Young white males are the group least likely to enter higher education the NAO says, but some think the data are skewed.
Government watchdogs have stood by a report that concludes that white young men are the key group excluded from higher education while ethnic minorities have "high levels of representation".
Defending itself against claims that it has oversimplified the debate on access, the National Audit Office has revealed a hitherto unpublished finding that across all age groups, "every ethnic minority group has a higher participation rate than the white group".
It has reaffirmed that young white males are a key target group for widening access initiatives, with some 200,000 white male 18 to 19-year-olds excluded from higher education each year - 73 per cent of the age cohort.
The NAO sparked controversy when it published its report on access in January. The report says that ethnic minorities make up 15 per cent of all students, compared with 6 per cent of the working-age population, and so are well represented. Women from all ethnic backgrounds comprise 57 per cent of the student population, compared with just under 50 per cent of the working-age population and are also well represented.
The NAO's report shows that the exclusion of white males is particularly marked among 18 to 19-year-olds, where they suffer "relatively low representation".
The report shows that 32 per cent of all 18 to 19-year-olds go to university. For ethnic minority women the figure is 59 per cent, for ethnic minority men 48 per cent, for white women 31 per cent, and for white men just per cent.
The NAO did not give numbers for the 18 to 19-year-old population and participating groups, but The THES has obtained the data the report draws on. This shows that 11,645 18 to 19-year-old ethnic minority women from a population of 28,500 do not go to university, and 17,835 young ethnic minority men from a population of 34,500 do not go to university. This compares with 183,0 white women from a population of 267,000, about 69 per cent, and 201,408 white men from a population of 6,500, about 73 per cent.
The age cohorts were calculated using data provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for National Statistics.
Jeff Jones, head of education at the NAO, said: "White males are far less likely to go to university than white females or ethnic minorities. What it is in male culture that works against success is unknown."
Access experts warned that the NAO figures suggesting a general overrepresentation for women were skewed because large numbers of predominantly female nursing students have recently been included in higher education.
And an African-Caribbean pressure group, the African Caribbean Network for Science and Technology, has complained to the NAO that the general statements on ethnicity are "misleading and generalised" because they mask a more complex situation in which some minority ethnic groups are far better represented than others.
"It is absolutely crucial that (the generalised statements) be challenged and a more comprehensive and multi-layered picture be presented," said ACNST director Elizabeth Rasekoala.
The network said that black Caribbeans were badly underrepresented in key subject areas. Ms Rasekoala said that while they comprised 0.9 per cent of the population, they made up only 0.2 per cent of medical students, compared with 15.2 per cent for Indian students - who are overrepresented by a factor of ten.
Black Caribbeans were also underrepresented in physical sciences, at 0.3 per cent, and in maths, at 0.4 per cent, while all other ethnic minority groups were overrepresented in these fields.
In a letter of response, seen by The THES , comptroller and auditor-general Sir John Bourne revealed unpublished figures, albeit with caveats regarding their validity, to show that the NAO's publication of data on minority ethnic groups had not distorted the picture.
He said the NAO had not published data on the participation rates of different minority ethnic groups because "classification difficulties and different age profiles complicated our analysis of individual ethnic minority groups".
But he said: "You may be interested, noting our reservations about the fairness of conclusions, in unpublished results of our ethnicity analysis. Data combining all ages indicate that every ethnic minority group has a higher participation rate than the white group."
He conceded that there was no room for complacency and that no group should be considered "overrepresented".
"Overall participation needs to rise further to hit the 2010 target for 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30, so we agree that no group is overrepresented and the expression does not appear in our report," he said.
He said the key issue was poverty: "Figures published by the Office for National Statistics indicate a youth participation rate of 13 per cent for social class V compared with 75 per cent for social class I. This is much greater than the variation between ethnic groups."
Studying's uncool in Rotherham
Among gifted year-ten boys from South Yorkshire, clever is cool while trying hard is distinctly uncool.
This presents teachers at Old Hall School in Rotherham with a serious problem. Most of the pupils come from white upper-working class backgrounds. Their parents have little or no experience of university.
Fifteen-year-old Craig Leach , who has a talent for maths and is predicted an A at GCSE, has no ambition to go to university. He wants to follow his mates, many of whom expect to go to the local college to "do some technology". The only person he knows at university is his cousin, and the only thing he knows about him is that he gets into debt.
