Report looks at higher education participation

26 February 2009

The Public Accounts Committee today publishes a report examining progress in widening participation in higher education.

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"A lot of money, £392 million over five years up to 2007-08, was allocated to the universities to increase the proportion of working class youngsters who go on to university courses. It is dismaying that government seems to have little idea what the universities have been doing with this money. Certainly, progress has been poor. The rate at which working class young people participate in higher education has increased by only two percentage points.

"The newer universities are doing better than the more traditional ones, especially those in the Russell group, at attracting young people living in deprived areas. That is not surprising - but the universities that consistently fail to improve the proportion of under-represented groups in their student population should sign up to improvement plans agreed with the Funding Council.

"It is of crucial importance to raise the aspirations of talented pupils from backgrounds where going to university is considered “not for people like us” or the idea of doing so is never even entertained. Every school should have contact with at least one university. And every university should engage with schools in disadvantaged areas. There is also a crying need for good face-to-face guidance for younger pupils on what they would need to do to gain access to the right university course and what financial support is available.

"No pupil from a deprived area should miss out on a potentially life-changing university education simply as a result of poor or non-existent guidance and advice."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its fourth report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, examined progress in widening participation in higher education.

Whilst overall participation in higher education has increased since 1999–2000, particular groups remain under-represented. Men from lower socio-economic backgrounds are significantly under-represented, particularly those from white ethnic backgrounds, as are young people living in deprived areas compared with the general population. Socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity and place of residence all influence the likelihood of an individual attending higher education, primarily because of their effect on attainment at school. GCSE performance is a strong predictor of higher education participation.

Between 2001–02 and 2007–08 the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (the Department) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (the Funding Council) allocated £392 million of widening participation funding to higher education institutions (hereafter ‘universities’). Despite the substantial amount of expenditure, progress in widening participation has been slow.

Performance across the higher education sector varies. Overall, there is an improving trend in the participation of students coming from state schools, low participation neighbourhoods and lower socio-economic backgrounds. Some universities, however, perform significantly better or worse than expected and this varies by university type. The Russell Group of universities (16 self-selected major research intensive universities in England) in particular generally perform poorly. Accountability for performance remains weak because the Funding Council does not require universities to provide information on widening participation activities and expenditure. This should improve with the planned reintroduction of the requirement for universities to report on their widening participation strategies and activities.

Universities have a role to play in widening participation by working with schools to increase the pool of pupils who aspire to participate in higher education. Some run outreach activities with the aim of raising aspirations and achievement, for example, by providing advice and guidance at increasingly younger ages, and offering role models through mentoring. To be more effective, universities need to target schools in disadvantaged areas to reach those most in need.

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