Hefce must keep closer eye on widening access, say MPs

Specific improvement plans needed for badly performing universities as working-class participation rises just two percentage points in four years. Melanie Newman reports

February 26, 2009

The Higher Education Funding Council for England should agree “specific improvement plans” for universities that admit few students from under-represented groups, a cross-party committee of MPs has recommended.

Although the participation levels of young full-time working-class students has improved slightly, by two percentage points over the past four years, MPs want Hefce to do more.

Universities in the Russell Group of 20 large research-intensive institutions “generally perform significantly below their performance benchmarks” in addressing the issue of widening participation, the Commons Public Accounts Committee says in a report to be published on 26 February.

“The existing funding formula is not designed to provide incentives for universities to widen participation. [Hefce] should agree specific improvement plans for those universities performing consistently poorly,” the Widening Participation in HE report recommends.

“Accountability for performance remains weak because Hefce does not require universities to provide information on widening-participation activities and expenditure,” it adds.

The committee also criticised the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills for knowing too little about how universities have used the £392 million allocated to them over the last five years to widen participation.

However, this “should improve with the planned reintroduction of the requirement for universities to report on their strategies and activities”, the report says.

The committee also recommended that DIUS develop a single source of information to enable students to identify bursaries and grants.

The committee noted that about 12,000 students did not apply for bursaries in 2006-07, although many were likely to have been eligible.

More than twice the proportion of people from upper socio-economic backgrounds currently goes to university compared with lower socio-economic groups. The latter make up about half of England’s population but represent only 29 per cent of young full-time first entrants to university.


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