Mind the gap

Widening participation is a site of 'moral panic', marked by uncertainties over data and the efficacy of public funding. Despite all this, the academy is striving to deliver on its promise: greater equality. Rebecca Attwood writes

On the eve of making the biggest cuts to the higher education budget for a generation, Lord Mandelson made a bold pronouncement.

"In a more constrained public spending environment, some will argue we will have to choose between excellence and opportunity," he declared. "This Government rejects the need to make this choice ... The Government will not relent on its commitment to wider participation and fair access to our universities."

At the start of his ten-year plan for higher education, the First Secretary chose to underline the Government's loyalty to an agenda that has been at the forefront of its ambitions for the sector throughout the past decade.

Widening participation has been the subject of government targets, ministerial speeches, policy initiatives, newspaper headlines and tens of millions of pounds in state funding.

But despite Mandelson's assurances - and in the very year in which Tony Blair's symbolic 50 per cent target is supposed to be met - Labour's commitment to a fairer higher education system for all is being questioned.

After years of expansion, student places will be cut this autumn, and universities are facing financial penalties of £10 million for recruiting the very students the Government claims it wants.

It is students from "non-traditional" backgrounds - the focus of widening participation activities - who will be squeezed out of the system, experts warn.

The issue at stake is a familiar one: the make-up of the student population does not reflect that of the UK as a whole. People from some groups - most notably poorer backgrounds - are significantly under-represented in the university system.

According to a 2008 National Audit Office (NAO) report, Widening Participation in Higher Education, half the population of England is made up of people from lower socio-economic groups, yet among the young full-time student population the proportion is less than a third (29 per cent). Those from better-off backgrounds are more than twice as likely to go to university as those from the less privileged sections of society.

But getting to university is only the first part of the equation: the second is the type of university these students attend. Poorer students are more likely to study at "lower status", less selective institutions, and this affects their life chances. The divide is widest in "elite" universities, particularly Oxbridge - a high-profile issue regularly in the public eye. It is here that widening participation collides with "fair access".

"Those who are not familiar with higher education may think that going to university is going to university. But there are huge differences between institutions in terms of what your degree does for you in the labour market," says Anna Vignoles, professor of economics of education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The biggest differences in earnings are by subject rather than institution, but students from disadvantaged backgrounds take less "economically valuable" subjects in many cases. The net result, she says, is that such students are more likely to receive little economic benefit from their degrees.

They are also more likely to have a "non-traditional" experience at university. A recent survey conducted by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit of 50,000 full-time students, titled "Futuretrack", found that students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to live at home while studying, to worry about repaying loans and debts, and to work longer hours to earn money during term-time. Paid work is associated with less involvement in extracurricular activities, fewer hours of academic study and lower levels of satisfaction among students.

Studies have also found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out, even after their entry qualifications are taken into account.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the IoE, once said that a public-discourse analysis would probably reveal that widening participation is the "most troublesome item" in discussions about higher education in the media, politics and beyond.

"Its record in creating moral panic - as in the Laura Spence affair or in aspects of the Second Reading debate on the 2004 Higher Education Bill - is notorious," he writes in a discussion paper on the topic for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, published in 2006.

The debate has, at times, seemed like an endless blame game. Ever since Gordon Brown criticised Magdalen College, Oxford in 2000 for rejecting an application from Spence, a well-qualified comprehensive school pupil, politicians have accused the country's most selective universities of biased admissions.

The claims were revived in 2007 when John Denham, in his first major speech as Universities Secretary, talked of "the current social bias across higher education".

"Universities are biased against poor", the next day's headlines read.

In a recent lecture at City University London, "Enhancing Equity in Higher Education - Are We Making Progress?", Geoff Whitty said that when he became director of the IoE ten years ago, he felt "caught between two worlds, each of which blamed the other for its ills".

"School teachers would berate me about the bias of university admission arrangements against state school students, while the vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university waxed lyrical about how unfair it was of the Government to blame his university for its predominantly independent school intake when the quality of education in state schools was so appalling that there were no more qualified students available in his locality," he said.

But there are signs that the debate is shifting. The publication of one piece of research in particular, which shows that attainment is the key to university entry, has been key.

The researchers, based at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the IoE and the London School of Economics, used new "joined-up" data that for the first time allowed them to track the progress of an entire cohort of 600,000 state school pupils in England from school to higher education.

They found, as expected, a stark "raw" gap in participation levels between richer and poorer students. However, once academic achievement had been taken into account, pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more or less equally likely to go to university as their more advantaged peers, and to an institution of equal status.

