Government policies aimed at widening access to education through technology are failing -and universities are also missing the mark, because of poorly designed websites - according to research published this week.
Digital Decisions: The Role of New Technology in Widening Access to Education, by Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University Management School, reveals that the digital divide is being reinforced as routes to information and opportunities in higher education favour economic groups most likely to have access to the internet.
But even when young information seekers get to the relevant sites, they are often unimpressed by the way the data are presented. As a result, universities may be losing potential students.
Dr Hesketh's report, commissioned by Teletext and presented at a launch conference in London earlier this week, suggests that more work needs to be done to improve provision of access, increase web-use skills and provide more platforms for information.
Teletext also launched its Campus service for prospective students (Teletext pages 640-59 and www.teletext.co.uk) at the conference.
"The real skill now is how to teach students to manage the information out there," Dr Hesketh said. "We also need to be much more sophisticated in the way we present information."
The research also points to a need for the widest possible use of complementary information technologies, including analogue and digital television, and wireless application protocol services.
"Tony Blair is right to be very worried about the digital divide. The point is that the trickle-down effect from higher socioeconomic groups is not permanent," Dr Hesketh said.
His report also emphasises that the government's continued focus on the importance of economic factors in higher education policy-making does not match with what is happening in the real world. The research shows that students are not making decisions based on hard economic issues. Universities are faced with less rational and more discerning customers.
"Universities are dealing with consumers who continue to champion the less instrumental factors of what life as a student will be like, such as the number of bars and restaurants in the town, rather than economic criteria. University life is an experience good, not an economic good."
The internet has huge potential for delivering information to would-be students. However, Dr Hesketh's research reveals that universities have not found an appropriate balance in delivering the information that students want.
There is a real need to change the content of the information available online. For example, most universities simply replicate the printed prospectus on their websites.
Of the 60 per cent of students who have access to the web and are looking at higher education websites, most feel lukewarm about them.
The majority of students would like universities and colleges to be more innovative in their e-marketing, which is seen as unimaginative.
Dr Hesketh said that in less than 18 months, the internet and new forms of technology had revolutionised young people's decision-making about higher education. But for adult learners seeking to investigate similar education opportunities, the internet is less important.
For this sector, he said, there is a real need for a medium to reach single people in their mid-30s. This will also help give access to lower socioeconomic groups.
Digital decisions, page 23 Teaching, page 38