Widening participation in higher education - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  Although the gap is narrowing, more than twice the proportion of people from upper socio-economic backgrounds go into higher education than those from lower socio-economic groups. The participation of young full-time students from lower socio-economic backgrounds has improved slightly, by two percentage points over the last four years. Nevertheless, although this group make up around a half of the population of England, they still only represent just 29% of young full-time first entrants to higher education.

2.  The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council know too little about how universities have used the £392 million allocated to them over the last five years to widen participation. The requirement for universities to report annually on their widening participation activities is being reintroduced. It will be important that the information provided is sufficiently detailed and comprehensive so that universities' progress in widening participation is clear and transparent. The Funding Council and Office for Fair Access should use such information to help spread good practice and hold universities to account if they do not meet their commitments.

3.  Guidance for young people on how to progress into higher education is often of variable quality and not provided face-to-face. Poor advice and guidance can lead to potential students making the wrong choices about which subjects to study, making unrealistic applications or not applying at all. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families should jointly provide teachers, particularly those offering careers advice, with up-to-date guidance on the financial support available for students and the academic requirements for chosen career paths.

4.  In 2006-07, some 12,000 students did not apply for a bursary, although many were likely to have met the necessary criteria. While information on financial assistance is available from a range of sources, it is not easily accessible or understood. The Department should develop a single source of information to enable potential students to identify easily the bursaries and grants for which they may be eligible.

5.  Although performance at school is a strong predictor of entry to higher education and is influenced by a number of factors, early contact with universities can help overcome some young people's reservations about higher education. While more young people living in deprived areas are now going to university, they are, as a group, still less likely to obtain good GCSEs and progress to higher education than those not living in deprived areas. University mentoring of secondary school pupils living in deprived areas, primary school networks and pre-entry programmes can help raise the ambitions of young people. These initiatives and others need to be much more widespread than at present if more people from deprived areas are to benefit.

6.  Despite the potential benefits for their pupils, some schools in England do not have links to a university and do not access widening participation activities. The Funding Council has issued guidance for universities on the targeting of activities, but there is limited regional or national oversight to ensure that all schools are targeted adequately. The Department and the Funding Council should, jointly with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, review the coverage of widening participation activities and encourage every school to establish regular contact with at least one university.

7.  Many universities, particularly those in the Russell Group, perform poorly in admitting students from under-represented groups. The existing funding formula is not designed to provide incentives for universities to widen participation. The Funding Council should agree specific improvement plans for those universities performing consistently poorly, and should encourage better performing universities to share good practice with those that are less successful.

8.  Data collected by universities and UCAS on the characteristics of the student population is incomplete. Although data is collected nationally, it is incomplete, particularly for part-time students and in relation to the socio-economic background of full-time students. In addition, little is known about the extent to which disabled students and people from care participate in higher education. The Funding Council should research the participation of such groups, and develop and promote the use of measures which best capture participation rates, such as pupil data linked with higher education records.

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Prepared 26 February 2009