a former Vice-Chancellor myself, I understand that universities and colleges are on a journey to improving access, success and progression and that it takes time to see results.
"But I believe that universities and colleges can make further, faster progress.
"So I will continue to press for universities and colleges to carry on their upwards trajectory of transforming lives - not just because the people behind the numbers deserve the opportunity to better themselves, but because it will make higher education, the economy, and the country better for all of us."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of universities, said: "OFFA rightly recognise the significant investment and efforts of our universities to ensure their doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds.
"More and more disadvantaged students are studying at Russell Group universities. Young people from the most disadvantaged areas in 2014 were around 40% more likely to enter a leading university than three years ago. More than a third of our students receive a bursary or scholarship.
"Over the next few years, Russell Group universities will pump millions more into outreach activities and financial support and continue to take a range of factors into account to ensure we identify candidates with the most talent from all backgrounds.
"We are far from complacent and will continue to invest a huge amount of time, effort and resources to close the access gap.
"However, we remain concerned that OFFA's access policies risk focusing too much on regulation and not enough on resolving the real problems - namely underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course.
"Our universities want students from all backgrounds with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed. But admission to university should continue to be based on merit and fairness, with high academic standards maintained."
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: "Today's report from OFFA tells us that the increased investment in access and outreach funding in recent years has led to real improvements in access to higher education for young people from disadvantaged background.
"However, whilst entry rates for undergraduates from low-income homes are improving, a persistent access gap of over nine times remains at the most selective universities. It is vital that institutions continue and extend their outreach work to narrow that gap."