Detailed data showing “cold spots” in higher education provision across England have revealed for the first time gaps in subject provision, student mobility and graduate employment.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England hopes that maps created with the information will spur universities to work with local partners to identify and fill gaps using tailored local solutions.
Earlier this year, David Willetts, who was then universities and science minister, asked Hefce to look at how to help institutions boost higher education in such cold spots. The resulting interactive maps, published by Hefce on 1 October, probe deeper into higher education coverage than previous work by exploring underlying factors determining participation.
Data on higher education progression by ward, for example, show that the proportion of students from some parts of Leeds, Birmingham and East London who begin undergraduate-level study is lower than expected given GCSE attainment. By contrast, the outskirts of Liverpool and the majority of areas around Cheshire have participation rates higher than expected by GCSE grades.
Armed with this information, universities can begin to discuss the matters with local schools, said Yvonne Hawkins, director of universities and colleges at Hefce. “Different types of cold spots are emerging because of the level of detail these maps go into.”
Examining the coverage of specific subjects may allow universities to find previously hidden gaps in provision. Despite the North East of England’s good overall level of higher education provision, for example, there are relatively few places for undergraduate maths, the maps reveal.
Explaining the “logic” of the maps, Ms Hawkins said that they allow universities to talk with local enterprise partnerships and other key players in a region - such as further education colleges and employers - to improve provision.
“Local enterprise partnerships are…considering how to invest and deliver their strategic economic plans. This provides them with a really good evidence base to explore opportunities, needs and demands.”
The areas with the lowest higher education provision - even when allowing for the population of young people who could go to university - have changed little since the last mapping exercise in the late 2000s, according to Mark Gittoes, head of analysis for policy at Hefce. These cold spots remain the South West, the Cumbrian coastline, Humberside and North Yorkshire and the East of England.
Ms Hawkins said that some regions that have improved provision have required a “huge amount of investment and some risk-sharing on the part of the universities”, citing a £100 million partnership in Cornwall uniting universities and further education providers to provide new facilities for students.
But there have been less capital-intensive initiatives, she said, pointing to Teesside, where a strategic partnership involved universities working with an existing network of further education colleges to improve provision geographically.