Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


Section 2: Increasing Access by Encouraging Applications

16. In addressing concerns about under-representation of certain student groups in higher education it is too easy to overlook progress already made. Access to higher education by women, mature students and part-time students is much greater than it was 20 years ago.[13] Students from ethnic minorities are now generally well represented, with the exception of some specific groups such as Bangladeshi and Pakistani women and Afro-Caribbean men.[14] Despite these improvements, there remains a significant problem with the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who enter higher education.

Promoting wider access

  17. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) told the Sub-committee that students from poor backgrounds are still "badly under-represented in universities".[15] Baroness Blackstone, the Minister for Higher Education, noted that currently approximately 80 per cent of the children of professional and managerial groups enter higher education, but only about 17 per cent of the children of lower socio-economic groups. She argued that this did not reflect the different abilities of the two groups, but a variety of environmental factors and different levels of opportunity and support.[16]

18. The oral and written evidence we have taken makes clear that much is already being done by universities and colleges to widen access. The underlying causes of lower levels of participation from particular social groups are complex. This was emphasised by Professor Gareth Williams of the Institute of Education, who thought there were three 'intractable' problems:

  • low participation in some disciplines, especially those regarded as economically important,
  • the relative difficulty of raising levels of participation in some social groups, especially lower socio-economic groups and some ethnic minorities, and
  • ensuring those who enter higher education complete what they set out to do.[17]

15. HEFCE told us that the prospects for widened participation could be transformed when schools succeed in persuading students from poor backgrounds to stay on in school beyond the age of 16. Another factor is disproportionate rates of success in examinations at age 18. Furthermore, for any given A level points score, some 18 year old school leavers from less advantaged socio-economic groups demonstrate less likelihood of applying for higher education, reflecting aspects of what others of our witnesses have referred to as a culture of non-participation.[18] There are also anxieties that selection decisions may be affected by characteristics and behaviour associated with social origins and the type of secondary education experienced. Finally—but by no means exhaustively—the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who successfully complete their courses is also lower. The reasons for non-completion are among the issues being examined by the Education Sub-committee in its current inquiry into student retention.

Encouraging applications

  16. Only some of these causes are amenable to direct intervention by higher education institutions. Others require both direct and indirect action by Government and official agencies. Such action cannot wait until potential students are called upon to take decisions about their futures. The provision made for mature and adult students, has been and continues to be immensely valuable. But it cannot always compensate for inability or failure to take advantage of earlier educational opportunities. Action to improve access needs to be initiated in both primary and secondary schools, working with families and young people's out-of-school activities and in partnership with colleges and universities where appropriate. We indicate later in this report some actions to enhance access we believe should be taken now. We suggest others the potential of which should be examined in greater detail.

The extent of non-participation in higher education

  17. The UCAS data archive includes information on the home address, educational background and qualifications of students applying to higher education; ethnic origin data; social class data and gender data. These permit analysis, at the level of post-codes, on recruitment to higher education. This detailed analysis has only recently become available and some of our witnesses noted that the lack of such information in the past had caused difficulty with examining the issue of low participation in higher education by certain social groups.[19]

18. The Four Counties Widening Participation Group (comprising the local training and enterprise council (GO-East), Norwich School of Art & Design, University of Cambridge, Homerton College, Anglia Polytechnic University, Open University, University of Essex, University of East Anglia and Writtle College) was funded by HEFCE to consider participation in higher education by the 18-25 age group. The research considered:

  • why the entrance rate into higher education was lower in this English region than any other,
  • whether there were geographical patterns which accounted for this low participation rate, and
  • the consequences for education providers in the region of this low participation rate.

