Universities, or at least some of them, have a lot to answer for in the complacent way they addressed the social composition of the student population in the latter years of the 20th century. As far back as the 1970s, when a previous Labour government was attempting to map out the future of higher education, it was clear that there was an imbalance in the system as a whole and at leading universities in particular. Yet little has changed (except the class composition of Britain as a whole) since those days. This does not mean, however, that universities deserve the criticism they have received this week with the publication of the latest performance indicators. They have been castigated on one hand for the high dropout rate at some institutions and, on the other, for not doing more to widen participation since the last figures were published. But the first performance indicators appeared only in December 1999, while this week's reports relate to 2000-01, so even the first-year students included in the data had already applied before the new policy agenda was set. The time to judge universities' reaction to the demand for greater social inclusion is at least a year away.
Even then, the argument over dropout rates will be more complicated than it has been portrayed this week. Universities do not need to be told that it is unacceptable for 45 per cent of their students to fail to complete in normal time the course that they embarked on. Even the national average of 17 per cent is too high. But it is no coincidence that the institutions with the biggest dropout rates are also those with the largest numbers of students from poor homes. Often emerging from poor schools, such students are the most likely to struggle academically and financially.
If universities are to be held to account for their willingness to recruit more widely, they must also have the means to make a success of the policy. Next month's strategy document should make some progress on student finance with the extension of education maintenance allowances to higher education. But, without greater recognition of the costs of teaching poorly qualified students, any target for widening participation will be doomed to failure. However belatedly, universities have responded to the demand to take their message into schools to inspire teenagers who might otherwise miss out on higher education. Future performance indicators should show the success of such ventures, but there will be little point in attracting thousands more into higher education simply to fail.