Classmate Luke Batty said university was not for him either. He wants to get a good job, "something like a mechanic", and thinks he would be out of place in higher education.
His predicted grades are a spread of As, Bs and Cs. Luke hates school apart from PE lessons, has no respect for learning and wants to leave as soon as possible.
Some pupils are determined to break the mould. Mathew Reeder , a keen angler, has set his heart on gaining a PhD in fish behaviour and becoming a fisheries consultant after reading an article in The Angling Times.
He was taken aback to learn how long it takes to get a doctorate, but Mathew has good predicted grades and intends to go to sixth-form college next year for A levels. "I just don't want to end up with a crap job," he said. "I love angling, and you can have that as a job."
Andrew Sowden also has ambitions and is under no illusions about what many of his school mates think of him. "I'm not cool," he said. "I am going to university to study sociology, psychology, history and politics." His father went to university and his uncle is still a student.
"He studies all sorts of weird stuff and reads loads of weird books. They talk about whether the chair is really there or not, stuff like that. It's great. I want to become a politician."
Assistant head Frank Carden says the school has better-than-average GCSE results. The problem is the staying-on rate, which is no better than neighbouring schools that do not achieve the same standard at GCSE.
"One thing we do know, this is not about a lack of ability," he said. "It's the attitude of mind."
The school has set up a scheme for year-nine pupils to take part in a week of activities in a bid to reverse the trend.
Oxford Brookes offers passport to university
Ricky Venn , a year-ten pupil from Cheney School in Oxford, attended a passport workshop run by Oxford Brookes University's widening participation unit.
Part of a group of about 40 chosen because they had the potential to go to university but would not have considered it automatically, he shared the group's enthusiasm for the day.
"This is great. I would really like to go to university. I want to be a chef - I do all the cooking at home - and want to study so that I can be the best," he said.
The government's aim is that in eight years, half of all people under 30 will go on to some form of higher education.
"I'm not worried by that," Ricky said. "It is up to me to be in that 50 per cent - I just need to do the work."
Ben Goodenough is unsure about higher education, although he wants to stay on in the sixth form and says his parents are keen for him to continue with his studies.
"A cousin of mine has just gone to university and everyone in the family is talking about it," he said.
"But I need to get good grades before I decide what to do."
Mentors try to make a difference in Bristol
Ross Whiting says he is not sure if he will stay on after 16, let alone go to university. He is the only white pupil in a group of eight year-tens being mentored by students from the universities of the West of England and Bristol.
His lack of enthusiasm contrasts with the rest of the group, all of whom are from ethnic minorities.
His school, Fairfield High School in Bristol, is an inner-city school with low progression rates to higher education. It is popular and famous locally because Cary Grant went there.
The school is one of two secondary schools in the Bristol Education Action Zone that will be absorbed into the Excellence in Cities initiative. Both aim to raise aspirations among pupils. The one-to-one mentoring scheme is part of one of many initiatives set up recently.
At a session to assess the success of the scheme, Ross said he did not want to continue with it.
"I don't feel I got a lot of help," he said. But the experience was not entirely negative. "It is good to talk to someone more in touch than teachers or your parents."
And he particularly enjoyed his visit to UWE. This visit, more than anything, might push him towards university. "It was good to talk to students and find out what they do," he said. His parents would be keen for him to go, but he has not thought about the financial implications.
On the other side of Bristol, Simon Tsangari , a pupil at St Thomas More School, another inner-city school in the Excellence in Cities initiative, is more certain of his future. He wants to join the Royal Air Force.
He says he is good at sport, is studying for nine GSCEs, and is proud that he is predicted to get good grades. He is keen on maths, sports studies and geography.
The school is determined that Simon should realise his potential, and he is being mentored by Lloyd Sutherland.
"I'm continually pushed by Lloyd. I'm not used to it," Simon said. "He always tells me I am capable of doing things and stresses that I must not get behind with my work."
His parents did not go to university, although his mother may enrol on a sociology course next term.
Simon said he is keen not to get into debt. "I'm going to the RAF careers office tomorrow with my mum. I want the RAF to fund my studies."
He was impressed with his visit to UWE and particularly liked the sports centre.
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