Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents



33. For many undergraduate students—and for the public perception of admission to university—the entrance process to university has almost become a national ritual revolving around the A-level results announced each August. The typical prospective student is seen as someone who, at age 17 or 18, pours over prospectuses for full-time courses and universities, makes an application, in some cases attends an interview, receives a response (or not) making a conditional offer, sits A-levels, receives the results, and, aged 18 or 19, leaves home and goes off to university for three years.

34. This is a process faced by many young people every year and is often relatively straightforward. UCAS,[55] the central clearing house for applications, processes half a million applications a year to higher education institutions. It made the point that for a "significant majority of applicants the progression from the 14-19 phase of education to higher education is smooth",[56] adding that the processing system is "highly efficient with the majority of places in [higher education institutions] confirmed within a day of the publication of GCE A-level results. For example, in 2008, 349,449 applicants (63%) had their places confirmed on 15 August 2008, out of a total of 554,499. By 8 October 2008 this percentage had risen to 81% (451,871 applicants).[57] (Though we note at paragraphs 12 to 14 that the process may not be as smooth in 2009 as in previous years.)

35. As, however, UCAS explained this is not the whole picture. First, there is a group of approximately 100,000 applicants who may be eligible to apply but fall through the system, though the reasons are not clear. This could be, for example, because they may not hold offers of places at university or they may not have met the conditions of their offer. Nor is it clear how many of this group do not have the minimum entry requirements in English and mathematics for higher education. Research carried out by UCAS into these "non-placed applicants" found that women, black and minority ethnic groups and older applicants are over-represented. The research confirmed that about one third of such students subsequently re-apply, but others may be lost for good to higher education.[58] Million+ expressed concern about this group and told us that some people found "it difficult to penetrate into universities; we are not sufficiently open and welcoming to them. [W]e have recognised that and we are trying to do a number of things; in particular, the extra energy that we are now putting into links with schools and colleges is important and overdue."[59]

36. Second, UCAS pointed out that the Leitch target[60]—of 40% of all adults in England gaining a university qualification by 2020[61] (see paragraph 142 and following)—which the Government is working to implement, will depend on improving the take-up of part-time, as well as full-time, learners. UCAS said that part-time learning was an important route to higher education qualifications, particularly for those seeking to combine work with learning. But at present, it noted that there was no shared system for admissions or single source of reliable information for part-time undergraduate courses. UCAS told us that research it had conducted suggested that potential learners and their advisers found it difficult to locate the information they needed.[62]


37. Universities UK pointed out to us that as the number of students in higher education grew from 1.8 million in 1997 to 2.4 million in 2007, during the same period the number of part-time students grew from 618,000 to 911,000, and the number of students aged over 21 grew from 1.2 million to 1.6 million.[63] Professor Ebdon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and Chair of Million+, told us that 47% of his students were "over the age of 24 before they join us, yet people always assume that students are 18-year-olds".[64] Over three-fifths (60%) of initial entrants to higher education are 17-20 year olds.[65] But, apparently drawing on the work of the Campaign for Learning, the 157 Group pointed out that this group was set to receive three-quarters (75%) of the overall funding in 2010-11.[66] The Campaign for Learning considered that young full-time higher education was effectively crowding out the other three segments of higher education,[67] which it illustrated with the box below.

Box 1: Initial Entrants (2006-07) and public funding of undergraduate higher education (2010-11) in England

The 157 Group's point—that full-time 17-20 year olds appear to receive more than their fair share of the funding—raises important questions about the allocation of higher education funding and whether higher education and further education should be supported by a single funding stream rather than the current arrangements. The apparent disparity of funding in favour of young full-time students raises questions about the justification of the balance of the allocation of resources in higher education funding between young full-time, young part-time, mature full-time and mature part-time students. The allocation of resources between these groups and the broader question of a single funding stream for higher education and further education are matters that our successor committee with responsibility for both further and higher education may wish to examine.


38. Finally, to complete the picture, the 157 Group, whose members provide higher education, pointed out that adult learners wishing to access higher education are likely to come through a further education college route. It said that for the majority of adults who wished to go on to higher education they will choose to "study locally and generally part time, owing, in part, to their own pressures and personal or family commitments"[68] and that evidence suggested that adult learners were increasingly likely to complete a Foundation Degree[69] locally and seek to "top up" with a local higher education provider.[70]

39. As well as providing qualified entrants to universities and colleges of higher education 286[71] further education colleges provide higher education courses and higher level qualifications (at levels 4 and 5), either in their own right or under partnership arrangements with higher education institutions. Professor Gareth Parry from the University of Sheffield in a submission to the 2005 Foster Review of Further Education[72] pointed out that further education colleges in England contributed "more than a third of entrants to higher education and teach one in eight of the undergraduate population. They are at the centre of policies to increase and widen participation in higher education".[73]

Fair Access

40. When the legislation introducing variable tuition fees for higher education institutions in England was under consideration in 2004, there were concerns that the amount of debt new graduates would be faced with could dissuade some potential students from entering higher education altogether (see paragraph 109 for more detail). In seeking to address these concerns, the Government established the Office for Fair Access to higher education (OFFA). Its core aims are:

    a)  to support and encourage improvements in participation rates in higher education from low income and other under-represented groups;

    b)  to reduce as far as practicable the barriers to higher education for students from low income and other under-represented groups by ensuring that institutions continue to invest in bursaries and outreach; and

    c)  to support and encourage equality of opportunity through the provision of clear and accessible financial information for students, their parents/carers and their advisers.[74]

In our view this definition appears to encompass both widening participation and fair access. For the purposes of this Report we have drawn a distinction as follows.

  • We take widening participation to be concerned with the student body, and the sector, more generally increasing the number of students from lower socio-economic (and other under-represented) groups who can benefit from higher education. (We deal with widening participation from paragraph 57 below.)
  • The term fair access has come to be associated with concern to ensure that students from poor backgrounds are enabled to enter the most prestigious universities with the most demanding entry requirements without unwarranted hurdles. But it goes wider and we take the term to mean an admissions process that ensures that there are no unwarranted obstacles in the way of applicants to prevent them from entering the institution best suited to their aptitudes and capabilities.

We agree with the view of the University of Leicester in its written submission to the inquiry that there "needs to be clear thinking and delineation between strategies to encourage wider participation […] and strategies to encourage fair access".[75] We are therefore making a distinction and dealing with fair access in this section and with widening participation separately in the following section in this chapter.


41. One of the questions we posed in the e-consultation with students was whether the admissions process for universities was fair. There was no consensus in the views expressed. A few considered the system fair, a larger group considered it fair but had reservations and a significant number considered it unfair. The view of one respondent who considered the admissions process fair was that it was working well:

    My experience of the admissions process was fantastic, I got offers from all the universities to which I applied, whilst still coming from a lower middle class background and going to a relatively average state school. When I went to interview at the two universities that required me to have one, my grades were never on the agenda even though they were not all A's, it was always "have you got any questions for us?' 'I see from your personal statement that...." and "why do you want to come to this university?" The interviewers wanted to know about me, not my grades.[76]

42. The concerns of those who considered the process fair with reservations and unfair coalesced around the same issues: A-levels and interviews. Much of the debate focussed on whether too much emphasis was placed on A-level results and how to differentiate those who obtained three As at A-level. Some considered that A-levels should be supplemented with, or replaced by, interviews as examination results reflected only a small part of an applicant's intelligence and aptitude. The countervailing view was that interviews made the process too subjective. Some considered that universities should not base their choice of students on their academic and socio-economic backgrounds but on the grades that they had worked hard to achieve at A-level. The view was also expressed that the focus on A-level results excluded adequate consideration of vocational training and other non-academic achievements and that it favoured those from good educational backgrounds.[77]


43. The last ten years have seen a significant increase in the proportion of A grades awarded in A-levels. In 1997, only 15.7%[78] of A-level examination results were A grades, but in 2008 the top mark comprised 25.9%[79] of the results awarded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the A Grade was the modal grade—that is, there were more A grades than any other. It is outside the scope of this Report to consider the reasons for this increase, but there can be little doubt that it reduces the ability of universities facing competition for places to differentiate between applicants and to judge an applicant's potential to benefit from higher education. It follows that where competition for places is fiercest—on some courses we were told that there were 20 applicants for each place[80]—universities tend to add additional entrance requirements such as interviews and examinations.

44. For example, when we visited the University of Oxford, where competition for admission to the majority of courses was strong, the staff of the university explained the admissions and selection process in detail. The University explained that the colleges and University operated the Common Framework Agreement for Admissions and under these arrangements the University and its colleges identified students, irrespective of background, who, in the University's view, would benefit from the collegiate education provided at the University. The University told us that it spent a great deal of time and energy reviewing and interviewing candidates and that even if a candidate was not invited to interview his or her application would be reviewed by at least three members of staff. In his oral evidence to us, the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Hood, explained that during the past three or four years Oxford had tried to ensure that its admission processes were "as fair as possibly they can be in terms of assessing the quality of those applicants and most particularly their potential to succeed at Oxford" and that "we have been transparent about that and we have been rigorous about it, and if those systems are fair and transparent then the outcome will […] be what the outcome is".[81] We welcome Dr Hood's emphasis on transparency.

