Reversing last year's backward slide, entry to higher education by students from poorer families shows a modest rise.
Ministers breathed a sigh of relief this week as the annual higher education performance indicators appeared to show that plans to widen access to university are back on track.
Last year's slight drop in the recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds was dismissed as a blip, as the latest figures for 2005-06 showed a "small but significant" rise in the proportion of students entering higher education from lower socioeconomic groups, state schools and low-participation neighbourhoods.
The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the proportion of young full-time first-degree entrants from lower socioeconomic groups rose by one percentage point to 29.1 per cent. In a separate measure, the proportion from state schools or colleges increased by one percentage point to 86.9 per cent.
But the national figures mask stark variations between institutions, with some research-led Russell Group universities taking well under 20 per cent of their students from the lowest socioeconomic groups. Oxford University took the fewest, at only 11.4 per cent, followed by St Andrews, Prince William's alma mater, with just 15.2 per cent.
The most inclusive institution was Harper Adams University College in Shropshire, with 57.8 per cent of its intake from poorer groups, closely followed by the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies (50.6 per cent) and Wolverhampton University (50.4).
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell described the figures as "encouraging", with access from poorer groups at the highest levels since the indicators were first published eight years ago.
"The figures are welcome confirmation that we are on the right track, but we must maintain our efforts. It is an economic as well as a social imperative that everyone who can benefit from higher education has the opportunity to do so," he said.
Mr Rammell added that opportunities would be widened still further by next year's introduction of £400 million worth of improvements to the student support system, which will raise the family income threshold for student grants.
John Selby, director of widening participation for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the data confirmed a positive trend over several years, despite last year's small backward step.
He said: "I think it reflects a number of changes: improvement in students' performance at A level and GCSE, a significant change in attitude within higher education over the past decade, and an increasing commitment from institutions to outreach activity."
Several institutions criticised the figures.
Penelope Griffin, head of widening participation at Nottingham University, where young people from poorer groups make up just under 17 per cent of entrants, said the present set of indicators were unreliable.
She said: "If you use Government data, you find the proportion of our entrants from low-income families increased in 2006. It will be interesting to see if that is reflected in next year's indicators; if not, it will raise further questions."
A spokesman for St Andrews University argued that widening access and retention rates should be measured together. He said: "The latest indicators show we have the lowest dropout rates in Scotland. Widening access cannot simply be about making it possible for more young people to go to university. It must be a considered process that ensures they are capable of staying the course and gaining a degree once they have got there."
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said that while the indicators were a "useful reminder of the contribution of modern universities to social mobility", there would be "real merit" in developing a new set of measures that reflected the true diversity of the student profile.
Many small specialist institutions can also be found at both ends of the widening participation performance scale this year. Some of the worst performers against their benchmarks for taking in students from low-income families include the Art Institute at Bournemouth, the Central School of Speech and Drama, the Royal Academy of Music and Edinburgh College of Art.
Noel Morrison, academic registrar at Harper Adams, said his institution's place at the top of the table was partly down to its high level of specialism on land-based courses.
But he added that it also provided a high level of student support, including a £1,000-a-year non-repayable grant for students from low-income families.
"Another thing that makes us very attractive to students from these backgrounds is the fact that over 98 per cent of our graduates find employment," he added.
A spokeswoman for Oxford University, where just 11.4 per cent of entrants are from low-income families, said the indicators lagged almost two years behind the university's own data, which showed that it was making progress on widening participation. "We are doing our utmost to encourage academic ambition from a young age by working with students from 11 up and by working closely with parents and teachers," she said.
The widening participation benchmark for Oxford was also unrealistic, since it was calculated using the tariff system devised by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. "Since tariff points can be gained through a wide range of qualifications, not all of which would equate to the qualifications needed for Oxford, we do not feel that calculating benchmarks on a tariff points basis gives a fair representation of the demographic from which we can recruit," she said.
PARTICIPATION: TOP TEN Institutions with the highest proportion of students from low socioeconomic groups Young full-time undergraduate entrants 2005-06 Institution Percentage Benchmark Harper Adams University College 57.8 38.6 Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies 50.6 40.9 Wolverhampton University 50.4 38.6 Bell College 50.3 37.5 North East Wales Institute 49.3 36.8 University of East London 48.9 37.9 Greenwich University 47.6 37.7 Ulster University 47.4 36.4 UHI Millennium Institute 47.3 37.9
PARTICIPATION: BOTTOM TEN Institutions with the lowest proportion of students from low socioeconomic groups Young full-time undergraduate entrants 2005-06 Institution Percentage Benchmark Oxford University 11.4 18.3 St Andrews University 15.2 20.3 Durham University 16.4 21.9 Bristol University 16.4 20.7 Nottingham University 16.9 22.3 York University 17.1 20.5 Imperial College London 17.3 20.8 University College London 17.5 20.5 London School of Economics 17.5 19.4 Edinburgh University 17.7 21.5
Full table available at www.hesa.ac.uk
Strong local links, particularly with schools and colleges, are the key to topping the table for widening participation, according to Caroline Gipps, the vice-chancellor of Wolverhampton University.
Wolverhampton, which is 11.6 percentage points above its benchmark with more than half of its full-time undergraduate intake made up of entrants from low income families, capitalises on the advantage of being a strong centre for initial teacher training.
Professor Gipps said: "A lot of teachers in the region have qualified with us, which obviously means that we are well known and we have a good reputation in the schools in the area."
While this may give Wolverhampton a head start, its departments make the most of it by doing a lot of outreach work with schools and colleges, including curriculum development and helping to develop the new specialist diplomas that the Government hopes will provide a new range of vocational routes into higher education.
Add to this close links with local industry, an award-winning reputation as a friendly university and some smart new buildings, and you end up with a university that is gaining in reputation among students from a wide range of backgrounds, Professor Gipps argues.
"All of these things come together, and then people start to think 'perhaps I will go there'. It is not just that we try to attract widening participation students to give them a chance - it's more that we have so many things to offer that encourage them to come here," she said.
One of the downsides of being so successful at widening access is that it can become more difficult to maintain high levels of student retention. Wolverhampton loses about 10 to 12 per cent of its students in their first year and a half of study, and just missed its retention benchmark this year.
Professor Gipps said: "If students do not have very high A-level grades, and if they come from a family with no history of going into university and with a low income, then those are three things that can be potentially working against them."
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