Widening participation statistics tell a story ... but it's not the whole story

December 3, 1999

Thames Valley University receives less money than it should for widening participation among poorer people, according to the performance indicators.

The university, which is implementing a recovery plan after serious recruitment and administration problems were highlighted in a quality report in November 1998, recruited 12 per cent of its young full-time undergraduates from low participation neighbourhoods (LPNs) when it should have recruited 16 per cent. Money is awarded on the strength of an institution's ability to recruit in LPNs.

It means that even though the indicators show that TVU recruits 41 per cent of students from the poorest social classes IIIM, IV and V, well above its benchmarked 34 per cent, it has not benefited financially because of the LPN cash premium.

It indicates that TVU draws large numbers of poorer people from within postcode areas, such as Ealing, which are predominantly affluent.

A spokeswoman said: "It is clear that the low participation neighbourhood rate does throw up some interesting results for TVU. But just because an institution does not draw the majority of its students from an LPN does not mean that it is not attracting poorer students."

TVU recruited 10 per cent of mature undergraduates from poorer postcode areas when they should have made up 15 per cent of students. Nine per cent of young students from poor areas were on part-time degree courses when the figure should have been 16 per cent. Just 2 per cent of students were mature part-timers from poor areas when there should have been 5 per cent.

The performance indicators refer to 1997-98, which was prior to the damning Quality Assurance Agency report.

Exeter University's image as a place for "posh" people seems to be borne out by the performance indicators.

Exeter falls spectacularly short of the benchmarks on widening participation indicators. Ten per cent of its young full-time undergraduates should be recruited from poor areas. In fact, only 5 per cent are. The university should recruit 17 per cent of young part-time undergraduates from poor areas. It recruits none.

Yet the indicators hold no surprises for vice-chancellor Sir Geoffrey Holland who also happens to think indicators are a good idea. Sir Geoffrey said that the indicators do not take account of the problems of widening access in rural regions with a widely dispersed population lacking poor postcode areas.

Sir Geoffrey said: "Nothing surprises me. We do not have a large resident population. But it is not as if we are not trying to widen access. We have established a higher education centre in Yeovil to attract students from Somerset and we are working with the University of Plymouth in Cornwall.

"Mature full-time numbers are growing. We are working with the local training and enterprise council on the biggest single University for Industry project. We have big bids in for extra mature student numbers in Cornwall and Somerset."

Sir Geoffrey said that a university with an overwhelming number of young, undergraduates from better off backgrounds would expect a high completion rate.

Bournemouth University appears as the second most elite former polytechnic when it comes to numbers of young full-time undergraduates from poor areas.

But then the Bournemouth and Poole area and the Hampshire-Dorset hinterland is a comfortably-off, rural part of the world. Where it should have recruited 16 per cent of full-time mature students from poorer areas, it recruited 7 per cent. Where it should have recruited 15 per cent of young part-time undergraduates from poorer areas it took 10 per cent.

The drop-out rate was relatively high given the student mix. Its target for young entrants was 9 per cent and the university had an 11 per cent drop-out rate.

Charles Elder, press and public relations manager for the university, said:

"Our location in a rural county with the subsequent unreliability of postcodes is one of the factors that invalidates these indicators. But we are working closely with institutions throughout the region to widen participation.

"The BUILD programme - Bournemouth University Initiatives in Liaison Development - is working with a number of schools with emerging sixth forms to encourage pupils that university is a viable option for their career development.

Many of these young people are first-generation university students, as well as coming from schools that do not have a track record of success in sending pupils on to higher education.

"The effectiveness of this, and many other initiatives, can only be measured over time but we believe that we are making significant progress."

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