45. During the inquiry, we noted evidence that A-levels may not provide the full measurement of a person's potential. For example, in 2005 HEFCE examined whether the school characteristics of an 18 year-old entrant with A-level qualifications to degree courses in 1997-98 could be used to determine his or her potential in higher education. The report found that:

    students from lower performing schools are not expected to do consistently better in HE than similar students from higher performing schools. However, we did find that students from non-independent schools and colleges appeared to do consistently better than students from independent schools, when compared on a like-for-like basis."[82]

46. The 2004 Admission to Higher Education Review[83] ("the Schwartz Review") concluded that its first recommended principle of admissions was that a fair admissions system should be transparent.[84] The Review also stated that it is "fair and appropriate to consider contextual factors" given the variation in learners' opportunities and circumstances.[85] The organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions said that "a number of the principles in the Schwartz Review had been successfully adopted by the higher education sector, particularly in relation to the areas of transparency, staff training and continuing professional development, aspects of professionalism and the use of technology to share resources and information".[86]


47. On contextual factors, we were interested to hear Professor Arthur, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, explain that those applying for the first time to university who had a personal, social or educational disadvantage—for example, if they came from a care background—were offered by Leeds a specific programme for entry, including a discount on A-level requirements.[87] We are aware that a number of universities follow similar policies[88] and see no reason why all universities could not develop similar approaches to encourage widening participation. We commend the University of Leeds for its programme of entry for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and conclude that this should be standard practice across the sector. In our view this practice will require higher education institutions to develop programmes for entry, which take account of contextual factors giving a discount on A-level requirements, to ensure fair access.

48. On the use of contextual factors, we consider that the Government needs to clarify its view of their use and applicability and the evidence that underpins its view. We recommend that the Government require higher education institutions, in receipt of public funds, to take contextual factors into account and to set out which ones it requires higher education institutions to take into account. In our view the Government also needs to establish whether, and to what extent, higher education institutions have adopted the findings of the Schwartz Review. We recommend that, within the next year, the Government review and report on the extent to which higher education institutions have adopted the findings of the Schwartz Review on Admission to Higher Education. The review also needs to examine the extent to which contextual factors are applied consistently across the sector. We also recommend that the Government put in place arrangements to monitor the consequences of the use of contextual factors on measures such as completion rates.


49. Universities UK was concerned not to establish a uniform or mechanistic system that "would risk trading one form of inflexibility for another" and continued that it was aiming for a system "at the level of the applicant, […] to assess their potential, not to create a simple sorting out of people according to their educational background".[89] This view has to be set within an overriding principle of fair access to all higher education institutions and in this matter we are not focussing on those institutions where competition is strongest. In our view the principle of fair access to higher education is the paramount principle that must govern admissions and we have no reservation in stating that it overrides other standard assumptions of the sector such as institutional autonomy. In our view it is unacceptable for any part of the higher education sector to cite higher education institutional autonomy as a reason to sidestep the requirement to ensure fair access.

50. We consider that, to ensure consistency and good practice on admissions across the sector, all higher education institutions should follow established practice. As Supporting Professionalism in Admissions pointed out:

    One recommendation from the Schwartz Report was the need for a central source of expertise and advice on admissions issues for higher education provider institution […] The Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) Programme was established in May 2006 to lead on the development of fair admissions, providing an evidence base and guidelines for good practice and in helping universities and colleges maintain and enhance excellence and professionalism in admissions, student recruitment and widening participation across the HE sector. SPA is a small independent programme, funded by all UK HE funding councils until 2011 and works throughout the UK to support institutions to review their policies and procedures to make them more transparent; to use fair methods that are open and accountable […]. Over the next three years SPA will focus more on working with senior management teams within institutions on topics concerning modernising admissions and the associated good practice.[90]

We also note that in 2006 the QAA produced a code of practice for admissions to higher education in higher education institutions.[91]

51. In our view, it is important that the operation and principles underpinning admissions arrangements are fully explained by all higher education institutions and that applicants know how, and against what criteria, they will be assessed. We consider that higher education institutions have nothing to lose—and potentially much to gain—by explaining not only the mechanics of their selection processes but also the principles underlying their processes and how they measure the potential of prospective students to benefit from study at their institutions. For example, in our view, it would be good practice that all applications for places should be reviewed by at least two people and that contextual factors are clearly established that can legitimately be taken into account when assessing applications. We consider that there is a role for government working with the higher education sector to agree a set of principles that apply to the admission process, which should be promulgated as a code of practice on admissions to higher education across institutions. We stress that we are not calling for a common admissions process or for government to specify the actual admissions and selection rules, but, given the diversity of higher education institutions, we conclude that the sector should have arrangements that reduce the elements of randomness and chance in the system and help ensure students to get a fairer deal.


52. Professor Arthur, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds, told us about mutual recognition of pre-admission arrangements at Leeds:

    we are partnering with ten other institutions […] many of which are in the Russell Group that have a similar programme and we are arranging to swap students, as it were. So if a student does well in our ten credit module and we make an offer and that student does not wish to come to Leeds and wishes to go to another university they can transfer that credit across.[92]

Professor Arthur explained that the arrangements at his university had the advantage that they involved direct interaction with the applicant student and "we have the security of having taken them through one of our own modules and we have seen the results; so we have evaluated their potential in a way that we are confident about the course".[93] He added that whether other universities would be "confident about our activities is up to them".[94] We consider that where universities agree to recognise each other's students—either applicants who have met their admission criteria, including those who have earned a discount on the usual entrance requirements, or students who have earned credits—such an approach could make a significant contribution to credit transfer and portability for students wishing or needing to transfer between higher education institutions and in expanding both participation and diversity in the student body. We recommend that the Government require those higher education institutions in receipt of public funds to enter mutual recognition agreements and for the terms of all agreements to be published.


53. Professor Driscoll, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, was of the view that concentration on admission of "working class" children to Russell Group universities was "very much a second or third order of importance to the unfairness of people who do not get a place in any university".[95] He pointed out that universities were "faced with record applications and over the next three years, if there is no lifting in the numbers cap[96] [on the number of admissions], […] students who could get a place in university will not get a place".[97]

54. Professor Arthur from Leeds, a Russell Group university, appeared to take a different view. He pointed out to us that nine of the members of our Committee were graduates of Russell Group institutions,[98] with the implication, so we perceived it, that graduates from the Group had better access to certain professions. The Schwartz Report noted higher education was "a valuable commodity: it can affect salary, job security and power to influence society."[99] In its submission in March 2009 to the Milburn Commission on access to the professions, the Sutton Trust said that from its comparison of the university backgrounds (in terms of the first degrees) of leading professionals what was "most striking is that almost all those in our surveys had participated in higher education and most had attended a handful of the most selective, research-led institutions."[100] The Trust set out the results in a table:

Table 2: University backgrounds broken down by profession

Oxbridge %
ST13 %[101]
"Magic Circle" Solicitors
Chief Executive Officers

The Sutton Trust also made the point that it was possible to compare the university backgrounds of the leading figures of today with their counterparts of ten or twenty years ago.[103]

Table 3: Comparing university backgrounds of those at the top of professions

Chief Executive Officers
"Magic circle" solicitors

55. The evidence from the Sutton Trust indicates that entrance to, and graduation from, certain universities has generated higher lifetime earnings and arguably greater social capital. We are not, in this Report, taking a view that this is a good or bad thing. If, however, it is the case, as the evidence appears to show, then it follows that fair access to these higher education institutions is a matter of legitimate public interest.

56. The universities in the 1994 and Russell Groups have for a variety of reasons had the greatest competition for places and they have the resources to fund intensive and demanding teaching and they also offer degrees that have been perceived as carrying a premium in the employment market. It is therefore essential that access to institutions in these Groups is fair. We consider that it is of particular importance that admission to the universities where competition is greatest must be completely fair. In our view, both fair access and widening participation are important and one cannot be traded off against the other. We consider that fair access must be seen as important by the whole higher education sector, particularly those higher education institutions that historically have generated the highest lifetime earnings and most social capital for their graduates.

Widening Participation

57. Whereas fair access is concerned with the specific institutions that students enter, and ensuring that there are no unwarranted barriers, widening participation is concerned with the student body, and the sector more generally, and ensuring, as Professor Driscoll pointed out, that those who could go to university apply and get a place.[105] The Russell Group defined widening participation as "increasing the number of students from lower socio-economic groups who can benefit from higher education".[106] We would prefer "increasing the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups and from other groups who are underrepresented in higher education who can benefit from higher education". Schemes such as that outlined in oral evidence by Professor Arthur (at paragraph 47) show that fair access and widening participation can be linked. But widening participation raises broader and complex issues.

