'We now have a full picture of the tasks we're facing'

January 21, 2005

The statistics on students' backgrounds reveal how much work remains to be done in the battle to give all young people access to higher education, writes Peter Lampl

Publishing benchmarks that show how different universities perform in recruiting students from different backgrounds was always going to be controversial. So it was no surprise that Hefce's first performance indicators caused quite a stir when they were released in 1999, and the controversy continued to reverberate throughout the tuition-fees debate last year.

What the figures revealed - that some institutions are better than others at attracting disadvantaged students - was also no great surprise. Other research had already shown that the less affluent were significantly underrepresented in our universities.

At the Sutton Trust, we have examined the Hefce figures with a particular focus on high-achieving young people from poor households and the universities they go on to attend. Among our findings was that some 3,000 young people from state schools meet the admissions criteria of our leading universities but go elsewhere.

This is why we started running university summer schools to break down barriers that may influence the choices of these young people - an approach since adopted by the Government. It is also why we have fostered the sort of links between state schools and admissions tutors at Oxford, Cambridge and other universities that have been so useful to the independent sector.

In doing all this, we played an important part in the development of widening participation as a goal of the Government's higher education policy. Though we have had our disagreements - about the revised benchmarks, for example - we are pleased that access is now treated seriously as an issue by schools, universities and ministers.

And this is why the detailed data from Hefce covering the years 1994 to 2000 are so welcome. We now have the fullest picture to date of who participates in higher education, as well as the opportunity to accurately compare statistical changes over time. There is a real opportunity for all of us who are concerned with fair access to higher education to concentrate our efforts much more clearly.

Some findings are particularly interesting. Women are now a remarkable 18 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men. And, just as birth month has been shown to affect school achievement, we now have evidence that it has a big impact on higher education entry, too: August-born babies are 20 per cent less likely to go to university at age 18 than those born in September.

But the biggest challenge for the system remains the huge inequalities that persist between pupils of different backgrounds. The detail provided by Hefce should make it easier for universities to target their outreach work to maximum effect.

For example, the data highlight big regional differences. Why has participation in London grown to 36 per cent of young people, whereas only 24 per cent of their counterparts in the North East go into higher education? Why do poor areas in Scotland have twice as many young people entering higher education as their English counterparts - is it because more provision is made in further education colleges north of the border?

The statistics provide us all with clear challenges. By breaking the data down to the level of local authority wards, we find that the 20 per cent of people living in the most disadvantaged areas are up to six times less likely to enter higher education than the 20 per cent of people living in the wealthiest wards.

The report also confirms that the task of improving the chances of the least advantaged is not solely a problem for higher education. The secondary schools that are nearest to low-participation wards often have few students gaining five good GCSE grades. Although there have been significant improvements, even since 2000, there are still too many schools where less than a quarter of students reach this key GCSE benchmark.

Differential rates of access to higher education are the last stage of a cycle that starts in primary school and that has to be broken. Recent research confirming the benefits of nursery education for disadvantaged children indicates the direction we must take. And we need to see more young people from poor backgrounds gaining good qualifications in the first place.

But, given the chance, higher education can create a level playing field for all - about a fifth of undergraduate students go on to pursue postgraduate studies, and there is little variation according to their backgrounds.

If we overcome the obstacles that prevent young people from getting to university in the first place, we can greatly improve their life chances - a goal that this data can help to achieve.

details = /Sir Peter Lampl is chairman and founder of the Sutton Trust, www.suttontrust.com

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