"At least part of the explanation for the relatively low achievement of disadvantaged children in secondary schools is likely to be rooted in school quality," concludes the study, Widening Participation in Higher Education: Analysis Using Linked Administrative Data, published in 2008 as part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP).

It has been seized upon by university vice-chancellors as proof that their admission processes are not biased.

Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, uses a striking graph (see page 35) to illustrate the strength of the link between attainment in school and university participation under the headline: "It's attainment, stupid." It shows that virtually all students who achieve the highest A-level grades already apply to university.

A major part of the problem is what happens at 16, and Barr argues that the problem of broadening participation must be tackled before then. Last year, in the course of work on future demand for higher education, the Higher Education Policy Institute obtained information about the number of pupils with GCSEs going on to obtain Level 3 qualifications.

The figures show that nearly 10 per cent of pupils with top GCSEs drop out of the education system completely and fail to obtain further qualifications, while as many as 35 per cent of those with seven GCSEs fail to progress.

"These are the brightest children aged 16 and really ought to be expected to stay on in education and progress to university," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi.

"And there is additional research - by the Sutton Trust and others - which suggests that these high achievers who fail to go any further are predominantly from poor backgrounds," he explains.

Steve Smith, president of the vice-chancellors' body Universities UK, is among those who have called for a change in focus - away from which universities students attend, to the vast number of able pupils who never progress to higher education.

In a National Council for Educational Excellence report to the Government in 2008, NCEE: Recommendations, he writes: "The widening participation debate has long been dominated by arguments over fair access ... Widening participation is a much more extensive issue, dealing with increasing the percentages of children from lower socio-economic groups going on to higher education. This includes about 360,000 16-year-olds each year who do not achieve the standards to stay on for A levels, and about 60,000 of those who were in the top 20 per cent at some time in their school education but do not go on to higher education by age 19."

Watson agrees that compared with widening participation, fair access is a "little" problem. A far bigger concern is "the genuine widening-participation challenge of getting more people to the matriculation starting gate".

The "real scandal" is how few of the most prized candidates are from poor backgrounds. The starkest expression of this problem comes in a written answer to a parliamentary question, he argues. In the UK in 2007, he said, 80,000 children were eligible for free school meals post-16, and of that group only 5,000 took A levels. Also, of the 30,000 children who received three A grades at A level, just 176 were eligible for free school meals.

The Government's Higher Ambitions framework document for the future of the academy acknowledges the scale of the challenge.

"We know that performance at school continues to be the strongest indicator of entry to higher education," it says. "Our long-term challenge is to reduce the large and persistent gap in achievement between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers."

But, it adds, it is not just a matter of performance, but of "ambition and aspiration". Even without a rise in attainment there is scope to change things, some argue.

An often-cited study, published by education charity the Sutton Trust in 2004, talks of the 3,000 "missing" students, those who had the right grades in the right A-level subjects to enter one of the UK's leading research universities, but did not.

"This suggests perhaps a lack of ambition or confidence, but certainly a potential waste of talent," Sir Peter Lampl, the charity's chairman, said at the time.

Watson warns that care is needed here. It would be wrong to infer that students who study something that is important to their career aspirations at local universities have in some way "failed".

For well-qualified students from poorer backgrounds, going to an institution other than the most selective ones can be a "life-affirming" choice.

"It's crazy for groups such as the Sutton Trust to talk about these successful and well-motivated students, who positively choose institutions for cultural, locational as well as academic reasons, as being 'wasted talent'," he says.

However, a wealth of research also suggests that some students are making poorly informed choices as a consequence of failures in the information, advice and guidance available to them.

The Sutton Trust says that advice and guidance in schools and colleges is too often poor and ill-timed.

In one study by the charity, more than 60 per cent of state school teachers questioned thought that less than 30 per cent of students at Oxbridge were from state schools, when the figure is 55 per cent. Half of the respondents would not encourage even their brightest students to apply to those universities.

Another study by the charity and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that pupils from top independent schools make twice as many applications to leading research universities as their peers from comprehensive schools with similar grades.

If the patterns were equal, more than 4,500 additional state students could enter the 500 courses with the most demanding entry standards each year, the Sutton Trust claims.

Other research points to complex social and cultural factors that can affect attitudes towards university study.

And Vignoles, who led the TLRP widening-participation study, points out that attainment is not all about schools.

"Studies suggest that only a maximum of about 20 per cent of the differences between pupil attainment in secondary school can be explained by the schools they attend," she says. "The rest is put in the bags marked 'don't know', 'family', 'neighbourhood' or 'community'. The reason why poor kids don't go to university is not down to poor schools per se - that is only part of the story. We need to keep looking at the educational achievement of poorer kids in the round."