58. The NAO (National Audit Office) provided us with a memorandum[107] setting out the findings from its reports on widening participation[108] and student retention[109] in higher education. The NAO said that:

    Access to higher education and success within it will provide most students with greater opportunities for the rest of their lives. Over their working life graduates have been shown to earn, on average, over £100,000 more than similar non-graduates with A levels.[110] Employers, the economy, and society as a whole benefit when students complete their studies.[111]

The NAO identified socio-economic background as "a strong determinant of higher education participation,"[112] adding that, while participation of young, full-time students from lower socio-economic backgrounds had improved slightly over the previous five years,[113] people from "lower socio-economic backgrounds made up around one half of the population of England, but represented 29% of young, full-time, first-time entrants to higher education".[114]

59. The NAO confirmed that "the attainment of qualifications by students at secondary school or college played a critical role in gaining access to higher education"[115] and that:

    Low achievement was the principal reason for the difference between rates of participation in higher education for different groups. Notably, all applicants with the necessary qualifications were equally likely to accept a higher education place as others with the same level of attainment, regardless of their family background.

60. The Russell Group told us that "you cannot solve decades of socio-economic inequality in this country by simply widening the gates of admissions to universities".[116] In its written evidence the Group drew attention to a number of factors affecting, and in some instances narrowing, participation in higher education:

  • Compelling evidence demonstrates how early the problem of educational inequality begins.[117] At 22 months, the link between socio-economic background and educational attainment is evident. By the age of six, middle-class children who had low scores in cognitive tests at 22 months have completely overtaken the few poorer children who had done well in those tests.
  • The socio-economic gap actually widens as children progress through school and by GCSE, the gap becomes a gulf. Attainment of 5+ good (A*-C) GCSEs varies by over 40 percentage points between the top and bottom socio-economic backgrounds (77 per cent compared to 31 per cent in 2002), so that children with professional parents are well over twice as likely to gain five or more good GCSEs than children with parents in routine occupations. Young people whose parents have degree qualifications are also disproportionately more likely to study post-16 at A-level—61 per cent of pupils with at least one parent with a degree level qualification as opposed to 27 per cent where neither parent has A-level qualifications.[118]
  • Pupils who go to independent and grammar schools are far more likely to take key subjects such as sciences, maths and modern languages. Pupils at independent schools are roughly three times more likely to be doing further maths and 2.5 times more likely to be doing a language A-level than those at comprehensive schools.
  • The number of students receiving 3+ A grades at A-level is increasing and the students achieving the top grades are studying disproportionately at independent schools.
  • This divergence in levels of attainment is accelerating instead of diminishing. The independent sector saw a 9.1 percentage point increase in the number of A grades at A-level between 2002 and 2008—from 41.3 per cent to 50.4 per cent. Over the same period, top grades in comprehensives increased by only 3.9 points to 20.4 per cent.[119], [120]

61. Further salient data was supplied to us by Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) which showed that of those reaching 19 by the end of the 2007-08 academic year (i.e. having completed GCSEs in year 11 in 2004): 41% of pupils with 7 GCSEs, grades A*-C, had not achieved a Level 3 qualification by 19; 30% of those with 8 GCSEs had not done so; 16% of those with 9 GCSEs had not; and as many as 10% of pupils—14,000—with 10 or more GCSEs grades A*-C had not progressed to Level 3 by 19.[121] Many of these young people appear to have had the qualifications to be able to continue their education to a higher level, though with the reduction in the expansion of numbers entering higher education—see paragraph 12 and following—many would not have been able to enter higher education. Pat Bacon from the 157 Group said that "we have to find a way of teasing out the brightest and best of our communities" because "there are an awful lot of young people who are not at Level 3 by the time they are 18; therefore, the opportunity for part-time study, for picking up higher education further on, is important".[122] The 157 Group called for a review of Level 3 provision,[123] which covers A-levels, diplomas and apprenticeships. It appears that not only are levels of attainment between state and independent schools diverging at Level 3 but also large numbers of able young people are not studying to Level 3, the main entrance gate to benefit from higher education.

62. We recognise the point that the Russell Group is making that much of the disparity in attainment at Level 3 is attributable to factors that occur well before application to university and that the steps that universities can take will not remove these factors. We understand that the Government may plan to review A-levels and other Level 3 qualifications in 2013.[124] In the light of the evidence we received in this inquiry we consider that such a timescale is too long: there appears to be a growing divergence between the state and independent sectors in this respect. Many able young people are failing to progress from GCSEs to Level 3 and, as we note later in this chapter, many young people are receiving inadequate careers guidance, including poor advice on suitable A-levels necessary for entry into higher education. We recommend that the Government carry out, before the next Spending Review, a full review of the provision of education at Level 3, including the Qualifications Framework and all routes into higher education, to ensure that those who have the ability to benefit from higher education have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

63. We have noted that members of the 157 Group provide higher education. In our view the review should also include an examination of the extent to which expansion of higher education in further education colleges would assist those who currently do not progress to higher education. We recommend that the review include an examination of expanding higher education provided in further education colleges, to assist those who currently could, but do not, go forward into higher education.


64. While the main levers for widening participation in higher education lie outside universities, primarily in the home and at school, this does not mean that higher education institutions have a minimal part to play in widening participation. Moreover, the factors that the Russell Group set out (see paragraph 60) have the potential to narrow participation in higher education. In our view this is an area that government needs to monitor carefully. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publishes annual performance indicators on the composition of students in individual institutions for three under-represented groups: individuals from state schools, from lower socio-economic backgrounds and from areas with low participation in higher education.[125] The benchmarks are not targets and have no financial incentives or penalties associated with them. As the HEFCE guidance on the benchmarks explained:

    Because there are such differences between institutions, the average values for the whole of the higher education sector are not necessarily helpful when comparing higher education institutions. Adjusted sector averages are therefore calculated for each institution that take into account some of the factors which contribute to differences between them. The factors are: subject of study, qualifications on entry, age on entry (young or mature). The average that has been adjusted for these factors is called the adjusted sector benchmark. The benchmark can be used by higher education institutions and others in two ways
  • to see how well an institution is performing compared with the [higher education] sector as a whole
  • to decide whether it is meaningful to compare two institutions.[126]

65. The Government's 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, included a commitment to widen participation in higher education, by helping more people from under-represented groups, particularly lower socio-economic backgrounds, to participate successfully in higher education.[127] Professor Driscoll from Middlesex University said that if "we did not have the benchmark then we cannot make progress".[128] He considered that the essence of any system that was trying to make progress was to "set as clear a target as possible and then to ask people to produce the strategies that will achieve that. The strategies we use at the moment may be failing and we may need to rethink how we can get closer to those as targets."[129]

66. We raised the issue of benchmarks for the state school participation rate (set out in the table below) with the Vice-Chancellors of Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford.

Table 4: Oxford universities' benchmarks

Indicator %
Benchmark %
Oxford Brookes University
University of Oxford

67. Professor Beer said that Oxford Brookes was "12%[131] adrift from the benchmark",[132] and she said that there was not a simple answer to missing the benchmark because "we work hard in state schools to bring in more students; we do no recruitment activity at all in private schools, nothing at all. All our money is spent on recruitment from the state school sector".[133] Dr Hood said that clearly the University of Oxford did not meet the benchmark but he considered that the benchmark was not relevant to the University given the disciplinary mix and the numbers that applied for each discipline. He pointed out:

    we would have of the order of 1,300 applicants for undergraduate medicine for 150 places. We have fewer than 300 applicants for 150 places in classics, for example. The spectrum of schools in this country does not prepare students for classics degrees—that is just one illustration—and you need to do this discipline by discipline by discipline. Another of the flaws in the comparisons that are made is to assume that the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge should be the same, but again there are disciplinary differences, for example veterinary science and architecture at Cambridge which we do not have here at Oxford, and different profiles of applicants from the different sub-sectors of the national system. […] I do not think the benchmark is appropriate.[134]

68. We found benchmarks a useful tool when carrying out our inquiry and we consider that they provide a helpful focus on widening participation for higher education institutions and also in measuring progress. They do, however, have their limitations: the case of classics at the University of Oxford showed that the application of the benchmark to that subject served no purpose as the pool of potential students come predominantly from the independent sector. As they are currently conceived and calculated, the institution-based benchmarks are in effect averages, and by definition there must be broadly as many below as above. Therefore, although they are useful as a way of seeing where an institution stands in relation to the sector as a whole (and to comparable institutions or to see changes over time), to have an outcome beneath its benchmark is not in itself indicative of unsatisfactory performance. It is a necessary feature of these benchmarks that half of all institutions will fall below their benchmarks. Subject to these caveats, benchmarks can be of use in examining the higher education sector. We conclude that the performance indicators which the Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes on the composition of students from under-represented groups in individual higher education institutions provide a useful focus for the higher education sector on widening participation and should continue to be published annually. We consider, however, that benchmarks should not be used as targets and that failure to meet benchmarks should not be used to criticise higher education institutions until they are better developed to discount all confounding factors.


