Measures of success

May 10, 2002

As universities work to widen participation, Alan Wilson asks how we can chart their performance

Since the Laura Spence debacle, widening access has been high on the political agenda, reinforced by the government's 50 per cent target for higher education participation. But how can university performance in this area be measured and benchmarked? How can the Higher Education Funding Council for England support the additional costs of teaching new recruits and encourage universities to develop widening participation initiatives?

We can start with some broad principles. There should be equality of opportunity of access - perhaps measured in terms of A-level (or other) qualifications. Assuming that ability is distributed evenly across social class, we can see from statistics that social class is still a barrier to university entry. The problem is not just the universities'

responsibilities but extends to schools and families and beyond connecting to all the problems of deprived neighbourhoods. There are no easy or easily identifiable solutions. We need to disentangle what is reasonably the responsibility of universities in all this.

Looking at the data available, we can assess the percentages, say, of state-school applicants and their success rate, A-level results being equal. We can try to ascertain the percentages a university might be expected to take from disadvantaged areas and then measure it against the reality. This is, in fact, what Hefce has done, and the data are likely to be the basis of future targets. Hefce has also tackled the funding support issue through a premium for students from designated postcodes.

It is possible, however, to focus not just on university admissions statistics but on improving opportunities from the bottom up in deprived areas.

It has been reported that there is a factor of ten or more between "cold spots" and "hot spots" in relation to the percentage of 18-year-olds accepted for higher education, due mainly to social class distinction. It is a variation that is typical of many other social and geographical indicators. The admissions indicator can be taken as a measure of university performance; the "area effectiveness" indicator is in effect a set of broader measures of government performance. The system is complex because any university will take students from many areas, and any area will typically be served by many universities. The methods for calculating these different kinds of measures are well understood but they have not been fully applied in the sector. So this a plea not only for understanding, it is a plea for an applied research programme to provide the information needed for a more informed debate on how we can improve widening-access programmes.

But some significant conclusions can be drawn even now. First, current methods can be refined. Geographers will show that postcodes always contain a mix of family types, leading to an underestimate of widening participation by universities in London, for example. But methods such as microsimulation can provide more accurate data. Second, the widening-access issue can be resolved only with policies aimed at universities and at specific geographical areas, with universities playing a part but in a coordinated programme with a variety of agencies.

University indicators will show that progress still needs to be made but that there is commitment to getting things right.

The geography issue is much more difficult. Academic performance of pupils in schools in deprived areas is typically poor but this is not just the schools' fault. If resources could be targeted at deprived areas in a joined-up way, then this would make the biggest contribution to widening access. Universities could play their role in such programmes, and many already do, for example, through summer schools.

They could do more, but so could the government. There is a need for a national research programme that will give the debate a proper basis and for an integrated programme of support to local areas that embraces a range of agencies, both local and central. The effective delivery indicators for areas would then be as much a test of joined-up government as of university performance.

Sir Alan Wilson is vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds.

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