Sutton Trust highlights success of outreach efforts amid controversy

November 5, 2004

The "spurious debate" about social engineering in higher education has overshadowed the fact that 15,000 extra state-school pupils have gained places at top research universities over the past five years, according to the Sutton Trust charity, writes Paul Hill.

A report published by the trust this week suggests that universities have made significant inroads in terms of widening student intakes, with a 35 per cent rise in the number of undergraduates from state schools between 1997-98 and 2002-03.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the trust, said that the recent row about a "discredited system" of benchmarks for widening participation should not be allowed to undermine the success of summer schools and outreach projects.

The benchmarks, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, were intended to give a broad indication of the proportion of state-school entrants that each university might be expected to attract based on its size and location.

But a change in the method for calculating the figures saw the benchmarks rise for Russell Group institutions - prompting claims that the Government was dabbling in social engineering.

Sir Peter said: "Ministers should not allow the controversy over the new benchmarks to undermine the success of a range of outreach initiatives.

"They should instead ask the new director of fair access, Professor Sir Martin Harris, to work with universities to continue to develop their outreach activities and to develop benchmarks that reflect their actual admission standards, setting challenging but realistic goals for the future."

But he added that despite the increase in undergraduates from state schools since 1997, 3,000 young people from poor backgrounds each year failed to claim their rightful place at a "top 13" university.

The Times Higher revealed in July that the social-class gap in UK universities widened during Tony Blair's first term in Downing Street.

Academics at the Institute of Education, University of London, charted the likelihood of young people from every UK postcode going to university, from the twilight years of the last Conservative Government through David Blunkett's tenure as the first Education Secretary under new Labour.

They found that all social classes were more likely to go to university between 1994-95 and 2001-02, but participation increased much more rapidly among the aspirant lower-middle classes and those from professional and affluent backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, welcomed the Sutton Trust report and said that he was considering ways of improving the benchmark system.

"It is a shame that this year's benchmarks caused such a storm," Dr Howells said.

"The fact is our universities are getting better at opening up their doors to a wider group of students and this Sutton Trust report is the proof."

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