White males from the lowest social classes remain underrepresented in England's universities. They need to be recruited in large numbers to meet the government's expansion targets, according to the National Audit Office, writes Phil Baty.
The task will require funding reforms and moves to force universities to change their attitudes. These will need to be underpinned by a major drive to raise standards in schools.
The NAO's report, Widening Participation in Higher Education in England , says that women and ethnic minorities are well represented. Women make up 57 per cent of students, although they account for just under 50 per cent of the working-age population. Ethnic minorities make up 15 per cent of students, compared with 6 per cent in the population.
White males, largely from the lowest social groups, remain a serious concern. This is despite universities doubling the numbers of students from the lowest social class V since 1991.
Poorer and disabled students continue to face major obstacles to higher education, the root cause of which is the school system. Both groups attain lower results at GCSE, are less likely to still be in education at 16 and are less likely to gain A levels.
"Lower academic attainment at age 18 accounts for most of the lower participation in higher education by 18-year-olds from poorer social classes or with disabilities," the report says.
"However, even with A levels or their equivalent, people with disabilities are 20 per cent less likely to participate and people from poorer social classes are 14 per cent less likely."
This can be explained partly by cultural problems. Poorer students have greater concerns about their ability to complete courses and are less convinced of the future benefits of higher education. Their fears are real: graduates from social class V earn on average 7 per cent less than those from the higher social class I. The difference remains even after allowing for the effects of degree class, subject and earlier qualifications.
Poorer students are also put off by fear of debt and a confusing support system, often leaving them unsure of their entitlements before making the commitment to university life.
The NAO report contains a rare political comment: "The removal of the means-tested grant is likely to have widened the gap between social classesI Support for the poorest students has switched from non-repayable grant to income-contingent loan." The NAO recommends that "the Department for Education and Skills should streamline the sources of financial support". It also urges the DFES to look again at financial support for part-time students.
But the problems are exacerbated by prejudice among admissions tutors. Applications from students in lower social groups "are less likely than average to convert to accepted places", the report says.
"There is widespread activity to raise aspirations and awareness (of poorer students) but much less to ensure that applications from people in groups with low representation have a fair chance of succeeding."
The NAO recommends better monitoring by universities, clearer action by the DFES on best practice and external monitoring by funding chiefs.
"The funding council should establish a method to measure and monitor fairness in admissions," the NAO says.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England's widening-participation funds could also be put to better use. Universities are given cash through "premiums" worth £70 million for part-time, mature and disabled students. There is also a £31 million fund to pay 5 per cent more for each full-time student recruited from postcodes with below average participation.
But the NAO found that some £10.6 million was being spent on premiums for part-time students who already have degree-level qualifications.
"Attracting these students does not contribute to widening participation objectives," the report says. There was similar, but lower, waste in the mature-student premium system.
The postcode approach, based on crude clusters provided by the marketing industry, is also limited, the NAO says.
Universities are urged to put forward a better case for increased funding.
The NAO recommends:
- Institutions should improve their costing information
- Funding council should review distribution of funding
- The department should streamline student support
- Institutions should monitor their processing of applications to ensure fairness
- Funding council should work out how to measure fairness in selection
- The department should ask its working group to develop good-practice principles in selection.
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