Points to consider in widening participation

January 16, 2014

The article “Poorer students present ‘financial risk’ ” (9 January) provides a thought-provoking insight into the link between retention and low socio-economic status. It focuses on higher education institutions’ relative success in keeping their undergraduates and on the financial cost faced by those institutions that have poor retention levels. A couple of rather important concerns are ignored.

The first concern is the high average level of dropout, at above 7 per cent. This should not be dismissed as being related to a student’s financial situation. Students come to university from schools that offer a high level of pastoral support and contact time with teachers. Should universities be doing more during the first year of a degree to soften the transition between secondary and tertiary education?

The second concern is the impact that giving up has on the individuals themselves. A great deal of effort and funds are put into widening participation programmes to encourage those from less advantaged backgrounds to take a degree. The decisions these young people are asked to make – economic, social, emotional, academic – are huge. The carefully fostered raising of aspirations, motivation and self-esteem take a battering if they do not survive the course.

I support the drive to encourage more young people from less advantaged backgrounds to take a degree. But from our experience at Villiers Park Educational Trust, where we work with able students from such backgrounds within our Scholars Programme, financial concerns are not the key factor in giving up. Our programme ensures that students are provided with ongoing cohesive support to enable them to reflect on what best fits their needs. Residential experiences, one-to-one mentoring, workshops for parents and e‑mentoring with current undergraduates are all part of the pathway to raise awareness of what the university experience will be like, as is developing a passion for the subject they will study. It can be done – we have yet to have a scholar drop out of a degree course.

Richard Gould
Chief executive
Villiers Park Educational Trust


Congratulations to York St John University on its low dropout rate among post-1992 universities. Nevertheless, on the graphic showing the student dropout rate in relation to socio-economic background, the curve through all the data uses a highly objectionable statistical model, akin to an equation relating the whiteness and weight of all the world’s lumps of chalk and cheese.

Specialised institutions (including both Birkbeck and Heythrop College of the University of London) should be separated out. Then two straight lines remain, with differing slopes. Plotting the putative cause vertically is also misleading: we should see the slope steepening among the post-92s, not flattening out. The line through the pre-92s from Oxbridge to Bradford and Essex associates an increase of half as many admissions from low-income households with double the dropping out, whereas in the post-92s dropout trebles. Recently at least, growing up poorer has had an even more detrimental effect on degree studies where that minority is large.

Under current conditions, is York St John’s help for individuals showing early signs of the way to level up students to those with higher-income backgrounds?

David Booth
School of Psychology, University of Birmingham
School of Psychology, University of Sussex

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