69. There is a wider responsibility on government to ensure that those parts of the education system outside higher education, over which it has greater control, give individuals who could fulfil their potential at university the opportunity to participate in higher education. The NAO explained to us that HEFCE did not directly fund widening participation activities in institutions but that instead since 1999-2000, it had:

    allocated a proportion of its teaching grant based on the types of students recruited, recognising that students from under-represented groups or with lower entry qualifications were likely to cost more to teach and retain, and counteracting a disincentive to recruit them. It allocated recurrent funding for widening participation to institutions in proportion to the number of existing students from under-represented groups and gave £392 million in recurrent funding to institutions between 2001-02 and 2007-08.[135]

70. We also received a significant volume of evidence and information about outreach undertaken by the higher education sector.

  • On our visits to the University of Oxford and Imperial College London we found impressive evidence of the outreach to local schools—the Lincolnshire Access Initiative[136] and the Pimlico Connection[137] respectively.
  • Professor Arthur, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds, also told us about the Access to Leeds Programme.[138]
  • Professor Driscoll, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex, gave information about the outreach with schools in London.[139]
  • In written evidence the Flying Start Project, which is being conducted by Liverpool Hope University and the University of Derby, provided information about the Liverpool Hope University STARS project and operation of the University of Derby as the first UK integrated dual-sector institution.[140]
  • Professor Baker, Chair of GuildHE, which represents 29 higher education institutions, explained that:

    we have had very strong links with professions; and we are very much based in our communities. At Marjon,[141] we do not recruit nationally; we recruit locally, sub-regionally or regionally. That does place a very strong emphasis on building up community relations. Therefore, in my own institution for example, we do not wait until students are 17 or 18 to think about encouraging them to look at the campus; we work with people at primary school level, because the vast majority of our students are first-to-go-to-university students. One of the things you therefore have to do is to break down what might be seen as intimidatory barriers to encouraging them into higher education. It is working with the whole community; it is working with the whole family.[142]

71. Million+, which represents 28 universities, pointed out that 48% of those admitted to universities came from further education colleges.[143] In addition, as we have noted, others enter higher education in further education colleges. The 157 Group, representing the 26 largest further education colleges, pointed out that "General [further education] colleges have a higher proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic groups to [higher education] (34%) compared to 25% in Sixth Form Colleges and 8% in private schools".[144] We also noted that arrangements were evolving. John Harris from SEMTA said that:

    Two of our large engineering companies […] say that 50% of their professional engineers have come through their apprenticeship programmes, so they have come to [further education], on to [higher education], and probably through professional institutions to become chartered engineers. That is an interesting situation. I think that goes on in smaller companies but it is not so visible, but certainly in larger companies it is very visible. [We] see the diploma as a real opportunity to give young people an opportunity to learn about, in our case, engineering, […] and to find out at a fairly young age if that is what they want to do. We are confident. [We] are confident that advanced diploma graduates will be able to go into the university and continue their studies. It is a real opportunity for us.[145]

72. Ms Bacon from the 157 Group said that further education colleges had "much to offer as strategic partners"[146] and that its members were "well informed by our local communities".[147] She explained that they knew:

    what the demands are on the ground, and indeed very much welcome and hope to see more of the flexibilities to enable us to deliver. For example, I know that my staff were in a manufacturing company yesterday, helping them with some skills during the current downturn. I do not think that we need to be precious about at what level. It could be about basic skills; it could be about foundation degree level.[148]

We noted that Professor Parry in his submission to the 2005 Foster Review of Further Education[149] pointed out that:

    Where evidence is available on the background of students, the number and proportion of undergraduate entrants from lower socio-economic groups is shown to be higher for [further education colleges] than for maintained schools. Between the different types of college, the greater part of this widening participation role is played by general [further education colleges].[150]

73. We welcome the outreach to local schools and colleges that many universities undertake and the growing co-operation between higher education, schools and further education, which has the potential to widen participation in higher education. We encourage all higher education institutions to develop such partnerships. This is a key area where the Government has a responsibility—both to foster co-operation and to ensure that the split of responsibilities for education between what was DIUS, and is now BIS, and DCSF does not create obstacles. We recommend that the Government put arrangements in place to enhance the co-operation between schools, further education colleges and higher education to facilitate widening participation in higher education. It is also worth noting that other routes to strengthen outreach and co-operation between schools and universities potentially include the direct involvement of higher education institutions in school programmes and new school initiatives. The current involvement by a number of UK universities in sponsorship or support of schools should be carefully monitored to see if this provides or has the potential for this. Other elements of such co-operation could include the secondment of higher education staff or students to local schools for specific initiatives or periods or coursework at their local universities from schools. It has also to be recognised that outreach initiatives can be both demanding and time-consuming for higher education institutions.[151] We recommend therefore that the Government and HEFCE urgently examine ways in which both higher education institutions and staff are incentivised to instigate and carry out outreach initiatives. This might, for example, include ring-fenced funding of a relatively modest nature to support widening participation specifically to encourage new outreach initiatives and to recognise the specific contributions of individual lecturers and staff at higher education institutions.

74. During our visit to the US we heard how a university—Howard University in Washington DC—had effectively supported young people from socio-economically deprived wards of the city to focus on achieving excellence in STEM subjects and to improve their choices of later progression into higher education. We consider that the Government should encourage higher education institutions to pilot initiatives that have potential to increase higher education/school co-operation and facilitate wider participation.

75. We have not examined in detail in this Report the relationship between higher education and further education and this is an issue that our successor committee with responsibility for further education and higher education may wish to consider.


76. The 157 Group explained that many of its members provided foundation degrees and that "this was very much designed with an articulated progression route" to increase levels of higher education.[152] Further education colleges can be granted their own foundation degree awarding powers[153] and the Group said, as we have noted, that adult learners were "more likely to complete a Foundation Degree locally and potentially seek to 'top up' with a local HEI provider" and that providing such routes for adults in higher education was "essential to both meeting the 50% target and widening [participation]".[154] While acknowledging that the foundation degree was a qualification in its own right, the Group noted it had had ex-students "who did the foundation degree coming out of the university of their choice, in some case with First-Class Honours".[155]

77. We also heard that a "foundation year" could prepare those who had not yet acquired the skills to study at university. Professor Roger Brown, former Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent, said that the universities had to cope with a "much wider range of students from a much more diverse set of backgrounds" and that there were more students than previously who were "not well prepared for degree level entry, and this is true even for students with good A Level results".[156] He considered that if the higher education curriculum was being designed today a foundation year might be available generally. Professor Brown added that there was an issue about the extent to which the school and university curricula were drifting apart rather than coming together. He explained:

    In the old days A levels were a good proxy for first year university entry; A Levels do not fulfil that need now and therefore on the one hand you have a proliferation of rival qualifications like the pre-U, the A star, et cetera; but on the other hand of course those qualifications are being taken from pupils from a more differential range of schools. I think there is a serious issue about the mismatch between the school and the university curriculum, which individual universities—and most universities—that have similar arrangements […] cannot necessarily cope with.[157]

78. These views chimed with concerns raised by the Flying Start Project that the division of post-16 education into separately organised and funded sectors had "led to increasing differences in the types of student learning, writing and assessment that are expected at A-level and in Higher Education" and that those differences were exacerbating the "difficulties that many students experience in the transition to university study".[158] The Project said that there was a "demonstrable need for greater shared understandings of learning and assessment among practitioners" across the school, further education and higher education sectors.[159] We were concerned to be told by the Flying Start Project that:

    Post-16 education alone does not sufficiently prepare students for university study. One study showed that the majority of first year university undergraduates felt that A levels had not prepared them for university.[160] A comparative study of teaching methods found that A level students were not expected to study autonomously and development of critical analytic skills was mainly limited to preparation for specific exam questions, whereas [higher education] students were expected to be more autonomous and were encouraged to develop more general analytical skills for assessment.[161] The consequence is that many universities find themselves having to offer classes in essay writing because students are unable to write critically.[162], [163]

But, the Flying Start Project added, institutions were working together and a developing feature of post-compulsory education was the emergence of dual-sector institutions providing further education and higher education, and universities with close links to schools and further education colleges. It said that those institutions had "developed transition programmes focusing on generic study skills, peer mentoring, and residential experiences, which have been shown to improve university retention, progression and completion".[164]

Community colleges

79. When we visited the USA we discussed the operation of community colleges and visited the North Virginia Community College, which offers two-year associate degrees, one-year certificates and short career studies certificates. We found widespread support for community colleges. The American Council on Education indicated that they were the largest part of the higher education sector and were increasingly becoming the gateway to higher education. A common pattern was for a young person to enter a community college, study for two years and then take their credits and transfer to a State university from which he or she graduated after a further two years of study—known as "two-plus-two". The University of California (UCAL) Washington DC Office representatives, whom we met, commented that community colleges provided entry level to higher education for "second chancers", the opportunity for those in work to re-train and excellent vocational courses. The point was also made to us that some of the best students in UCAL had entered via community colleges and the two-plus-two route. (We should add that we are aware that some universities, especially the leading private institutions, while recognising credits accumulated by a student coming from a community college, may not accept these as sufficient for enrolment.)

