Newcomers swell ranks of old elite

December 3, 1999

The myth that new universities are better than old at social inclusion was shattered today by the publication of the sector's first performance indicators.

New university Oxford Brookes was named most under-performing institution by this measure, with just 5.5 per cent of its young full-time undergraduate intake coming from the least affluent neighbourhoods, shown by postcode. A typical institution with Oxford Brookes's entry grades and subject mix should expect to enrol 13 per cent of students from this group.

Of the five large institutions that under-performed most in this respect, two were old universities, two new universities and one a higher education college.

The figures, published today by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, show that the majority of universities and colleges have a long way to go to broaden access to all able students. Even those that take a high proportion of students from state schools tend to select students from higher social classes.

"Young people from wealthy areas are ten times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest backgrounds. We are keen to tackle this situation because it is preventing people of ability from benefiting from higher education," said Sir Brian Fender, HEFCE chief executive.

Oxford Brookes's vice-chancellor Graham Upton said that his university's performance reflected its catchment area. "As a new university, we draw from the local region. We are in the middle of rural Oxfordshire in affluent southeast England," he said.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "To some extent, the performance indicators are influenced by geography and the proportion of students recruited locally."

Institutions have responded to government calls to widen access, Baroness Warwick added. "Even those that have not focused on it and made widening participation part of their mission statements have recognised the possibility of persuading students who would not usually think of university to consider it," she said.

The funding councils have asked all institutions to produce a strategy for widening participation and HEFCE plans to use the performance indicators to identify good practice.

Drop-out figures for all institutions were published at the same time. The data reveal that, nationally, 18 per cent of full-time degree students fail to complete their studies. In general, institutions that did well at widening access also had high drop-out rates. "Universities exist to enhance opportunities for the widest range of students and to support them to succeed, whatever their socioeconomic origins. The reasons for non-completion are complex," said Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University and vice-president of the CVCP.

There are, however, discrepancies in drop-out rates between comparable institutions. At University College, Northampton, for example, out of 179 mature, full-time, first-degree students who already possessed a higher education qualification, two-fifths dropped out.

Funding council chiefs were swift to point out that the UK performs well internationally in terms of non-completion. France has a drop-out rate of 45 per cent, the US 37 per cent and Germany 28 per cent, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The performance indicators, which cover widening participation, student progression, learning outcomes, efficiency and research, will be issued annually. Further indicators are being developed, covering part-time and postgraduate students and graduate employ-ability.

Leader, page 14, Soapbox, page 16

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