Paisley puts the elite to shame

October 6, 2000

Alison Goddard Indicators show privilege is still the passport to university and top institutions are doing the least to redress the balance. Alison Goddard reports

The full extent of the task to widen participation is revealed today by the latest performance indicators.

Half the young full-time undergraduates at the University of Oxford and 47 per cent of those at the University of Cambridge come from independent schools, the figures showed.

Overall, 14 per cent of young full-time undergraduates had attended an independent school or college. Yet, for the country as a whole, only 5 per cent of 17-year-olds attend such an institution.

At Cambridge, just 8 per cent of young full-time undergraduates come from the three lowest social classes. At Oxford the figure is 9 per cent. Overall, 26 per cent of young full-time undergraduates came from the lower social classes. Yet nationally, this group forms half of the population.

Just 4 per cent and 5 per cent of young full-time undergraduates come from under-represented neighbourhoods. Overall, 13 per cent came from these areas.

Across the country a third of young people live in low-participation areas - defined as those where the rate of participation in higher education for people under the age of 21 has been less than two-thirds of the national average for the past four years.

Sir Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "It's a long haul. Because it depends on so many factors, it will take time.

"We are trying to support students (from under-represented neighbourhoods) through their institutions. We are trying to make sure, at the same time, that opportunities exist for state school students. Then we have a set of programmes looking for best practice. The next step will be to scour the world to see what other approaches there are to widening participation."

The performance indicators relate to students enrolled in 1998-99 - before the government introduced measures to reward institutions that attract students from under-represented areas. But the data were attacked for failing to recognise the true extent of the gulf between the university population and the general population.

Each institution has been judged against a benchmark calculated to take account of its entry requirements and subject mix. According to the funding councils, "the benchmarks provide a sector value with which an institution's values can be compared".

Maggie Woodrow, head of the European Access Network, said: "Benchmarks lend credence to a hierarchy of institutions, and that worries me. I don't see why it is more acceptable to have fewer students from poor backgrounds because you offer subjects such as medicine.

"I don't like the whole idea that institutions belong to groups according to the subjects they offer and their entry requirements. The benchmark system makes some universities that are not doing a great deal to widen participation look better than they are."

Sir Brian said: "Benchmarks give a point of reference that reflects the national position, but I hope institutions will do better than that. If institutions are below their benchmarks, the first target would be the benchmark. If success was achieved, benchmarks would get harder as the benchmark reflected the national average."

Performance indicators are part of a series of measures devised by funding chiefs. They include how well each institution widens access and are split into level of study, for young and mature students, full-time and part-time, from various different groups under-represented in higher education. Another indicator shows how well each institution retains students from different groups. Other indicators show the time it takes students at each institution to complete their qualifications. A research indicator is also included.

The funding chiefs then calculate a benchmark figure that is printed alongside each performance indicator. The benchmark takes into account the entry grades required by that institution and the subjects it offers, based on a national average.

Under the scheme, for example, a university that asked potential students for high A-level entry grades and then enrolled them to read medicine would have a lower benchmark for the proportion of students it was expected to enrol from poor neighbourhoods than one that asked for lower A-level entry grades and then offered them media studies.

Comparing each institution's performance against its benchmark reveals a whole new league of unwitting discrimination.

Ten institutions have benchmarks for recruiting students from under-represented areas below 10 per cent - less than a third of that which would reflect the population as a whole. (Institutions with fewer than 1,000 students have been omitted throughout.) Nine of the ten are Russell Group institutions: Cambridge; Oxford; Imperial College; the universities of Bristol, Birmingham, Durham, Nottingham and Warwick; and University College London. They fail to meet even these extremely low benchmarks.

Bristol and University College London are singled out by the funding council as achieving "significantly worse" than their benchmarks. Oxford is in a similar position - it enrols 4 per cent of full-time young undergraduates from under-represented neighbourhoods against a benchmark of 7 per cent.

Only the tenth, the University of York, not a member of the Russell Group, achieves its benchmark. Proportionally, the most socially exclusive university is a post-1992 institution. Bournemouth University has taken over from Oxford Brookes in recruiting the lowest number of students from poor neighbourhoods compared with the amount that could be expected.

Just 7 per cent of young full-time undergraduates at Bournemouth University come from low-participation areas. Twice as many, 14 per cent, could be expected to come from these areas.

A spokesman for the university said: "It's our location. Other institutions with similar locations seem to have a similar shortfall. The university is in a semi-rural region. If you recruit kids from inner cities, they might not be happy when they get here. We stand next to Bradford at recruitment fairs. Bradford is known for its Asian culture; Bournemouth is not." The university has links with local schools and colleges to raise awareness of higher education, he added.

Other institutions that fell well short of their benchmark figures for students from under-represented neighbourhoods include Oxford Brookes and the University of Southampton.

The indicators reveal which institutions are best at keeping their students. Just 1 per cent of young full-time first-degree students drop out from Cambridge and 2 per cent from Oxford. At the other end of the spectrum, 19 per cent drop out from the University of North London.

Other institutions demonstrate the link between performing well at attracting students from under-represented groups and performing poorly at retaining students overall. For example, the University of Paisley has the best record on widening participation. It takes 34 per cent of its young full-time undergraduates from under-represented areas, the same proportion as live in those neighbourhoods nationally, compared with a benchmark of 17 per cent. But 16 per cent drop out, compared with a benchmark of 11 per cent.

Yet there are some institutions that excel at both recruiting and retaining students from under-represented neighbourhoods.

The University of Northumbria at Newcastle, for example, takes 18 per cent of young full-time undergraduates from under-represented neighbourhoods compared with its 16 per cent benchmark. Still, it loses fewer students than expected - 8 per cent compared with its benchmark of 9 per cent.

Comparing the proportion of students who drop out with the predicted benchmark makes interesting reading, placing many Russell Group institutions alongside less prestigious ones.

In London, Imperial College's dropout rate has jumped to 5 per cent for young full-time first-degree entrants, which is very high against its 3 per cent benchmark. Vernon McClure, academic registrar at Imperial College, said: "We have a 5 per cent exam failure rate. If there are concerns in particular areas, I would ask questions. If we have increasing dropout rates, we would look at that.

"Sometimes when students don't continue on our courses they go to institutions elsewhere. People decide not to carry on for all sorts of personal reasons. We have never got less than 21 points in a teaching quality assessment."

Next comes Glasgow Caledonian University, with a dropout rate of 14 per cent against its benchmark of 9 per cent.

University College London and the University of Manchester both have 6 per cent dropout rates against a benchmark of 4 per cent. Proportionally, this is almost identical to the University of North London and the University of Paisley, which have actual dropout rates of 19 per cent and 16 per cent against benchmarks of 13 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively.

Performance indicators, which were first published last December, will be updated annually. The overall figures show little change from last year other than a fall in the proportion of full-time mature students and a decline in those coming from independent schools. An employability indicator will be issued for each institution in March 2001.

Soapbox, page 16 Details: http://www.hefce.ac.uk

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