Access initiatives reach an impasse

July 21, 2006

More universities are failing to hit participation and drop-out targets, reports Anna Fazackerley

The Government's drive to widen access is stalling, according to new figures that reveal that universities are failing to increase the recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and failing to lower drop-out rates.

The annual performance indicators for the sector, published this week, show that after promising gains in recent years success has begun to plateau.

According to the data produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 86.7 per cent of young entrants to full-time degree courses in 2004-05 were from the state sector. The figure is marginally down on the year before, despite mounting pressure from the Government for universities to prioritise the access agenda.

Meanwhile, the percentage of young entrants to full-time first degrees from lower social classes is down from 28.6 per cent in 2003-04 to 28.2 per cent in 2004-05.

In a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England this year, Ruth Kelly, the former Education Secretary, said institutions must redouble efforts to broaden the social mix of students.

Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister, said this week that he was "disappointed" with the figures. He added: "I have asked Hefce to conduct an audit on all its widening access activity in the sector and report back in autumn. I am not saying that these initiatives are not working. Many, such as the national roll-out of AimHigher, are relatively new, but I want to ensure we are targeting the money in the right places."

John Selby, director of widening participation at Hefce, said: "We would like to see an improvement. If you look at similar institutions, you find a divergence in performance. I don't think they really know why that is."

Yet Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "If you want to deepen widening participation but also to improve retention, the Government has to spend more."

Some institutions are falling way below their benchmark on access. The Courtauld Institute of Art ranks last on its proportion of state-school students, admitting only 33 per cent in 2004-05, well below a benchmark of 71 per cent. At the bottom of the table for participation of students from lower social classes are Oxford and Cambridge universities.

A spokesperson for Oxford said it was working hard, with an average of one widening participation activity for every working day. But she added: "It is a challenge for a university such as Oxford, as there is a range of economic and social factors that could prevent students reaching their full academic potential by 18. We cannot single-handedly even out every inequality in the school system and, indeed, society."

But some universities, in particular the newer ones, are performing much better. Wolverhampton University came top on access, drawing just over half its students from underrepresented groups.

Arko Sen, head of widening participation at Wolverhampton, said the university worked with primary and secondary schools to reach out to family members who might steer a pupil away from higher education.

He said: "A visit to the university may tip the balance, but I am unsure of what benefit it is if your family has no perception of the value of higher education."

Despite improvements last year, moves to cut drop-out rates have faltered.

Overall, the non-continuation rate for full-time students in 2003-04 was 14.9 per cent, up from 14.4 per cent the year before.

But drop-out rates remain alarmingly high at a number of modern institutions. Bolton University lost 35 per cent of all new full-time first-degree entrants.

Karyn Brinkley, its pro vice-chancellor, said: "We have always had a policy of giving opportunities to people who would not normally have that chance.

This means that sometimes these students struggle with the pressures that academic study demands."

But she added: "About 50 per cent of them come back, though not in a time frame that would necessarily be reflected in this statistical analysis."

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