Widening participation in higher education - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  How the Department and the Funding Council are seeking to widen participation

12. The Department has overall responsibility for public spending in higher education in England, but delegates day-to-day responsibility for dealing with universities to the Higher Education Funding Council (the Funding Council). The Funding Council encourages universities to achieve the Government's strategic objectives, primarily through funding incentives. In 2006-07, the Funding Council granted £6.7 billion to universities, including £4.2 billion for the teaching of higher education courses, with most of the balance allocated for research and capital expenditure. The Funding Council has distributed £392 million of funding to universities for widening participation measures over the last six years.

13. The Funding Council can influence universities' behaviour in widening participation rates in a number of ways, the most important of which is a funding distribution model based on expected student numbers. The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes a range of performance data at the level of individual universities, but this is not used by the Department or the Funding Council to take action against particular universities. A number of organisations identify and promote good practice in relation to widening participation, for example, Action on Access.[25]

14. The Funding Council's method for allocating widening participation funding to universities is based on the number of students a university recruits from under-represented groups, rather than funding widening participation activities directly. The formula reflects the additional costs of recruiting and supporting students from these under-represented groups, so universities with more of these students receive more funding.[26] In 2006-07, individual universities received between £10,000 and £5 million. The sums ranged from less than 1% of the university's teaching and learning grant to over 10%. Universities are not required to report on how they spend their funding and have considerable freedom in how they use it.

15. The Funding Council did not intend the funding to be a reward or incentive for success in widening participation, but a reimbursement to remove a disincentive. For selective universities (defined as those which are generally oversubscribed), the incentive to widen participation amongst under-represented groups is not financial as they do not need to recruit students to fill places. Rather, the Funding Council sees the incentive as the desire to choose the ablest applicants from all educational and social backgrounds.[27]

16. The Office for Fair Access was set up in 2004 to promote and safeguard access to higher education for under-represented groups following the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006-07. All universities charging tuition fees must have an access agreement, approved by the Office for Fair Access, that sets out their measures for fair access. The Office for Fair Access can refuse to approve an agreement where performance targets are not sufficiently stretching, and it monitors annual performance against these agreements. It can impose sanctions, although to date it has not found it necessary to do so.[28]

17. Until 2003-04, the widening participation funding was conditional upon providing acceptable strategies and action plans to the Funding Council. The Department withdrew this requirement in order to minimise the administrative burden on universities, following the introduction of access agreements.[29] The Department and the Funding Council are planning to reintroduce the requirement for universities to produce and publicise a consistent statement of what they are doing to widen participation.[30] They intend to ask universities to provide an overall assessment of: student financial support (previously in the Access agreement), widening participation activities and schemes, and admissions policies. This is intended to provide greater clarity on the level of investment in widening participation, including how universities spend the government allocation.

18. There is no single national government widening participation strategy that describes a national approach to widening participation. The Funding Council informed the Committee that each university has a strategy, and there are national programmes such as Aimhigher and the 'Gifted and Talented' scheme which target individuals with the potential to progress onto higher education. In addition, the Funding Council issues guidance for universities, for example, on targeting widening participation activities at disadvantaged areas most in need. It regards these as collectively constituting a national strategic approach.[31]

19. On the maintenance of academic standards, the Department stated that while it could not guarantee to maintain academic excellence as it widened participation, all the evidence suggests that standards have remained high as participation has both increased and widened.[32]

20. Schools play an important role in encouraging young people to consider participating in higher education. It is essential that pupils are targeted when young so that they are aware of the need to achieve at school. Waiting until pupils reach age 16 or 17, the time when they might be considering which subjects to study and to which universities to apply, is too late to influence attitudes to continuing education and academic performance.

21. Universities are approaching school pupils through the national Aimhigher programme, their own programmes of outreach, and formal partnership arrangements such as sponsorship through academies. The general aim of these activities is to raise the aspirations and thereby the achievements of pupils to enable them to progress to higher education. The Department believes that every university is likely to work with at least one school, but there is no guarantee that every school has access to these activities.[33] Aimhigher selects individual schools, based on targeting guidance issued by the Funding Council. For other outreach activities, universities decide which schools to approach, in some cases based on patterns of participation identified by the Funding Council.

22. Information, advice and guidance given to school pupils on entry requirements to higher education are not always readily available. They can be inaccurate and poorly timed, for example, too late to inform the appropriate choice of subjects for a given university course. There are examples of applicants discovering too late that they do not have the right qualifications for the courses they want to undertake.[34] The Department stated that there had been a move towards providing advice and guidance to younger children, including those at primary school, where it will have greatest impact on aspirations.[35] The Funding Council is also encouraging universities to clarify entrance requirements and increase flexibility in the university application system to accommodate students who may not have received appropriate advice.[36]

23. Some teachers appear to base the advice they give to pupils on their outdated experiences of higher education. This can result in students not receiving appropriate encouragement, support and advice on higher educational opportunities and the financial support available.[37] In addition, some teachers and parents may be reluctant to recommend the more selective universities because of perceived prejudices about the types of applicants.[38] As noted in paragraph 10, a significant influence on participation is whether individuals' parents attended university. Given the role that parents and teachers play in influencing young people, it is essential that they are also included in outreach activities. There are good examples of universities running information sessions for teachers and parents or holding events in communities for families.[39]

24. Local provision of higher education is increasingly important as more students choose to stay at home while studying. This may appeal to certain cultural groups in particular, for example, those where it is not the tradition for women to go to university.[40] Universities have traditionally worked with further education colleges to extend their provision and enable progression between the sectors.[41] There is now a national scheme, the New University Challenge, whereby universities in areas identified as having little or no higher education can bid for funding to develop local higher education.[42] The Funding Council plans to assess whether there is latent demand for higher education in a local area, then identify the most appropriate way to deliver this, for example, through an existing further education college or by establishing a new site.[43]

25   C&AG's Report, para 2.2 Back

26   Qq 56-58 Back

27   Q 58 Back

28   C&AG's Report, paras 2.15-2.16 Back

29   C&AG's Report, paras 2.7-2.8 Back

30   Q 18 Back

31   Q 36 Back

32   Q 10 Back

33   Qq 21-22 Back

34   C&AG's Report, Box 19 Back

35   Q 23 Back

36   Q 43 Back

37   Qq 72-73 Back

38   Qq 45, 96 Back

39   Q 37; C&AG's Report, Boxes 5-6 Back

40   Q 108 Back

41   C&AG's Report, Box 13, paras 3.25-3.26 Back

42   Qq 27-31 Back

43   Q 91 Back

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Prepared 26 February 2009