80. In its evidence to us, the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning pointed out that:

    In 2002-03 over 11,000 of the 300,000 students who entered higher education institutions did so having been at a different institution in one of the preceding two years, with most of these students receiving no credit for their previous studies[…] Progress is much slower than it should be. The problem is not a technical but a cultural one. In other words, we know how to make a coherent system work, but there is a lack of political will, at system and institutional level. The flexibility which a proper credit framework brings will be all the more needed in the light of current economic turbulence and the effects this is having on employment: large numbers of adults will be seeking to improve their qualifications without having to commit themselves to a long stretch of full-time education.[165]

Credit accumulation and transfer

81. In England credit accumulation and transfer has not developed to the same extent as in the USA[166]—though we recognise that even there it is far from universal—and so for community colleges or their equivalent to be developed in England transfer arrangements would have to become more widespread. Credit accumulation and transfer also has the potential to enable greater flexibility within the higher education sector which would allow part-time and mature students, as we discuss in chapter 3, to play a significant part in meeting the Government's Ambition 2020 (see paragraph 142 and following). Professor Driscoll, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, considered that:

    we need to grasp the nettle of a national credit-based system and national credit-based funding. You will find that the universities, like mine, that have very diverse student bodies (lots of part-timers, full-timers, people moving in and out […]) are closer to what you will find, typically, in the United States than those universities that are very monolithic, most of their undergraduates are recruited […] They do not want it because they see it is a hassle, but I think we have to take a national decision on this, and it is about time we caught up with the rest of the world, we introduced a national credit-based system and we fund students on credit as well, or institutions for their teaching.[167]

82. We therefore asked John Denham for his view both of the transfer of credits between higher education institutions and of community colleges. He said that in the speech he had made in February 2008 (see paragraph 7) he had held out the prospect that students studying for a degree "might gain credits from more than one institution offering higher education and that the sector would be very likely to develop a much better system of interchangeable and mutual recognition of credits in the future".[168] He considered, however, that it was for the higher education sector and:

    not for me to describe that. That would open up the possibility of work done in one institution, possibly an FE /HE college, being a foundation for further study at another institution. Where I get nervous or just think it is not possible is the idea that there should be some central re-structuring of our institutions. The Americans have evolved quite a highly structured thing but it has evolved over time. We start from a different place.[169]

But, in addressing the question whether England should have community colleges and the two-plus-two model, he added that:

    What I am saying is the ability to follow that path is undoubtedly something for which there will be greater demand in the future. I think we will see a greater development of higher level work based learning. Foundation degrees deliver that to a considerable but not total extent. It is still actually the case that if you, for example, do an apprenticeship you reach craft level—level three—and you want to go to a higher level with the same method of learning, you will not easily always find a place in a higher education institution to do that, or necessarily in an FE/HE college. So there will be additional ways of learning to a higher level and that will be part of the system.[170]


83. While noting the Secretary of State's caution, we see advantages in the community college model: a route into higher education for those in groups traditionally not well represented in higher education; the opportunity for those with family responsibilities to enter higher education in their locality; and the facility to move on with the possibility to transfer credits earned. Translation of the model to England could lead to an enhanced role for further education colleges to provide higher education. As we have noted, 286 further education colleges already provide some form of higher education with further education colleges in England teaching around 11% of the students studying on courses leading to higher education and higher level qualifications.[171] In our view, if the community college credit system model operating in the US were adopted in England, it would provide much greater flexibility in higher education in this country, which will be essential to widening participation. We consider that one route to the introduction of the model is to expand the provision of higher education in further education colleges. As we have already noted at paragraph 39, further education colleges in England contribute more than a third of entrants to higher education and teach one in eight of the undergraduate population; and they are at the centre of policies to increase and widen participation in higher education. We conclude that the Government should accelerate the expansion of higher education provided in further education colleges.

84. We as a Committee favour the widening of the access routes into higher education but we also recognise that opening the gates wider will assist no-one if those admitted have the cognitive ability but not the learning skills to take full advantage of the benefits of higher education. When the Government comes to set out its vision for higher education over the next 10-15 years it is essential that it explains how students with the required cognitive abilities but without matching learning skills will be supported and assisted. The Government needs to set out how it wishes to see the current foundation degree arrangements evolve—particularly, how many entrants to higher education it expects to commence with a foundation year and what financial support they can expect. We recommend that the Government take immediate steps to introduce a credit transfer system which will allow credit transfer and portability between tertiary education institutions in England—that is, between further and higher and within higher education institutions.

85. As Professor Brown pointed out, setting up a system of credit transfer would require an examination of quality assurance.[172] We examine quality and standards in chapter 5. But we consider it is essential that for a system of credit transfer to operate satisfactorily the standard of credits earned by a student in say, a foundation year at one institution, would need to be recognised across the higher education sector, to enable that student to move on within higher education more widely. Higher education institutions accepting students with credits from another institution have to have confidence in the standards of the credits. In our view, a prerequisite for a system of credit transfer is a national system that validates quality assurance and the standards of credits earned by students.


86. If greater credit transfer and portability across higher education institutions were to be introduced, the higher education sector would have to put in place arrangements to follow students through to the completion of their courses. We were concerned to be informed by Professor Longden of Liverpool Hope University that failure to complete courses was often not, in his view, seen within parts of the sector as an institutional problem but was seen rather as the student's problem. He advised that it was "about saying to both parties that there is an element contributed by the student […] but there is also quite a considerable element which is the responsibility of the institution to pick up and to do something about reducing its impact."[173]

87. We acknowledge, as Universities UK pointed out, that completion rates for UK students remain well above the average for other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).[174] According to the OECD, the UK ranks fifth in terms of first-degree completion rates out of the 23 countries that report these data[175] (which, when the age participation rate is taken into account, results in the UK having one of the highest completion rates per thousand population in the world). There is, however, no room for complacency. We note that the former DIUS was committed to cutting rates of non-completion and that £245.9 million of the HEFCE's £356.3 million widening participation allocations for 2007-08 "were focused directly on improving retention rates".[176] The data may not, however, present the full picture. The English data do not, for example, include part-time students who have higher non-completion rates than full-time students.[177] We were concerned that a recent HEFCE study showed that only 39% of part-time students who began a first degree programme in 1996-97 at a higher education institution in the UK (other than the Open University) completed their degree within 11 academic years.[178]

88. When we visited universities during the inquiry we saw that the higher education sector had programmes to help new students adjust and thereby improve retention—for example, courses on essay writing and, in the USA, we were told about pre-admission intensive writing courses, adjustment programmes, counselling and mentoring. We conclude that higher education institutions should both identify and promote good practice—for example, by systematically collecting and rigorously scrutinising their own non-completion data across years and across subjects, carrying out exit interviews and surveys and by developing further their student personal advice and support systems. We also recommend that the Government investigate the reasons why the non-completion rates of part-time students are higher than those for full-time students and bring forward proposals to reduce the rates.

89. In its written evidence the University of Leicester made the point that there was "insufficient emphasis on the evaluation of widening participation activity" and said that:

    Much of current evaluation activity tends to focus on counting the volume of activity rather than the achievement of outcomes and student progression. Greater use of quantitative admissions data should be used to gauge success. For example, the evaluation of the £180m Excellence Challenge scheme, an ambitious plan launched at the turn of the decade to secure wider participation and fair access focused heavily on how the money had enabled HEIs to develop additional activity.[179]

We agree with the University. We recommend that the Government, when evaluating widening participation, examine student progression as well as numbers.

90. It is also useful to draw attention to the NAO's findings on retention. It said that much of what an institution did was "likely to affect the quality of the student experience and therefore student success and retention. There were two especially important areas where we concluded that an institution can target their work and make a difference. These were:

  • getting to know their students and how, generally, they felt about their particular course of study and the culture and amenities offered in the institution; and
  • developing a positive approach to retention-related activities that recognised how they could also improve student success, and so attract students to take up services who might otherwise not do so."[180]

The NAO's conclusions rang true with what several students told us.[181] For example, Lucy Davidson told us:

    If [the university does not] care about the people within it, you might as well not have any of it. I personally have experienced this. I'm in the first year of my nursing diploma course. My daughter was diagnosed with a very serious illness and that was when I discovered what a good university I am at. My facilitator gave me her mobile phone number, was phoning me at the hospital and I had all the support of the university, support for placement, and it has enabled me to stay on my course. Nursing is something I've wanted to do for ten years. I love it because it's rewarding, it's different every day and you're part of a team. So basically Anglia Ruskin has proved itself to me.[182]

We conclude that one of the main supports to securing wider participation is a comprehensive system of pastoral care and welfare, as well as academic, support for students by each higher education institution. We recommend that the Government place a duty of care on higher education institutions to support their students and require higher education institutions to provide a comprehensive system of pastoral and welfare support for students encompassing, for example, pre-admission courses, adjustment programmes, counselling and mentoring.

