The gap in HE participation between those from the richest and poorest families has been narrowing over the last decade. The gap in participation at age 18 or 19 between state school students from the most and least deprived fifths of the population fell from 40 percentage points in 2004-05 to 37 percentage points in 2009-10 with much of that narrowing occurring after the tuition fee cap was raised to £3,000 in 2006-07. This may reflect the fact that, contrary to popular beliefs, the new regime introduced in 2006-07 was actually more generous to students from poorer backgrounds and hit richer students relatively harder.

The current government is looking to offset possible effects of increasing the fee cap to £9,000 by introducing a National Scholarship Programme (NSP) aimed at providing bursaries and fee waivers to poorer students. In its first year the NSP will cost the government £50 million, and universities must match the funds. But the programme is being administered separately, and differently, by each university and for students entering a majority of universities they cannot be sure in advance what level of support they will receive. The effectiveness of this financial support in encouraging participation of students from poorer backgrounds is likely to be undermined by these levels of complexity and uncertainty.

These are the key findings of two new pieces of research published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which will be presented as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science on Friday 9 November.