In 2009-10, Hefce handed out £141 million to universities to meet the costs of widening participation. A further £90 million went to Aimhigher, a national programme designed to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to university (see box above).

The money spent on schemes designed to widen participation - which range from summer schools that give students a taste of campus life, to programmes where university students mentor schoolchildren - has led to questions about whether the cash is making a difference. This is another area of moral panic.

Headlines such as "Multimillion-pound drive fails to bridge class divide" have grown familiar, while Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, led by the MP Alan Milburn, says it is "not convinced" that widening-participation funding is delivering value for money.

Such questions led to the NAO's Widening Participation in Higher Education report in 2008. The watchdog found it difficult to assess the impact of such schemes and said there was too little information available about how universities spent their widening participation cash and the activities they undertook.

The funding was once conditional on institutions presenting strategies and action plans to Hefce, but this requirement was dropped in 2003. In response to the NAO report, it has been reintroduced. Universities must now provide Hefce with widening participation strategic assessments (WPSAs), setting out their admissions policies and outreach strategies for the next three years.

Despite the NAO's recommendation that these documents should be made public, universities have not yet been compelled to publish them. However, the University of the West of England volunteered to share its WPSA with Times Higher Education (see box, page 38). It shows the scale of the work it is carrying out.

The NAO adds that schemes by their nature are difficult to evaluate. Projects are long term and when improvements are observed, it is difficult to demonstrate that they are linked to specific activities. It can also be difficult to maintain contact with participants in these activities to find out whether they go on to higher education.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education research at the University of Birmingham, who conducted a review of widening-participation research for Hefce in 2006, says there is very little reliable evidence of the success or otherwise of the initiatives because much of the research and evaluation in this area is of poor quality.

The submission he made to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee last year is highly critical.

"None of the initiatives has been evaluated properly, rigorously and independently. In fact, the overall quality of work in this area is often poor, reliant on post hoc data dredging and confounded by missing comparators, inappropriate analyses and unwarranted conclusions," it says.

"Pseudo-research" is found even in high-profile research studies and publications, he adds.

"We have no reason to believe any of these initiatives have made any difference at all. It doesn't mean they haven't: we just don't have any evidence that they have," Gorard says.

This is a growing concern. With the Government reining in public spending, it is now more vital than ever for universities to evaluate schemes rigorously so that they can argue for funding to support what works, says Lee Elliot Major, director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust. However, he agrees that firm evidence is hard to come by.

Research unveiled by the Sutton Trust in January says that 85 per cent of students who took part in a programme called Reach for Excellence at the University of Leeds - aimed at bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds - gained a university place, compared with 59 per cent in a "control group" of similar students. It used the results to call for widening-participation funds to be spared the axe.

"We have been concerned for some time about the lack of robust evidence from the evaluations of university outreach activity," Elliot Major says. "Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent, yet we know very little about what works best or which are the most cost-effective schemes.

"When David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, asked how the impressive results from Reach for Excellence compared with other university schemes, the honest answer was that we don't know as most have not been similarly evaluated.

"Politicians are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their demands for evidence of what works - and this is only likely to intensify as budgets come under increasing scrutiny."

The Sutton Trust is currently piloting a scheme with the universities of Exeter and Leeds that involves a randomised trial designed to test whether and how their widening-participation programmes work.

"We believe that this will be the first time that this approach has been attempted in this area. We also believe universities could work together much more effectively to assess what works," Elliot Major adds.

In Higher Ambitions, the Government claims to have made progress on all widening-participation indicators over the past ten years, but admits that "the overall picture can be confusing".

The document also makes it clear that despite the wishes of some vice-chancellors, the focus on fair access is not going to go away.

"Progress has fallen below the Government's ambition, and is highly uneven across the higher education sector, especially at our most selective institutions," it claims.

The Government has asked Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, to consult vice-chancellors and advise on further action that could be taken to widen access to the most selective universities. He is due to report his findings this spring.

At the national level, the "one thing we do know" that works is higher participation, Gorard says. Every time the system grows, so does the number of students in each social group. This means that, from one perspective, there has been undeniable change.

For example, he adds, it is still true that most people going to university don't have parents who did so.

"The increase in participation has been so fast it is not possible for most students to have graduate parents," he explains.

However, Labour's target for 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds to attend university has not been met. According to the most recent government statistics, participation among this age group stood at 43 per cent in 2007-08. And in terms of participation in higher education, the UK has slipped from seventh place among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries to 15th place.

In his lecture at City University, Whitty showed figures illustrating the "considerable and persistent" gap in participation rates between social groups from the 1960s to 2000 (see graph above).