Guidance and information


91. We also asked about the quality of careers guidance. The evidence we received from students about the quality of careers advice gave us grounds for concern when we heard the following:

  • They did not encourage me to come to John Moores personally. When I told the careers adviser I was applying for John Moores he said, "I have never heard of that university before." What did the university do to get students to go?[183]
  • A lot of the push at our school was […] that they wanted a take of how many students went to Cambridge and Oxford.[184]
  • We used to have a careers lesson once a week in that they assessed the current subjects that you were studying for A-level and then pointed you in the direction of which courses were suitable. We also used certain internet websites to help us make a choice. […]My school definitely chose [higher education] first. [The student added that he received no vocational advice.][185]
  • [T]he school I was at definitely pushed towards higher education for the majority of students; in the cases where they saw it was not appropriate or there was a sensible other route they would push other people that way, but certainly as far as I was concerned they never really pushed any other options. As far as selection of the university and the school pushing me towards one or the other, there was not really any help […] They misunderstood what I was going to university for; they thought I wanted to become a mechanic and not an engineer, so consequently tried to push me away from that.[186]

92. Moreover, during our informal meeting with a group of students at Liverpool Hope University one student identified a need for careers service advisers to inform Level 3 NVQ students that this qualification provided an access route to university.[187] When we met students informally at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London we were given a similarly mixed picture. It is worth noting that several students in these groups made the point that an opportunity to visit the university and meet students and tutors was crucial to their decisions to apply to university and even to accept offers from particular universities.[188]

93. Dr Reid, an academic chemist, told us that his department selected from a diverse base of applicants and that the students, "almost invariably, have had very little advice at school level about what subjects to take at A level".[189] He said that they knew they were interested, for example, in studying chemistry but they did not have any mathematics or physics and they had "never been advised at school level that that might be a good idea".[190] The Institute of Physics, in its written memorandum, put these concerns in a wider context:

    The government sets targets for [higher education] participation regardless of the strategic needs of the country. As a consequence, university finances have been driven by the choices of often ill-informed students who have not acquired a coherent set of post-16 qualifications. The outcome has been massive student growth in certain areas, for example drama and media studies, while, as a proportion of all students, science and engineering have fallen. The notion of a "HE market", in which students make decisions based on employment opportunity, is deeply flawed. There is almost no means for any students to obtain neutral and reliable data about career and salary expectations in different subject areas and there is an urgent need for such data.[191]

94. These findings were confirmed by the NAO[192] and the student listening programme set up by DIUS in 2007. Mr Denham told us:

    One of the pieces they did in the beginning was the complaints about poor quality of information, advice and guidance. We were quite surprised […] at the number of students who are now on university courses who were saying they did not have enough advice before they went about what course they were going to do. That is leading to a major piece of work with ourselves and [the Department for Children, Schools and Families] looking at the whole issue of information, advice and guidance.[193]

95. We agree with the Institute of Physics. In our view, it is essential that the strategic needs of the country for STEM graduates are fully taken into account when the Government sets targets for the expansion of higher education. The Government must counteract any tendency within the system propelling young people to study non-STEM subjects which are perceived to make admission to university easier. As we noted in chapter 1, one step it should take is to ensure that any new places funded in higher education institutions meet the strategic needs of the country for STEM graduates.

96. The other key step is the quality of careers guidance and information available. We were disappointed by the reports of the quality of careers guidance that the students we met had received at school or college. In many cases the advice was neither comprehensive, informative nor useful. This an area that the Leitch Report[194] examined. It pointed out that research published in 2006 had found that when applicants had access to effective careers guidance they tended to make more structured and informed decisions regarding their education. It had also concluded that too few young people at age 14 were making the link between careers guidance and their personal decisions to study certain subjects.[195] We note that DCSF said in its 2008 Annual Report that it would "continue to drive up the standard of careers education in schools through the provision of good practice and training".[196] The evidence we took on careers guidance reflected some of the problems that the Leitch Report appears to have identified and it is too early to form a judgment on the effectiveness of any reforms flowing from Leitch. We conclude that currently careers guidance to those at many secondary schools is inadequate. We consider that careers guidance needs to start at key stage 3 to advise young people about their choice of GCSEs as this determines post-16 choice, including entry into higher education. While we are aware that, following the Government's acceptance of the recommendation of the Leitch Report changes are planned, we consider that the Government needs to overhaul, extend and improve the careers guidance system urgently and to ensure that young people have access to independent and also to specialist advice from industry and academia, including students. When the changes have been made, we recommend that the Government put in place clear procedures for monitoring the quality of careers guidance in schools and colleges to ensure that the improvement in quality and reach that is required has been achieved.


97. In responding to the e-consultation students who considered applying for courses at several universities explained how they reached decisions on which university to apply. The responses included:

  • consulting a guide such as the Times Good University Guide, in particular the ratings for research, pass rates, student satisfaction and figures about graduate employment;
  • for the preferred universities, examination of the entrance criteria, course content, how the course would be taught, contact time and access to tutors and the facilities available; and
  • contact with the selected universities either through open days or at interview. When visiting a university one student commented: "[I made] sure I spoke to graduates, teachers, lecturers, current students and people in the world of politics [where] I intend to focus my future career in. I found their opinions very helpful and much more accurate than my peers, [which] played on popular beliefs [and] were easily unfounded.[197]


98. We looked at a small sample of undergraduate prospectuses available on-line. They appeared to show that little or no information was provided about the nature or degree of contact which students could expect with staff or, for example, how many students would be in a group or who would teach them—academics or research students. Nor did universities appear to give students a clear idea about the work they would be expected to undertake, for example, in terms of numbers of essays, projects or assignments they would undertake during each year of study. From the evidence we took from students and from the published evidence on the study demands placed on students—see paragraph 221 and following—it was clear that time in lectures, tutorials and personal study varied between courses.[198] Whilst that is to be expected, what we found surprising was the variation in student effort required between higher education institutions for similar subjects. In addition, the size of tutorial and lecture groups varied and whether students were taught by academic staff or postgraduate students. All these issues matter to students. The importance of information about time commitments is, for example, critical for mature students. As one pointed out to us: "Getting a clear idea of the hours involved and when lectures would be was incredibly important to me because of child care".[199] We conclude that it would assist prospective students if higher education institutions presented in a consistent format, which facilitates cross-institutional comparisons, the time a typical undergraduate student could expect to spend in attending lectures and tutorials, in personal study and, for science courses, in laboratories during a week. In addition, universities should indicate the likely size of tutorial groups and the numbers at lectures and the extent to which students may be taught by graduate students. We conclude that the higher education sector should develop a code of practice on information for prospective students setting out the range, quality and level of information that higher education institutions should make available to prospective undergraduate students. Information about bursaries could also be one of the items required to be included by the code of practice on information for prospective students—see paragraph 131.

National Student Survey

99. The National Student Survey, conducted annually since 2005, runs across all publicly funded higher education institutions in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and participating higher education institutions in Scotland. Additionally, since 2008, further education colleges with directly funded higher education students in England[200] have been eligible to participate. The survey asks final year undergraduates and students in their final year of a course leading to undergraduate credits or qualifications to provide feedback on their courses in a nationally recognised format. There are 22 questions, relating to the following aspects of the student learning experience:

  • Teaching on My Course
  • Assessment and Feedback
  • Academic Support
  • Organisation and Management
  • Learning Resources
  • Personal Development
  • Overall Satisfaction.[201]

100. We commend the introduction of the National Student Survey and fully support the concept of seeking the views of students through such a survey. The Government pointed out that the most recent results from that survey show overall satisfaction remaining above 80%, at 82%.[202] It also cited an NUS student experience survey which "also showed high satisfaction levels—with 85% rating the quality of teaching and learning as good or excellent and 85% pleased they had chosen to attend university".[203] Whilst the overall satisfaction remained above 80% in these surveys, we note that the National Student Survey highlighted areas of concern and courses that received poor ratings by students across the whole higher education sector, including, for example, 33 courses at the 1994 and Russell Groups that were ranked below 2,000 in the survey of 2,175 courses.[204]

101. We accept that the National Student Survey is a good starting point but caution against an over-reliance on it. The University of Hertfordshire said that there was "a significant tension" with the National Student Survey being a tool for improvement and also used in league tables. It noted that there were "documented instances of abuse (and probably an additional unknown amount of this activity that is undetected) because moving higher in the league tables might be deemed more important than getting students to reflect fairly on their experience of an institution as part of an enhancement exercise".[205] We noted two instances where it was suggested that universities may be encouraging students filling in the Survey to be positive about the institution.[206] In our view, the results of the National Student Survey should be available to prospective students and the public and we accept that league tables which include the results of the Survey are one of the methods by which the results are given a wider audience. We consider that the tension between use of the Survey as a tool for improvement within the higher education sector and the use of its results in league tables can be reduced by strengthening and guarding its independence and integrity. We conclude that it is essential to safeguard the independence of the National Student Survey and recommend that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which has responsibility for the Survey, examine ways to bolster the independence of the survey, including bringing forward arrangements to provide the NUS with a role in promoting the integrity of the Survey.


