Hefce may axe postcode cash

May 3, 2002

Only a quarter of universities would get extra cash to widen participation under plans being developed by English funding chiefs.

The idea is to provide outreach funding to all, but to concentrate further funding on those universities most engaged in widening participation. The postcode premium would be abolished and replaced with a bonus for taking students with low entry qualifications. But not all universities taking such students would receive the extra cash.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has long argued there is a direct inverse relationship between entry grades and dropout rates - students well prepared for higher education stick to the course, while those less prepared are more likely to drop out.

The council is considering whether institutions with large numbers of students at risk of dropping out incur a step change in costs that should be recognised.

This approach would silence criticism of the postcode premium, where institutions receive a 10 per cent bonus for each student they recruit from a neighbourhood where the participation rate is less than a third of the national average.

Damian Green, the Conservative education spokesman, last week attacked the funding council for refusing to list which postcodes attracted the premium. Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of Hefce, told Mr Green he was unable to release the data under the terms of the licensing agreement with the owners of the postcode classifications.

Some universities, for example the University of Newcastle, buy the data and supply it to admissions officers.

Concentrating extra widening participation cash on a quarter of universities could have drawbacks. The consultation paper released by the funding council states: "The risk is that institutions which did not receive additional funding might consider themselves excused from the need to widen participation. Widening participation should need no incentive."

Costs associated with outreach activities will in future be met by the Partnerships for Progression programme.

The funding council has bid for "substantial" extra cash for widening participation in the comprehensive spending review, which will be announced in July.

Education secretary Estelle Morris has asked the funding council to develop sector-wide targets for increased participation, widened participation, fair access and retention. The funding council will set individual targets for universities and colleges.

An independent evaluation of the funding council's widening participation policy will be published in summer. It will warn of the dangers of institutions distorting their missions by chasing performance indicators rather than meeting policy intentions, while others do good relevant work that is not measured by the performance indicators.

Universities need nearly £120 million more to cover the extra costs of educating students from poor backgrounds, according to a forthcoming report, writes Alan Thomson.

Interim findings show that the access premium for poorer students should be raised to about £165 million. Next year, the access premium is worth £47 million to universities.

The report, by Universities UK and Hefce, reveals that students from poorer backgrounds cost about £1,500 more to recruit and retain than their middle-class peers. The differential is due to the extra costs of encouraging poorer students to come to university and to the costs of providing academic and pastoral help while they study.

Announcing the interim findings, UUK chief executive Baroness Warwick said that this implied an access premium per poorer student of about 35 per cent. The access premium for next year is 10 per cent.

Baroness Warwick, speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, said: "We would not want to encourage more students from less well-off backgrounds to enter higher education only for them to be deprived of a first-class education when they got there."

'Don't patronise disadvantaged students'

Enrolling students from disadvantaged backgrounds by offering them lower admissions grades is patronising and demotivating, according to academics at Lincoln University who are piloting an alternative scheme, writes Alison Utley.

Lincoln's scheme builds on the accreditation of prior experience for able 15-year-olds who are in danger of slipping through the net.

Catherine Foster, its leader, said early results suggested it had raised participation from an average of 8 per cent to something nearer 25 per cent.

"Mature students can claim credit for their relevant experiences and now we are seeking to do the same with 'pre-mature' students, by identifying what experiences will be relevant and offering them admission credit," Ms Foster said.

Gifted pupils, identified by teachers, are offered an early conditional offer to study at Lincoln if they successfully complete a record of learning goals.

"While A levels have traditionally been a passport into higher education, they have never been evidence of preparation for higher education," said Ms Foster. "We are not lowering the barriers."

Achievements can include examination results but also activities such as performing in a school production, team-working projects, public speaking or experience with new technologies.

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