Widening participation in higher education - Public Accounts Committee Contents

1  Progress in widening participation

1. The term 'widening participation' refers to activities for improving the participation rates[2] of people from under-represented groups by encouraging them to apply to higher education. Overall participation in higher education has increased slightly over the past five years (Figure 1) and the take up of places amongst women (Figure 1) and some ethnic groups (Figure 2) has been strong. In contrast, participation rate of some groups remain poor, and people of white ethnic background, particularly men, and people of black-Caribbean origin are under-represented.

Figure 1—Higher Education Initial Participation Rate for England from 1999-2000 to 2006-07, split by gender

Note: the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate measures the sum of participation rates for each age 17-30, roughly equivalent to the probability that a 17 year old will enter higher education by age 30. It is used to calculate progress against the Department's Public Service Agreement target to 'increase participation in higher education towards 50 per cent of those aged 18-30 with growth of at least a percentage point every two years in the academic year 2010-11'.

Source: Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Statistical First Release: Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 1999/2000-2006/07 (Provisional), 27 March 2008 available on http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000780/index.shtml

Figure 2—Higher education participation rates up to the age of 19 by ethnic group

Source: Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills analysis of linked data on higher education students (Higher Education Statistics Agency) and school records (National Pupil Database) 2005-06.

2. Progress in improving the participation of young people from lower socio-economic groups[3] has been slow, although the gap between the upper and lower socio-economic groups has narrowed (Figure 3). White males from lower socio-economic backgrounds are significantly under-represented in higher education, and are a challenging group.

3. The difference in rates of higher education participation can largely be explained by differences in school attainment. Low achievement by pupils at school is the principal explanation for variation by socio-economic background. Two-thirds of those with five or more GCSEs are in higher education by age 19 compared with 12% of those without.[4] There are virtually no differences in university acceptance rates by socio-economic background when prior attainment is taken into account.[5]

4. The level of deprivation in the area where an individual lives affects educational achievement. The 20% of pupils who live in the most deprived wards make up only 11% of those who attain five or more GCSEs at school.[6] The Office for Fair Access confirmed that deprivation also correlates with other factors such as unemployment, dependence on welfare and the stability of family structures.[7]

Figure 3—Participation rate of young, full-time students by socio-economic background

Notes: 'Upper socio-economic background' refers to National Statistics Socio-Economic Class groups 1, 2, 3 and 'lower socio-economic background' refers to groups 4, 5, 6, 7. The Full-time Young Participation by Socio-Economic Class (FYPSEC) measure shows the number of 18, 19 and 20 year old English—domiciled first time participants in full-time higher education as a proportion of the 18, 19 and 20 year old population of England, split into participation rates for the upper and lower National Statistics socio-economic groups.

Source: Data from Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Full-time Young Participation by Socio-Economic Class (FYPSEC), 2008 Update, 25 June 2008 available on http://www.dius.gov.uk/research/documents/FYPSEC%20paper%202008.pdf.

5. Many young people have low educational aspirations, achieve poor levels of attainment and leave education at early ages. They need better role models and universities need to be encouraged to develop stronger links with schools. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (the Department) reported that every university has some connection with schools, but the activities that they provide differ. Although the relative effectiveness of different activities is difficult to demonstrate there is some evidence that mentoring schemes, where higher education students provide support, encouragement and advice to school pupils, are valuable.[8] However, not every school is involved with a mentoring scheme.[9]

6. There is still latent demand for higher education, although the Office for Fair Access believes it is probably unreasonable to expect that people from upper and lower socio-economic backgrounds will ever participate at equal rates.[10] The Department has not set a maximum for participation rates above which it thinks progress is unachievable, preferring to stimulate demand rather than set targets for universities.[11]

7. Universities face the challenge of maintaining student retention rates while also increasing and widening participation. The Department confirmed that universities with higher proportions of students from deprived backgrounds have higher drop-out rates, mainly due to lower prior attainment.[12] In its recent report on student retention, the Committee noted that students from backgrounds without a family or school tradition of participation in higher education are, on average, more likely to withdraw from higher education. In recruiting them, universities accept the risk of reducing overall retention rates.[13]

8. The Department does not routinely compare performance in widening participation in England with other countries, principally because of significant differences between educational systems.[14] This may result in the Department not learning valuable lessons from the experiences of others. There are large differences between the participation rates of English regions, for example, young people living in London are 50% more likely to enter higher education than those in the North East. The Funding Council informed the Committee, however, that once population composition (for example, parental education levels) is taken into account, there are no significant regional patterns to young participation rates in higher education.[15]

9. The Department does not have data on backgrounds and characteristics for a large proportion of students. Around one-third of data on students' socio-economic background is missing, principally because it is optional for applicants to declare their parents' occupations at the application stage. This may affect the accuracy of the reported trends in participation.[16] The Department informed the Committee that some measures of participation adjust for the impact of missing data by other means, for example, through assigning students to a socio-economic group based on their postcode.[17]

10. The Office for Fair Access stated that having one or more parents who have been to university is a strong factor influencing participation in higher education.[18] UCAS[19] has recently started collecting data on the parental education of applicants, although it is optional for applicants to declare this information, and a high proportion of applicants have declined to do so.[20]

11. The Department considers that the current economic downturn is unlikely to reduce participation levels. Provisional figures for applications for 2008-09 show an increase of 9.5% on the previous year's figures.[21] Historically, people are more likely to apply to undertake, and stay in, higher education when employment is scarcer.[22] At such times, people considering higher education are more likely to think about which qualifications and subjects will be of long-term value.[23] The Department estimates that a graduate earns around £100,000 additional net income over a lifetime compared with a non-graduate, although this is an average figure which varies by subject, and probably also by university.[24]

2   Participation rate is the proportion of a particular group in higher education compared with the proportion in the general population Back

3   Students from family backgrounds where the main wage-earner is from one of the following: small employers and own account workers; lower supervisory and technical operations; semi-routine occupations; routine occupations. It refers to National Statistics Socio-Economic Class groups 4, 5, 6, 7. Back

4   C&AG's Report, para 1.8 Back

5   C&AG's Report, para 1.7, Figure 7 Back

6   C&AG's Report, para 1.8 Back

7   Q 92 Back

8   C&AG's Report, para 2.28 Back

9   Q 22 Back

10   Q 94 Back

11   Q 93 Back

12   Qq 105, 144; Ev 20 Back

13   Committee of Public Accounts, Tenth Report of Session 2007-08, Staying the course: The retention of students on higher education, HC 322, para 6 Back

14   Qq 127-132 Back

15   Qq 123-125; Ev 20 Back

16   Q 120 Back

17   Qq 120-122 Back

18   Qq 101-102 Back

19   Formerly known as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service Back

20   Ev 20 Back

21   Qq 10-15; http://www.ucas.ac.uk/website/news/media_releases/2008/2008 Back

22   Q 79 Back

23   Q 80 Back

24   Q 77 Back

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Prepared 26 February 2009