102. The issue of university league tables came up several times during our inquiry. As Gemma Jerome, a student, explained: "It is helpful for students to be able to navigate their way through the application process and have the league tables there to compare institutions".[207] At the end of the student experience—that is at the end of the course—league tables are used to evaluate degrees, as another student, Ed Steward, told us:

    In terms of the quality of the degree a lot of how employers see degrees is dictated by the university league tables, so you have Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and all of that straight down the line. Employers will say a degree from Oxford, perfect, the top university in England, but there is a lot more to it and not enough employers drill down on that data enough to see that in fact a degree in history may be fantastic at Cambridge but a degree in sport sciences may be better from Loughborough. Depending on who you are employing and the background you want them to have, employers need to drill down on the data more and see that even though Loughborough may be further down in the league tables specific degrees from that university may be better than those offered at Oxford. It is a flaw."[208]

103. We noted that HEFCE had commissioned an investigation into league tables and their impact on higher education institutions.[209] In his foreword to the HEFCE Issues Paper published in April 2008 setting out the results of the investigation Professor David Eastwood, the former Chief Executive of HEFCE said:

    League tables are part of the higher education landscape and the newspaper calendar. They are one of the sources to which prospective students refer when making choices, and bring attention to important issues such as 'the student experience', employability and retention.

    The league tables also have a much wider impact—for example, on institutions' reputations and potentially on the behaviour of academics, businesses and potential benefactors. Governing bodies take an interest in them as a means of assessing institutional performance, sometimes seizing on them in default of other, more sensitive indicators of institutional performance.

    There clearly is a demand for league tables, but there are also questions about their quality, impact and possible perverse incentives. Concerns have been raised about the compilers' choice of indicators, the validity of the methodologies which are employed, the transparency of the processes and the robustness of the rankings. […] This research throws a considerable amount of light on the approaches and limitations of different league tables and the way universities and colleges respond to them. We hope the debate will lead to improvements to league table methodologies; enable users to better understand the complexities of the league tables, and avoid misunderstanding them; and to help higher education institutions develop approaches that help them satisfy the legitimate information needs of their stakeholders.[210]

League tables also have an international reach as universities in the UK are increasingly compared with institutions across the world and help in attracting overseas students.

104. In our view, it is a case of acknowledging that league tables are a fact of life and we welcome the interest that HEFCE has taken in league tables and their impact on the higher education sector. We have not carried out an exhaustive examination of league tables but on the basis of the evidence we received we offer the following views, conclusions and recommendations as a contribution to the debate on league tables which HEFCE has sought to stimulate and to improve the value of the tables to, and usefulness for, students. We conclude that league tables are a permanent fixture and recommend that the Government seek to ensure that as much information is available as possible from bodies such as HEFCE and HESA, to make the data they contain meaningful, accurate and comparable. Where there are shortcomings in the material available we consider that the Government should explore filling the gap. We give two examples. First, the results from the National Student Survey are produced in a format which can be, and is, incorporated into league tables.[211] It appears to us therefore that additional information or factors taken into account in the National Student Survey would flow through to, and assist those consulting, league tables. To assist people applying to higher education we recommend that the Government seek to expand the National Student Survey to incorporate factors which play a significant part in prospective applicants' decisions—for example, the extent to which institutions encourage students to engage in non-curricula activities and work experience and offer careers advice.

105. Second, Professor Driscoll from Middlesex University considered that league tables neglected "the contribution that universities that have focused on widening participation, like Middlesex, make to raising skills and educational levels in this country".[212] In other words, the National Student Survey as presently constituted does not assess the "value added" offered by individual institutions. We recommend that the Government produce a metric to measure higher education institutions' contribution to widening participation, use the metric to measure the contribution made by institutions and publish the results in a form which could be incorporated into university league tables.

55   Universities and Colleges Admissions Service Back

56   Ev 453, para 4.2 Back

57   Ev 453, paras 4.4-4.5 Back

58   Ev 454, para 4.6 Back

59   Q 58 Back

60   See para 6. Back

61   DIUS, World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England, Cm 7181, July 2007, p 9; DIUS, Investing in our Future: Departmental Report 2008, Cm 7392, May 2008, p 68 Back

62   Ev 454, paras 4.10-4.13; see also Ev 311 (Million+) paras 3, 7 and Ev 236 (The Inquiry Into The Future For Lifelong Learning), para 2.  Back

63   Ev 438, para 13 Back

64   Q 3 (Professor Ebdon) Back

65   Campaign for Learning, Higher Education and the Cuckoo In The Nest: Getting beyond the fixation with full-time study by young people, December 2008, para 8 Back

66   Q 80 Back

67   Campaign for Learning, Higher Education and the Cuckoo In The Nest: Getting beyond the fixation with full-time study by young people, December 2008, para 8 Back

68   Ev 323, para 8; see also "Patterns in higher education: living at home", HEFCE 2009/20. Back

69   Foundation Degrees are higher education qualifications that combine academic study with workplace learning. They have been designed jointly by universities, colleges and employers, and are available in a range of work-related subjects (from Directgov website,

The minutes from Foundation Degree Forward's Board Meeting of 19 February 2009 state that "HEFCE has released data indicating that over 87,000 students are enrolled on Foundation degree courses in 2008-09. This is a substantial growth on last year's figures and means the 100,000 target is within reach (and possibly achievable a year early)."  Back

70   Ev 323, para 8 Back

71   "Supporting higher education in further education colleges: Policy, practice and prospects", HEFCE 2009/5, p 8; and see also para 1. Back

72   "Realising the Potential: A review of the future role of further education colleges", Sir Andrew Foster, November 2005,  Back

73   "Foster Review of FE 'think piece' The higher education role of further education colleges", Gareth Parry, University of Sheffield",  Back

74   OFFA, Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08, HC (2007-08) 513, p 10 Back

75   Ev 287, para 1 Back

76   Ev 167 Back

77   Ev 167-68 Back

78   "Another A-level record, another round of qualms", The Independent, 16 August 2007 Back

79   A-level results published by the Joint Council for Qualifications on 14 August 2008 at  Back

80   Q 27 (Professor Grant) Back

81   HC 370-ii, Q 189 Back

82   HEFCE, Schooling effects on higher education achievement: further analysis-entry at 19, February 2005/09, para 6 Back

83   Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice, September 2004 Back

84   Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice, September 2004, para 5.1, Principle 1 Back

85   Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice, September 2004, para C4; see also paras 4.4, 4.5, 6.6, B9, B11 and B17. Back

86   Ev 255, para 1.6 Back

87   Q 390; see also Qq 391 and 401. Back

88   Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice, September 2004, para B9 Back

89   Q 33 Back

90   Ev 254, para 1.2 Back

91   QAA, "Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education Section 10: Admissions to higher education", September 2006  Back

92   Q 401 Back

93   Q 404 Back

94   As above Back

95   Qq 405, 407 Back

96   See para 12. Back

97   Q 405 Back

98   Q 434 Back

99   Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice, September 2004, para 2.1 Back

100   "The Educational Backgrounds of Leading Lawyers, Journalists, Vice Chancellors, Politicians, Medics and Chief Executives", The Sutton Trust submission to the Milburn Commission on access to the professions, March 2009, p 8 Back

101   The Sutton Trust defines this group as the 13 universities that came top of an average ranking of newspaper league tables in 2000. They are: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York. Back

102   This figure appears incorrect as ST13 includes Oxford and Cambridge, the total for which is 45. Back

103   "The Educational Backgrounds of Leading Lawyers, Journalists, Vice Chancellors, Politicians, Medics and Chief Executives", The Sutton Trust submission to the Milburn Commission on access to the professions, March 2009, p 9 Back

104   The Sutton Trust defines this group as the 13 universities that came top of an average ranking of newspaper league tables in 2000. They are: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York. Back

105   Qq 405-06 Back

106   Ev 405 Back

107   Ev 503 Back

108   National Audit Office, Widening participation in higher education, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Session 2007-2008, HC 725 Back

109   National Audit Office, Staying the course: the retention of students in higher education, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Session 2006-2007, HC 616 Back

110   DIUS, unpublished analysis; PricewaterhouseCoopers/Universities UK, Research Report, The economic benefits of a degree, 2007; cited by the NAO at Ev 512, para 3. Back

111   Ev 503, para 3 Back

112   Ev 505, para 8 Back

113   The NAO report was published in June 2008, but its field work is likely to have been carried out before that date.  Back

