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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
In addition, some teachers and parents may be reluctant to recommend
the more selective universities because of perceived prejudices
about the types of applicants.
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
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
have traditionally worked with further education colleges to extend
their provision and enable progression between the sectors.
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.
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.
25 C&AG's Report, para 2.2 Back
Qq 56-58 Back
Q 58 Back
C&AG's Report, paras 2.15-2.16 Back
C&AG's Report, paras 2.7-2.8 Back
Q 18 Back
Q 36 Back
Q 10 Back
Qq 21-22 Back
C&AG's Report, Box 19 Back
Q 23 Back
Q 43 Back
Qq 72-73 Back
Qq 45, 96 Back
Q 37; C&AG's Report, Boxes 5-6 Back
Q 108 Back
C&AG's Report, Box 13, paras 3.25-3.26 Back
Qq 27-31 Back
Q 91 Back