The data suggest that, while numbers in each socio-economic group have grown, the gap between them has hardly narrowed.

The Government's Full-time Young Participation by Socio-economic Class measure, designed to assess changes in the participation gap between social groups, shows a more recent positive trend, with the chasm closing between 2002 and 2008.

However, there are difficulties with the measure, not least the fact that a large proportion of data on students' socio-economic background is missing. This may sound like a minor technicality, but not when one considers the scale of the problem.

For example, the NAO report says that in 2006, the data on 34 per cent of full-time students' socio-economic backgrounds were absent from Higher Education Statistics Agency records.

This makes it difficult to say with confidence whether small variations in participation rates among different groups represent "real" changes.

"Whenever you ask for what may appear to be, to some respondents, 'sensitive' information, such as parental occupation, indicators of poverty or special need, you get incomplete returns," Gorard explains.

"The largest occupational group among students in the UK today is 'we don't know'. The second-largest ethnic group after white UK is 'we don't know' - and it is larger than all the others that follow combined."

It is not that we cannot conclude anything from the data, but that care is needed in the interpretation, he adds.

"What you have to do is ask whether the trends you have identified would survive a small amount of bias in the missing cases. This is not to say that there isn't significant stratification or huge levels of injustice. But we have to be careful that we are addressing the right ones so that we know where we should put our policy levers and taxpayers' money."

One trend that is clear is the under-representation of young working-class males, particularly if they are white. This has prompted fears, as The Times puts it, that an "underclass" of white working-class men risks being "locked out" of higher education.

The NAO also says: "Overall, young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are well represented and are more likely to enter higher education compared to white people." However, it feels unable to draw conclusions about students with disabilities, or those leaving care, due to the lack of information.

The most recent evidence to emerge comes from a 15-year study by Hefce. The findings have come at a crucial time and have given hope to those who work in this area.

The study tries to deal with the data problems by avoiding socio-economic classifications. Instead, it examines participation rates in different areas of the country, and makes use of data from postcode and child benefit records. The data show that between 1994 and 2010, the participation gap among young people in different areas grew wider and then narrowed again (see graph, left).

But, encouragingly, the analysis, Trends in Young Participation in Higher Education: Core Results for England, also shows an "unusually rapid" increase in the proportion of young people entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas of England since the mid-2000s.

Teenagers living in these areas are 30 per cent more likely to enter higher education than they were five years before, while those from the most advantaged areas are only about 5 per cent more likely to.

What the analysis cannot show is the cause of these changes. But interestingly, the increases in participation match improvements in GCSE performance in the same areas.

The report also shows that after years of remaining static, the participation rate among young men has begun to grow.

In his City University lecture, Whitty said he believed that things had moved on from the old battleground of schools versus universities. There is "now rather less heat in these matters and more common ground, certainly about the evidence base, but also, to a more limited extent, about the way forward".

His recommendations for the future include the need for a greater focus on narrowing attainment gaps much earlier on in students' educational careers, for better information, advice and guidance in schools, and for more school-university links.

Whitty returned to the Russell Group vice-chancellor he had spoken of, who once complained about the poor performance of local state schools.

"I took issue with that vice-chancellor all those years ago by saying, if your local schools are so bad, what are you doing about it? I want to give that vice-chancellor considerable credit for the fact that his university has now become heavily involved with local state schools and academies."

Through these collaborations, he argued, universities could play a critical role in raising not only pupils' aspirations but also their attainment.

But there is a new site of moral panic, a fresh battleground, the most sensitive area of all, prompting screeching headlines about "social engineering": the issue of admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds with slightly lower entry grades when they are deemed to have the potential to succeed.

The Government's backing for such schemes is confirmed in Higher Ambitions. For Watson, this is the most radical element of the document, although it is still expressed in "weasel" words.

"Many universities are developing new ways to use contextual data in their admissions procedures to assess the aptitude and potential to succeed of those from poor backgrounds. We believe this is a valid approach and hope that all universities will consider it," the document says.

But this approach worries Gorard. He argues that the sector faces a choice.

"If you take qualifications into account, what we end up with is pretty much the higher education system you'd expect. We disturb that at our peril," he says. "We've either got to say: 'OK, it is intended to be selective, we want to cherry-pick the brightest and the best of any age group and social class, and we will let the consequences go hang.' Or we say that the qualifications are themselves the engines of stratification in higher education, so we should open things up, go the other way.

"Higher education is a nationally funded resource. Why is it that we allow everybody to go to further education colleges but not to university? What is it that happens at 18 that means this thing is no longer open to everybody, so that all taxpayers pay for it but only some of their children can take advantage?"