114   Ev 505, para 8 Back

115   Ev 505, para 10 Back

116   Q 39 Back

117   L Feinstein, Pre-school Educational Inequality? British children in the 1970 cohort, London Center for Economic Performance, 1999; cited by the Russell Group at Ev 401. Back

118   Department for Education and Skills, Youth Cohort Study: The Activities and Experiences of 16 Year Olds in England and Wales, 2002 at wttp://; cited by the Russell Group at Ev 404. Back

119   Joint Council for Qualifications (2008): 14 August 2008 press conference; cited by the Russell Group at Ev 405. Back

120   Ev 404-05 Back

121   Table showing progression to Level 3 at 19 by year 11 attainment   (19 in 2008 cohort, numbers rounded to nearest thousand, rates to nearest whole number)
Year 11 GCSEs at Grades A*-C (including GNVQ equivalents)
L3 at 19
L3 at 19 rate

Source: DCSF, Matched administrative data, 19 in 2008 cohort; supplied in unpublished e-mail Back

122   Q 89 Back

123   As above Back

124   DCSF, Promoting achievement, valuing success: A strategy for 14-19 qualifications, March 2008, para 21 Back

125   NAO, Widening participation in higher education, HC (2007-08) 725, paras 1 and 7; see also Ev 505 (NAO), para 11 ff. Back

126   "Better higher education performance indicators", HEFCE News Release, 19 July 2007 Back

127   Department for Education and Skills, The future of higher education, Cm 5735, pp 5 and 92 Back

128   Q 400 Back

129   As above Back

130   "Table T1b Young full-time undergraduate entrants 2007/08", HESA,  Back

131   The latest figures in the table reproduced above show a 16% disparity, rather than the 12% cited by Professor Beer. Back

132   HC 370-ii, Q 179 Back

133   HC 370-ii, Q 181 Back

134   HC 370-ii, Q 182 Back

135   Ev 506, para 21 Back

136   The Lincolnshire Access Initiative at the University of Oxford has been running since 2000, and aims to encourage applications to Oxford from students in Lincolnshire, North and NE Lincolnshire. The initiative operates on behalf of the university as a whole, and it also works jointly with Cambridge University to encourage applications from all types of schools and colleges in the region, but particularly those from the maintained sector. The initiative also aims to raise the higher education aspirations of both sixth formers and younger students. Back

137   The Pimlico Connection is a student volunteering activity that has been running at Imperial College since 1975. It offers state schools in London (both primary and secondary) that are close to the main college campus, the chance to have Imperial College undergraduates assisting in science, maths, ICT or D&T classes on a Wednesday afternoon between November and March every year. As well as providing assistance they act as role models. See also Ev 157 (Informal meeting with staff at Imperial College London). Back

138   Qq 388-91 Back

139   Q 392 Back

140   Ev 304, paras 8-9. The submission explained that:

The Liverpool Hope University STARS project is a Compact Scheme where 120 year-12 students from 22 local schools work with Hope undergraduate student mentors in a programme of monthly contact, special events and a four-day project focused on writing for assessment at A level. The programme focuses on the synoptic A level paper and reflective writing, as well as transferable competencies related to university assessment criteria.

At the University of Derby, the first UK integrated dual-sector institution, there is a further education college offering A levels on over 16 subjects, and a Compact Scheme with over 50 partner schools, whose students made over 11,000 individual applications to study at HE at the University in 2006-07. Over 90% achieve the grades they need and over 70% go on to enrol. The Compact Scheme employs undergraduate students as mentors and Compact Assistants in schools and colleges (, as well as operating an award-winning web site providing information about choosing courses, applying to university, study skills and being an effective student. Back

141   University College Plymouth St Mark and St John Back

142   Q 82 Back

143   Q 38 (Professor Ebdon) Back

144   Ev 322, para 4 Back

145   HC 370-iii, Q 409 Back

146   Q 111 Back

147   As above Back

148   As above Back

149   "Realising the Potential: A review of the future role of further education colleges", Sir Andrew Foster, November 2005,  Back

150   "Foster Review of FE 'think piece' The higher education role of further education colleges", Gareth Parry, University of Sheffield",  Back

151   See also para 149. Back

152   Q 79 Back

153   Section 19 of the Further Education and Training Act 2007 enables the Privy Council to grant powers to award foundation degrees to further education institutions in England.  Back

154   Ev 323, para 8 Back

155   Q 79 Back

156   Q 393; see also Q 486. Back

157   Q 393 Back

158   Ev 302 Back

159   Ev 303, para 2 Back

160   Keverne Smith, School to university: an investigation into the experience of first-year students of English at British Universities, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 2004, Vol 3, No 1, pp 81-93 Back

161   Gillian Ballinger, Bridging the gap between A level and degree: some observations on managing the transitional stage in the study of English Literature, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 2003, Vol 2, No 1, pp 99-109  Back

162   "A level students unable to write essays", The Times, 15 August 2007 Back

163   Ev 303, para 1 Back

164   Ev 303, para 3 Back

165   Ev 236, section 1 Back

166   HEPI, Credit Accumulation and Transfer, and the Bologna Process: an Overview, October 2004, pp 22-25 Back

167   Q 442 (Professor Driscoll) Back

168   Q 503 Back

169   As above Back

170   Q 506 Back

171   Ev 299 (Learning and Skills Council), paras 5-6; HEFCE, Supporting higher education in further education colleges Policy, practice and prospects, HEFCE 2009/05, March 2009, p 8.  Back

172   Q 395 Back

173   HC 370-i, Q 68 Back

174   Ev 438, para 13; see also Ev 508 (NAO), para 31 ff. Back

175   DIUS, Investing in our Future: Departmental Report 2008, Cm 7392, May 2008, p 70 Back

176   As above Back

177   HEFCE, Part-time first degree study Entry and completion, May 2009/18 Back

178   HEFCE, Part-time first degree study Entry and completion, May 2009/18, para 55 Back

179   Ev 287, para 3; see also Ev 182 (Professor Gorard) Back

180   Ev 508, para 30 Back

181   As well as the example cited: Q 184 (Ms Donaghy); Q 203 (Mr Sarfo-Kantanka); Q 230 (Mr Raja); Q 237 (Mr Harris); Qq 239 and 251 (Mr Pollard); Q 247 (Mr Harris); HC 370-i, Q 120 (Mr Nussey); HC 370-i, Q 135 (Ms Rowley); HC 370-ii, Q 300 (Mr Andrews); HC 370-ii, Q 324 (Ms Pitt); HC 370-ii, Q 324 (Mr Child); HC 370-ii, Q 325 (Ms Edwards) Back

182   Q 225 Back

183   HC 370-i, Q 106 Back

184   HC 370-i, Q 108 Back

185   HC 370-ii, Qq 302-05 Back

186   HC 370-ii, Q 308 Back

187   Ev 160 Back

188   Ev 162, Ev 158 Back

189   Q 486 Back

190   As above Back

191   Ev 230, para 5 Back

192   Ev 508, para 25 Back

193   Q 539 Back

194   See para 6. Back

195   HM Treasury, Leitch review of skills: Prosperity for all in the global economy-world class skills, Final Report, 2006, para 6.16 Back

196   DCSF, Departmental Report 2008, Cm 7391, May 2006, p 47  Back

197   Ev 168-69 Back

198   Qq 195-199; HC 370-i, Qq 119-135; HC 370-ii, Q 322; Ev 158-59 (Informal meeting with students at Imperial College London); Ev 160 (Informal meeting with Liverpool Hope students); Ev 164 (Informal meeting with University of Oxford students) Back

199   HC 370-ii, Q 310 (Ms Edwards) Back

200   See footnote 3. Back

201   Information taken from the website of the National Student Survey at

202   Ev 178, para 39 Back

203   As above Back

204   "Angry students expose worst-taught degrees", The Sunday Times, 17 May 2009 Back

205   Ev 294, para 16 Back

206   Q 416; "'A hotchpotch of subjectivity' the National Student Survey was a key indicator in the Guardian's university league tables. But is it fair?", The Guardian, 19 May 2009 Back

207   HC 370-iii, Q 436 Back

208   HC 370-iii, Q 431 Back

209   HEFCE, Counting what is measured or measuring what counts? League tables and their impact on higher education institutions in England, Report to HEFCE by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI), Open University, and Hobsons Research, HEFCE Issues Paper, April 2008/14, p 4 Back

210   HEFCE, Counting what is measured or measuring what counts? League tables and their impact on higher education institutions in England, Report to HEFCE by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI), Open University, and Hobsons Research, HEFCE Issues Paper, April 2008/14 Back

211   "Good University Guide 2010: How the tables work", The Times, 3 June 2009, stated: "The National Student Survey (NSS) was the source of the Student Satisfaction data. This was an initiative undertaken by the Funding Councils for England, Northern Ireland and Wales designed, as an element of the quality assurance for higher education, to inform prospective students and their advisers in choosing what and where to study. The survey encompasses the views of final year students on the quality of their courses". Back

212   Q 416 Back

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