Jacks of all trades pave the way to participation

January 18, 2002

Widening access can be combined successfully with low dropout rates and excellence in teaching and research, according to an analysis by The THES . Some 30 UK universities do particularly well by their students, offering access to those from poor backgrounds - and then keeping them, writes Alison Goddard.

The access elite are dominated by Scottish institutions, with some Welsh universities. Those in the north of England also do well.

The list compiled by The THES includes three Russell Group members (the universities of Glasgow, Liverpool and Sheffield), a medical school (University of Wales College of Medicine) and four former polytechnics (Sheffield Hallam University, Nottingham Trent University, and the universities of Westminster and Portsmouth).

The access elite universities visited by The THES take a flexible approach to meeting the needs of students. They offer a climate in which non-traditional students can succeed, rather than giving a traditional course to those with no family experience of higher education.

Many of the institutions have high numbers of part-time and mature students; flexibility is particularly important to these groups. Note, however, that the funding councils excluded part-time and mature students from the performance indicators for access, and part-time students from the performance indicators for retention.

An integrated approach to student services is also a crucial factor. Institutions that weave a web to catch students before they fall too far do well in attracting and keeping students.

Finally, there is a geographical element. Most of the access elite are in the north. Outside Wales, only four are south of Birmingham. The funding councils are developing a method of taking location into account when calculating the benchmarks for performance indicators.

To become part of the access elite, each institution had to meet four criteria on access, dropouts, teaching and research. They had to perform better than average on the first two measures and demonstrate excellence in the second two.

To scale the first peak, each university or college had to take more than the national average of young full-time undergraduates from poor backgrounds, as measured by their home postcodes. The national average is 13 per cent; a third of young people live in these postcode areas.

The average varies by country with institutions. Scotland takes more poor students (18 per cent) than Wales (16 per cent), England (12 per cent) and Northern Ireland (9 per cent).

Once a university or college has attracted these students, the next job is to keep them. Institutions with high access rates tend to also have high dropout rates. The THES took the median dropout rate by the end of the first year of the institutions with better-than-average access rates, which was 10 per cent.

To remain in the running, each institution then had to demonstrate a good record in teaching and research. Good teaching was defined as making a substantial to full contribution to meeting the aims of the course. Institutions had to score more than 20, as the mean of all subject reviews.

Good research was defined as displaying national excellence in more than two-thirds of the research staff submitted to the research assessment exercise (grade 3a) or better, calculated as an average per researcher submitted to the exercise. Small volumes of excellent research were thus included. Some of the institutions had research displaying international excellence in up to half of the research activity submitted to the RAE (grade 5).

The data on access and dropout rates came from the performance indicators published by the funding councils last year.

The access rates covered young full-time undergraduate entrants from low-participation neighbourhoods starting their courses in autumn 1999.

The dropout rates referred to full-time first-degree entrants starting their courses in 1998 who had dropped out of higher education during the first year of study.

If an institution's performance indicators were unreported at any stage, it was eliminated from the competition.

The teaching data were taken from the league table published in The THES in May 2001. They were based on the mean of subject reviews and secondary education subject scores across the institution as published by the funding councils, the Quality Assurance Agency and Ofsted up to July 2000. Non-numerical scores were assigned a numerical value based on the proportions achieving each score.

Scottish and Welsh results were translated differently where they preceded the English assessment to allow for grade drift. The maximum possible score was 24.

Some institutions were omitted from the 2001 table. A teaching score was calculated for these institutions to ensure that teaching was of high enough quality for the institutions to be included in the access elite. But it was not published in the table because the data cover a longer period.

The research data were taken from last month's RAE, calculated as an average per researcher submitted to the exercise.

Guide to THES access elite stories

   Scaling the heights: THES access elite table
  Poor face a steep climb
  Leader: Institutions hold trump cards in widening access
  Sheffield Hallam University
  Strathclyde university
  Stirling university
  Institutions attacked for bias against poor
  Hard-up white men continue to elude recruiters
  US offers cash to lure poor to college

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