Universities’ efforts to improve access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being weakened by over-reliance on data about where applicants live, rather than their individual circumstances, a study suggests.
A survey of senior managers overseeing widening participation at UK higher education providers found that almost all used data on low participation neighbourhoods to help target their activities and evaluate their efficacy, even though more than half had concerns about its precision.
Neil Harrison, senior lecturer in education at the University of the West of England, who carried out the survey with colleagues Richard Waller and Kathryn Last, warned that the participation of local areas (POLAR) data could group together thousands of households and therefore mask widespread variation in prosperity.
The widespread use of low participation neighbourhood data appears to be driven by its availability, and the need to be able to set verifiable targets as required by the Office for Fair Access, Dr Harrison said.
Of the 57 institutions that responded to the survey, 60 per cent felt that increasing applications from disadvantaged areas and schools would be as big a success (46 per cent) or bigger (14 per cent) than increasing applications from disadvantaged individuals.
Fifty-three per cent of respondents said that recruiting an advantaged student from a disadvantaged area would represent as good a result (39 per cent) or better (14 per cent) than recruiting a disadvantaged student from an advantaged neighbourhood.
Most survey respondents regarded other widening participation markers, such as parental occupation, ethnicity and eligibility for free school meals, to be more precise than neighbourhood data. But concerns about the availability and reliability of this data were much more widespread, and they were used less frequently.
Dr Harrison warned that over-reliance on low participation neighbourhood data could create “perverse incentives” for universities.
“If institutions are giving extra help to already advantaged young people, they are making the problem worse, not better,” he said.
The survey, funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education, found that institutions’ interactions with schools offered further opportunities for “leakage”.
Only 48 per cent of respondents restricted advantaged individuals from taking part in widening participation activities in disadvantaged schools or areas. Most relied on schools to identify a potential cohort for engagement, but only 72 per cent were generally or always confident that this process yielded an appropriately disadvantaged group.
Some respondents commented that teachers were likely to select gifted and talented pupils, or those who would best represent the school externally.
Les Ebdon, the director of Offa, said that institutions should use a “balance scorecard” of widening participation indicators.
“We really do encourage universities to use a range of different targets,” Professor Ebdon said. “If you have an over-reliance on any one measure of disadvantage, you might be more susceptible to the quirks of that measure.”
However, he also highlighted research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that found that, while there was variation in the number of disadvantaged children within a district, the majority of such youngsters were likely to live in areas with POLAR ratings that were not substantially different from that of the district as a whole.