More must be done to ensureuniversities recruit students from poorer backgrounds. Alison Goddard reports from Spain on European approaches to access
Targets should be set for enrolling students from poorer neighbourhoods, delegates agreed at last week's annual convention of the European Access Network in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Concerns remained, however, that some institutions would be allowed to set low targets because they demand high entry qualifications and offer subjects in which the poor have always been under-represented, such as medicine.
The convention adopted the slogan "The door is open but you can't come in" to describe the difficulties faced by potential students from poor neighbourhoods in accessing higher education. The abolition of the maintenance grant for such students was repeatedly attacked.
Maggie Woodrow, executive director of the University of Westminster-based European Access Network, said: "You may say that the function of higher education is not about curing poverty, but neither is it about re-creating well-off sections of population. There has been some backlash or, I should say, steps back. In the UK we used to have maintenance grants - help for the poorest students - but they have been abolished."
She supported plans for each university and college to set a target for the number of students from poorer neighbourhoods it would enrol. She said: "I am not against quotas, but I know that higher education institutions don't like them. Targets are very good - we need to go softly but we can't be too pussy-footed about it."
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "In exchange for widening participation money that we will allocate, we will ask institutions to set targets and monitor them. There is a lot of progress that we can make without recourse to quotas and social engineering."
He added: "We have an extremely stratified higher education system. Because students are free to apply wherever they want and universities are free to admit whichever students they want, a hierarchy or stratified system has emerged with some institutions identified as better than others by students.
"There are some who argue that the social profile of each institution should be the same. I don't think that is likely or right. You could only do it by removing the right of students to select their institutions and the right of institutions to select their students."
However, Mr Bekhradnia conceded that some universities may unwittingly discriminate against students from poorer neighbourhoods. He said: "There is a strong suspicion that some institutions are more socially unbalanced than they need be, even given their intake. One of our intentions is to ensure that all students apply in equal measure to the most suitable university they are capable of attending."
Mr Bekhradnia hinted that the funding council had resisted setting targets for widening participation because many of the factors influencing it are out of the control of the institutions.
He pointed to the role schools can play and said: "Students from certain backgrounds are still under-represented in higher education. There are some areas where you have a 100 per cent chance of attending university and some where you have virtually no chance. If the success of grants policies for schools raises the participation of these pupils just to the average, then this alone will require a further 100,000 places."
The retention of students presents a particular problem to institutions that perform well at attracting students from under-represented groups. Mr Bekhradnia said: "We have to be concerned not only with bringing people in but with how they succeed. The rate at which students drop out of university is related to their previous experience. There is an almost linear relationship between A-level points on entry and dropout rate. And previous educational achievement is closely related to social class."
Mr Bekhradnia concluded by saying that there were two strands to widening participation - to increase the number of opportunities to enter higher education; and to reshuffle the pack of who attends which institution. Separate policies are needed to tackle the separate components.
David Davies, of the University of Derby, received widespread support from delegates when he attacked such targets as ineffective and called for political struggle. Ms Woodrow had earlier described the European Access Network as "a political organisation made up of academics".
Allowing different institutions to set different targets was criticised by Jan Smith of Sheffield Hallam University: "We really need to do something about the appalling social intake of higher education in the UK. The funding council approach is to look at the performance indicators for every institution - let's compare all the elite universities and all the rest of the institutions. Actually, this approach is making the class system normal."
She also criticised data on widening participation produced by the funding council as not sufficiently detailed. "Beyond a certain level, you don't learn very much if you aggregate everything, such as class and ethnic minority."
Labour MP for Blackpool South Gordon Marsden highlighted the relative success of part-time study at improving access to higher education in the UK. Dr Marsden is a member of the Commons select committee on education, which is conducting an inquiry into higher education and access. He was accompanied by another committee member, Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat spokesman on higher education, and Robert Rees, clerk to the committee.
Dr Marsden said: "It may be that people who apply from under-represented groups will take part-time places. We have to have strategies to cope with that - the coursework they have done should be credit in the bank. Courses are diverse, but one way of starting would be for universities in a particular region to cooperate on transferable credits."
Dr Marsden conceded that there would be problems with establishing transferable credits. He said: "It will take a very long time to do and take some horse-trading. It will be the job of central government to chivvy institutions down that route. The more we talk about opening access to under-represented groups, the more this issue will come into focus."
Almost half the delegates at the convention came from the UK. The next biggest national group - demonstrating that the European Access Network is a bit of a misnomer - was from the US, with 20 people representing 12 per cent of the delegation, followed by Australia, which sent 15 people. The host nation, Spain, had nine delegates. Just three came from Germany and one from France.
Barbara Waters, chief executive of the Skill national bureau for students with disabilities, called for performance indicators to be established for disabled students. At present, the performance indicators identify the proportion of students from poor neighbourhoods, lower social classes and state schools at each institution.
Ms Waters said: "Performance indicators on disabled students in higher education are needed. Including disabled students in the performance indicator framework would confirm their importance. Although the data collection can present problems - for example, issues with disclosure - that is not a reason not to collect the data."
She added: "Disabled students have been a very under-represented group in UK universities. The percentage of disabled students studying has not much changed in recent years - it's around 4 per cent."
Zubaida Haque, of the University of Westminster business school, called for more attention to be paid to the retention and performance of students from different social classes and ethnic groups.
Dr Haque presented the findings of a study of 2,000 former students of an inner London institution who graduated in 1997. She said: "There are differences between social class and minority ethnic groups, not only in terms of access but in degree performance, that do not appear to be explained by entry qualifications.
"The most striking finding is the high performance of white and Chinese students, with 60 per cent achieving a first or upper second-class degree. In sharp contrast, less than a fifth of black Africans achieved a first or upper second. Given the entry qualifications, students from white backgrounds achieved more highly than might be expected. To some extent, there might be an 'ethnic penalty'."
Dr Haque called on universities to identify and address what it is about the home background of some students that makes them disadvantaged. She said: "I think a fundamental problem is that universities assume several factors. First, they assume that they are meeting the needs to a satisfactory extent of those students who have already got in. Second, that they know the nature of these distinctive needs and know how to meet them. Finally, they assume they are able to identify clearly who forms those under-represented or disadvantaged groups."
Dr Haque is now looking at the factors that affect the employability of ethnic minority graduates. Every ethnic group has a greater unemployment rate than its white counterpart.
Education secretary David Blunkett's plans to publicise every university and college's record on graduate employability could make institutions that excel at attracting students from the ethnic minorities appear to be performing badly.