Social class under microscope

May 30, 1997

DETAILED guidance on students' backgrounds is to be made available to all universities under a scheme now being piloted.

From next spring, institutions will be able to receive profiles of their own typical applicants and those of their rivals under a deal with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The move marks an increasing interest in the social class of students as universities try to appeal to a wider market.

Research in Scotland, based on postcodes, has found social background varies greatly between students at different kinds of universities. On average, 78 per cent of students in Scotland's seven old universities come from the wealthiest areas while in its five new universities the proportion drops to under 68 per cent. The rate varies between more than 85 per cent of students at one traditional institution to under 57 per cent at a new university.

A similar recent survey, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found young people from wealthy areas were more than five times as likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest.

Talks are taking place with the researchers about incorporating the information in the UCAS scheme. Other data drawn from the UCAS application form, including students' qualifications, schooling and their parents' occupations, is already being compiled.

The scheme is designed to help universities plan their recruitment and marketing programmes more effectively. It will show which subjects attract students from particular regions, ethnic groups, social classes and ages and will be able to compare data between similar institutions. The information about students will be anonymous and individual institutions will only be named if they agree first.

Professor John Little, head of civil engineering at Paisley University and author of the postcode-based research in Scotland, said examining the social background of first-year students could help measure "added value".

"At my institution we are taking kids who come from large public-sector schools and socially deprived areas and bringing them up to a level comparable with other universities in terms of their final awards," he said.

Peter Batey, who carried out the research for Hefce, said: "The information will help universities anticipate students' financial problems and will have implications for university back-up services."

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