19. The research produced by the Four Counties Group characterized certain types of area as 'educational cold spots'.[20] This are to be contrasted with so­called 'hot spot' areas which, on the basis of information now available, can be identified as areas where participation rates in higher education are very high, despite relatively high levels of deprivation. Within 'hot' and 'cold' spots there were various wards where the participation of young people in higher education 'bucked the trend' for that area.[21] Local cultural attitudes, such as the need to "be [economically] useful and get a job," and distrust of debt also played a part in decisions about higher education participation.[22]

20. We found the Four Counties Group's evidence indicative of the kind of work that is required to pin-point over a longer period the barriers to participation in higher education in particular areas. We recommend that the Government should commission further research into differences in participation rates between areas of similar social composition in other parts of England in order to supply robust data on the basis of which effective policies may be developed. We recommend that Regional Development Authorities, Learning and Skills Councils and Regional Assemblies, where proposed, should take a lead role in partnership with higher education institutions in addressing geographic areas of under participation, so-called 'cold spots'. Given the different financial support packages now present north and south of the border, differing trends in higher education applications and participation could provide other sources of comparative data.

Performance indicators in higher education

  21. In 1999 HEFCE published for the first time a set of performance indicators for all publicly funded higher education institutions.[23] The indicators provided measures of performance with respect to widening access, student progression, outcomes of learning and teaching, learning and teaching efficiency and research output. HEFCE intend these data to be an annual series. The second volume of performance indicators was published in October 2000.[24]

22. As the higher education sector is very diverse, HEFCE calculated adjusted sector benchmarks to aid interpretation of the complex data sets across the different higher education institutions. Of most interest to our inquiry have been the widening access benchmarks for the proportion of social classes IIIm, IV and V[25] who are admitted by each institution, the proportion of students admitted from neighbourhoods with a low rate of participation in higher education and the proportion of students from state schools admitted by each institution.

23. The performance indicators are designed to allow direct comparison to be made between institutions, and between an institution and the higher education sector as a whole. The benchmarks are adjusted for each institution to allow for the entry qualification profile of the institution's students and the subject range offered by the institution. The benchmarks do not take account of the regional factors which may contribute to a particular application profile for individual institutions, such as the presence or absence of a hinterland of low-income applicants. The benchmarks are calculated against averages for the higher education sector, so HEFCE caution that small differences are to be expected. The benchmark for a particular institution is essentially the average value of that indicator taken for all institutions in the sector, but allowing for the subject and entry qualification profile of the institution. It means that an institution which is predominantly science and engineering, for example, will have a benchmark which is largely based on the characteristics of science and engineering students across the sector, while an arts college will have a benchmark based on the characteristics of creative arts students across the sector.

24. To determine whether the difference between an institution's benchmark and its actual performance was significant, HEFCE calculated the standard deviation of the difference between these two figures for each institution. A standard deviation indicates the amount by which a statistic could change based solely on chance fluctuations.[26]

13  Ev. p. 86, para 3. Back

14  Ev. p. 86, para 3. Back

15  Ev. p. 86, para 10. Back

16  Q. 1118. Back

17  Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance, Research Volume, Gareth Williams, Making wider access a reality, para 5. Back

18  QQ. 384, 452 and 509. Back

19  Q. 309. Back

20  Eastern Region Four Counties Consortium of Higher Education Institutions, Participation Patterns in Higher Education in The Four Counties, paras 11.4-11.7. Back

21  Eastern Region Four Counties Consortium of Higher Education Institutions, Participation Patterns in Higher Education in The Four Counties, para 11.2. Back

22  Eastern Region Four Counties Consortium of Higher Education Institutions, Participation Patterns in Higher Education in The Four Counties, para 11.5. Back

23  Higher Education Funding Council for England, Performance indicators in higher education, December 1999. Back

24  Higher Education Funding Council for England, Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, October 2000. Back

25  HEFCE adopt the Standard Occupational Classification, based on parental occupation: I professional, II intermediate, IIIn skilled non-manual, IIIm skilled manual, IV semi-skilled and V unskilled. Back

26  Additional information on the calculation of the adjusted sector benchmarks and calculation of the standard deviation of the difference between institutions' performance and their benchmark can be found in Annex B of Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, HEFCE, October 2000. Also see Back

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Prepared 8 February 2001