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


Memorandum 2

Submission from Professor Stephen Gorard[4]

STUDENTS AND UNIVERSITIES

Admissions

    — Insofar as it is possible to conclude, the stratification of admissions to HE is not related, in general, to the admissions process. — We have very little reliable evidence of the success or otherwise of any widening participation initiatives, for two main reasons.— None of the initiatives have been evaluated properly, rigorously and independently. In fact, the overall quality of work on this area is often poor, reliant on post hoc data dredging, and confounded by missing comparators, inappropriate analyses, and unwarranted conclusions.— The standard official data on admissions, while the best available for analysis, is not complete enough to allow monitoring of what are often very small groups of potentially disadvantaged students.

    — Insofar as we can tell from these figures, the most likely under-represented groups in HE have traditionally received the least attention in widening participation activities—these are males, and those describing their ethnicity as "white".

    — Participation is heavily predictable from earlier events and background characteristics. This calls into question the importance of overcoming the purported barriers to participation.

  This is a summary of selected findings based on a number of research studies, including work for the Rees review of student financing in Wales (2006), a review of evidence on WP in England for HEFCE (2006-07), a chapter on the barriers to lifelong learning for DIUS (2008), two systematic reviews on ethnic minority post-16 participation for DCSF (2007-08), and two reviews of evidence relating to participation in science and maths for the Royal Society (2007-08).

  I attach three papers with further details on some aspects of the above:

        Gorard, S. (2008) Who is missing from higher education?, Cambridge Journal of Education, 38, 3, 421-437

        Gorard, S. and Smith, E, (2007) Do barriers get in the way? A review of the determinants of post-16 participation, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 12, 2, 141-158

        Gorard, S. and Smith, E. (2006) Beyond the "learning society": what have we learnt from widening participation research?, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25, 6, 575-594

  Full reports are also available on all of the above, and a longer discussion of many of these points appears in the book [not attached]:

        Gorard, S., with Adnett, N., May, H., Slack, K., Smith, E. and Thomas, L. (2007) Overcoming barriers to HE, Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

  Viewing the evidence on admissions to HE in lifelong order is an important corrective for some apparently erroneous conclusions. It is clear that inequalities between socio-economic groups appear early in life and remain important in attainment at school, in the range of the options available and selected at age 14 and 16, qualifications at age 18, and in the decision to participate in higher education or not. Overcoming the identified barriers to post-18 participation may be an important step for some individuals, but the evidence is that the role of these barriers is marginal once a relatively stable learner identity has been formed by these prior events. Put simply, by the age of 18 participation in HE is not considered as an option by many. Thus, all WP initiatives tend to attract and benefit the "usual suspects". Participation in HE (and choice of institutions within HE) is selective. Therefore, policy-makers in England are in the peculiar position of not allowing HE institutions to select their student intake on the basis of factors such as social class, sex or immigrant status, but at the same time knowing that the qualifications that are being used for selection are unequally distributed by these same factors.

  Perhaps the most important target of widening participation activity has been tackling the apparent under-representation of less advantaged socio-economic groups. Tables 1 and 2 present a historical breakdown of the student body in the UK by social class (Registrar General's previous and current scales). They show that students from 1996-2001 come from predominantly professional and intermediate backgrounds (I/II), with few from part-skilled and unskilled backgrounds (IV/V). This pattern changes very little over the time period shown (despite the change in classification from 2002 onwards). The most consistent change has been in the growth of those students of unknown occupational class. It is important to note that occupational groups are not evenly divided in the population, and we would expect there to be many more individuals in HE from class II than from class IV, for example. And this is what we find. The dominance of certain social groups in HE is partly a function of their numerical frequency in the population which changes over historical time, to an extent that is not always made clear in media and policy reports.

Table 1

PERCENTAGE OF ALL HE STUDENTS BY SOCIAL CLASS, UK, 1996-2001


1996
1997
1998
1999
2000
2001

Professional
15
13
13
13
13
12
Intermediate
39
39
39
38
38
37
Skilled manual
15
15
15
15
14
15
Skilled non-manual
12
12
12
12
12
12
Partly skilled
7
8
8
8
8
7
Unskilled
2
2
2
2
2
2
Unknown
10
12
12
13
13
15


  Source: UCAS.

Table 2

PERCENTAGE OF ALL HE STUDENTS BY OCCUPATIONAL CLASS, UK, 2002-05


2002
2003
2004
2005

Higher managerial
19
18
18
17
Lower managerial
25
25
25
24
Intermediate
13
12
12
12
Small employers
6
6
6
6
Lower supervisory
4
4
4
4
Semi-routine
10
11
11
11
Routine
5
5
5
4
Don't know
18
20
20
23


Source: UCAS.

Note: for the 2001 population census a new Registrar General's scale of occupational class was used, and official figures hereafter use this different scale. Don't know includes never worked, long-term unemployed (and unknown or invalid response)

  Tables 3 and 4 show that across the UK home countries the reason that social classes I and II predominate in HE is that they predominate in applications for HE. These figures make it clear that the inequity, if it occurs, does not take place in the admissions process. In fact, acceptances to HE (table 4) are slightly more balanced in terms of social class than applications (table 3). If anything, the admissions process favours classes IIIN-V but this difference is very small compared to the growth from application to acceptance of those whose social class is unknown (as above).

Table 3

APPLICATIONS HE 2001-02


Wales
England
Scotland
NI
UK

I/II
53
52
55
42
52
IIIN-V
37
36
35
48
36
Not known
10
12
10
11
12


  Source: UCAS database.

Table 4

ACCEPTED HE 2001-02


Wales
England
Scotland
NI
UK

I/II
50
50
51
44
50
IIIN-V
37
35
35
46
36
Not known
13
15
15
10
15


Source: UCAS database.

  It is very difficult to establish a clear count of UK higher education students in terms of the categories used for widening participation, such as occupational background or ethnicity. Using some of the best and most complete data available, such as the annual figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there is little evidence of a simple consistent pattern of under-representation within these categories, except perhaps for men, and students of white ethnicity. However, once prior qualifications are taken into account, there is no evidence that potential students are unfairly and disproportionately denied access to HE in terms of occupation, ethnicity, sex or disability. This has important implications for what we mean by widening participation in HE, and how we might achieve it.

  This leads to a consideration of the quality and relevance of the research activity in this large field of endeavour, and to the creation of a typology of the kinds of widespread problems encountered therein. These include pseudo-research, poor quality reporting of research, deficiencies in datasets, analytical errors, a lack of suitable comparators, obfuscation, a lack of scepticism in general, and the regular misattribution of causal links in particular. All of these can be illustrated using generally high-profile research studies and publications. We found a substantial proportion of non-empirical pieces. Of the remainder, we found a substantial proportion that did not report sufficiently well their methods or their findings. Of the remainder that were empirical and did explain their methods and findings sufficiently, we found a substantial proportion in which the findings could not support the conclusions drawn from them.

November 2009







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