Performance reviews highlight struggle to hit Government's widening participation target, writes Tony Tysome.
The Government wants universities to step up efforts to attract more students from underrepresented groups amid fears that progress on widening participation may have stalled.
A report on a review of widening participation activities, published yesterday, warns that a recent "slight downturn" in the proportion of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds entering higher education suggests at best "a flattening out of slow progress towards increased and more equitable access to higher education".
A booklet from the Department for Education and Skills published at the same time states that progress on widening participation "has been too slow and may be levelling off".
Both papers call for urgent action and further investment to bolster "fragile" initiatives that are judged to be having a positive impact and to put the sector back on track to meet Government goals.
But Bill Rammell, the Education Minister, said there could be no commitment to increased funding. "We need better evidence of the impact that spending on widening participation is having," he told The Times Higher .
According to the report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, there is strong evidence that the widening participation activities of institutions and government-backed initiatives such as Aimhigher are helping to raise the aspirations of people in target groups.
But evidence is weak of any positive impact on widening access to higher education or the attainment levels of the target groups.
Responses to a survey of institutions conducted in summer indicate that widening participation has "taken hold" and become an integral part of institutions' missions, even among Russell Group universities.
Consequently, it has become almost impossible to disentangle widening participation spending from institutions' budgets to see exactly how much they allocated to these activities out of the £386 million delivered by Hefce last year.
The survey also found that there were important lessons to be learnt about the way that widening participation activity is organised and delivered.
Many institutions fail to collect vital data such as information about the chief wage earner in a family, reflecting a students socioeconomic background, and therefore "cannot make any estimation of the effectiveness of activities in reaching the group that is at the heart of concerns with widening access", the report says.
In some cases, poor targeting has resulted in a waste of resources. The report cites one event that was attended largely by grammar school pupils, 90 per cent of whom had already decided to enter higher education.
The report calls for sustained government investment, including in Aimhigher, funding for which should be restored to its former level. The DfES booklet argues that "the scale of the challenge is considerable" to improve the social mix of entrants to higher education.
It says the Government will tackle the challenge with several new initiatives, including ten partnerships between universities, schools and colleges working with gifted young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, improved targeting of Aimhigher and various projects designed to encourage employers to help workers gain higher level skills.
Mr Rammell has asked John Selby, chair of Hefce's widening participation group, to find examples of best practice and report on how best to target efforts by April.
- Sustain investment in widening participation, including restoring funding of Aimhigher to former level
- Find ways to develop and nurture institutions' commitment
- Set up a working group to identify good practice
- Work with the National Audit Office to follow through its forthcoming study on retention to identify good practice
THE DFES SAYS...
- Further engage HEIs in 14-19 education reforms to improve student progression
- Improve Aimhigher
- Develop partnerships between HEIs, schools and colleges to help gifted but disadvantaged
- Help disadvantaged better understand costs and benefits of HE
- Work with employers to encourage employees from disadvantaged groups into HE