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

December 3, 1999

Of the old English universities, the University of Salford performed much better than expected at widening participation by under-represented groups.

The university enrolled almost a third more students from residential areas under-represented in higher education than would be expected given the university's entry standards and subject mix. Some 18 per cent of Salford's entrants came from these areas in 1997-98.

Salford has been broadening access for many years. But its strong success at social inclusion was almost an accidental byproduct of raising standards at the university, according to Brian Allan, head of access development.

In 1985, as part of its efforts to recruit locally, Salford introduced a four year degree, the first two years of which were taught in further education colleges. "I did some research and found that more two-plus-two students were getting first-class honours degrees than those students who had A levels," said Mr Allan. The programme expanded as the university set up a consortium between further and higher education institutions.

The university runs several programmes to attract students from under represented groups. For example, it is accepting evidence of prior learning from potential students who are working. The university asks for

evidence that potential students can write reports, for example, before enrolling on a course. This evidence can take the form of a sample report or a letter from an employer.

In common with other institutions that have succeeded at social inclusion, the University of Salford has been broadening access for many years. Its vice chancellor throughout the 1980s, John Ashworth, said: "I very much went for a social inclusion policy. For example, we had a drive in local schools to draw the possibility of university to the attention of local schoolchildren. Their parents were concerned about the idea of sending them away to university -- they were concerned that they were going to lose their children to the middle classes. So we developed a policy of accepting home-based students."

Al most 20 years ago, the then principal of Paisley College of Technology said its neighbours, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, attracted the swans. "But we take the ugly ducklings and turn them into swans."

Outreach to a non-traditional clientele is still central to Paisley University's ethos. Assistant principal Alex MacLennan, one of the pioneers of Paisley's approach, said: "We see this business of widening access as part of our distinctive identity. We're active in research, but we know we're not Edinburgh and Glasgow. We feel our particular strength lies in delivering opportunities to students who might not otherwise have the chance to come into higher education."

A major boost was the national Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer scheme (Scotcat) that Paisley launched in 1990, offering comprehensive credit for prior learning and experiential learning. Paisley's scheme started with 32 students, but has now attracted 15,000, more than 3,000 of whom have graduated.

Prospective students said they wanted courses in the evening, at weekends and during the summer, and Paisley obliged. The university may attract a proportion of entrants who are "more challenged initially", said Professor MacLennan, but wider access is a bigger issue than social disadvantage. "Many people are excluded because they can't attend in the traditional way during the day."

Universities cannot widen access on their own, he said, and Paisley has developed strong links with further education colleges. For the past decade, further education students have been able to move into the second or third years of university courses. Paisley is now a member of two local social inclusion partnerships, involving further and higher education, local authorities, health boards and housing agencies.

Paisley has won more than Pounds 500,000 from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council for its success in attracting part-time students. Over 200 have taken up fee waivers for part-timers on low incomes.

"I think for many students part time will become a more serious option in future," Professor MacLennan predicted.

Wol verhampton University vice-chancellor John Brooks has doubts about the value of performance indicators, even though his institution is one of the best in the country at edu cating underprivileged students.

The university exceeds its benchmark in all four widening participation categories. Twenty-two per cent of its young full-time undergraduates are from poorer areas compared with a benchmark of 16 per cent. For mature full-timers it is 19 per cent against 14 per cent.

For young part-timers it is 23 per cent against 18 per cent and for mature part-timers it is 6 per cent against a benchmark of 5 per cent. The university meets the benchmark drop-out rate of ten per cent.

Professor Brooks said: "Wolverhampton is committed to widening participation. Of the 10,000 students we admit each year, only around 2,200 come with A levels. But widening participation is about designing the curriculum to suit the type of students that we recruit.

"For instance, prior to entry we engage in detailed discussions with local colleges about the preparation they do for the non-standard entry students, things like concentrating on core study skills, which we have found to be a key determinant in progression rates for these students.

"But I have mixed feelings about performance indicators even though we come out well. Their broad-brush nature is obscuring some of the excellent work being done in institutions. They should be taken to the level of the faculty and subject."

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