Leader: Indicators herald welcome change

October 1, 2004

The novelty has worn off higher education's performance indicators (page 8) since the blaze of publicity that greeted their first appearance five years ago. Like most national statistics, they alter too little from year to year to sustain that level of popular interest. But today's report shows that universities and colleges are moving in the right direction - not just to satisfy the Government but to achieve their own ambitions. Academics may be wary of access regulators and resentful of ministerial diktats, but most are keen to widen participation in higher education as long as they are not expected to compromise on standards.

Five years' figures show that steady, if unspectacular, progress has been made on the key measures: a 2.3 per cent increase in the already substantial proportion of undergraduates educated in state schools and colleges, growth of 8 per cent in the much more modest share of full-time places going to students from areas of low participation in higher education. Contentious changes in socioeconomic classification have disrupted the other main comparisons, but there is no reason to think that the trend is any different. Crucially, too, the past two years have seen a decline in the projected drop-out rate from higher education. If the indicators have had an effect, it can only have been during this period since the timelag in reporting is such that institutions had already set their priorities and recruited the students covered by the early reports.

Universities are often criticised (fairly) for responding too slowly to changing circumstances, but this was too sensitive an area to expect instant results. Anything more than organic change in admissions risks denting public confidence in the system as a whole. But by drawing attention to the imbalances in the student population, the indicators have helped create a climate for change. Some universities, let alone individual academics, were barely aware of the background of their students.

Traditionalists would say this is as it should be, but greater transparency at least reminds admissions officers of the obstacles that some applicants face.

Perhaps the clearest example of progress comes in the increase of a quarter in the two most recent years' figures for the proportion of young part-time students coming from low-participation neighbourhoods. More than the full-time enrolments, this reflects provision rather than selection policies. Universities and colleges are reaching out to areas without a tradition of higher education in a way that even their most strident critics surely could not condemn.

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