It would be illegal for him to select a candidate for a job or a place at university on the basis of age, sex, class, ethnic group, language or disability, he points out.

But, he adds: "I know - and the Government knows - that qualifications are stratified by the same variables. We've got to have a debate about whether qualifications are valid. If they are valid, we must accept the consequences."

According to Watson, it is "the really serious researchers" who say that the only logical solution is the random assignment of places. But at a recent Oxford Union debate, he asked whether things needed to go that far.

UK universities, he argued, suffer from a self-defeating "grade fetish" that makes no sense as an assessment of potential.

In the US, elite universities unashamedly compete for the best students from minorities and disadvantaged communities "because they are trying to construct a 'class' that will be representative of the best and brightest that American society can offer in the future".

There is also an element of self-interest in this approach because those students who go on to be successful can be of enormous political and economic help to their alma mater in later life, he added.

But for many UK universities, he said, "the penny hasn't dropped yet that they themselves are missing out by contributing to a revolving door of economic privilege and cultural narrowness".

Watson argued that universities should continue to use their judgment in determining admissions.

"Where they have forgotten how to do this, they should relearn it," he said. "That will include looking carefully at the family and educational background of applicants."

Meanwhile, Bekhradnia worries that some university admissions policies designed to take account of the "track record" of the schools applicants attend are not based on evidence.

In a recent lecture at City University London, he said: "The theory is that someone who gets a certain number of A levels from a poor-performing school has done so against the odds, and therefore is likely to perform better at university than someone else with the same A-level grades from a school with a good track record. The problem with this is that the facts don't bear this out."

Bekhradnia said the "definitive work" on the subject has been conducted by Hefce. It shows that pupils from poorly performing schools do not do better at university than those with equivalent A levels from better performing ones.

What it also shows is that pupils from independent schools do worse than those from local authority schools with the equivalent A levels.

But this has not stopped voices - including the 2004 review of fair admissions led by Steven Schwartz, former vice-chancellor of Brunel University, and the National Council for Educational Excellence - from claiming that students from poorly performing schools will perform better. The Schwartz review examined the options universities should consider when assessing the merit of students applying for their courses. And a number of universities - including Durham and Bristol - have introduced specific policies, "and in the case of Durham a precise formula, for taking account of school performance", Bekhradnia said.

"Why they have not pursued the evidence and given preferential treatment to pupils from state schools over independent ones - which would be consistent with a policy of basing admissions purely on academic criteria - is a mystery," he added.

"Actually, of course, it isn't such a mystery. It is for the same reason they're reluctant to espouse social engineering - like politicians and others, they are terrified of the Daily Mail and the assault on middle-class parents that would be claimed if they adopt this policy."

Even university admissions staff are divided over the issue. In 2008, a review of progress on admissions since the Schwartz report asked university admissions managers whether some applicants should be made lower offers given the type of school they attended.

Thirty-eight per cent of admissions managers said "yes" and the same number said "no", while the rest were undecided.

All this makes it difficult to know what the future holds for widening participation. At the very moment when efforts to widen participation appear to be paying off according to the Hefce analysis, universities have fewer places to offer.

"We need to have some national reflection on where we stand," says Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London.

"We have created these aspirations as a society, and now we find ourselves with the highest number of applications ever and limited capacity to address that demand."

The list of uncertainties does not stop there.

A new regime of student fees and student support is yet to be decided, and could have a significant impact on access.

Of key relevance to the most selective universities is the imminent arrival of the A* A level, which will be awarded from this year.

One study by the UK's biggest examination board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, predicts that one in three students to be awarded the grade will come from private schools.

The Government, meanwhile, argues that the keys to solving the widening-participation puzzle include more part-time study, work-based learning and shorter courses.

Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, recently claimed in his submission to Lord Browne's Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance that "much of the controversy about the 50 per cent participation 'target' comes from the misunderstanding that advocates of this target believe that it can be achieved simply by expanding what currently exists".

The Government has shifted its focus away from the 50 per cent target by setting a new "super target" for widening participation. It says that three quarters of young people in the UK should participate in higher education or complete an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent course by the age of 30, and it wants more than 40 per cent of adults qualified to Level 4 and above by 2020.

Speaking at the Lord Dearing memorial conference at the University of Nottingham earlier this month, Mandelson justified the Government's restrictions on places, arguing that cash constraints meant "a large-scale, untargeted further expansion of full-time three-year degrees without any real attention to what these additional students are studying, or how well it equips them for life at work ... makes no sense at a time when we need to be focusing more closely on strategic skills and alternatives to full-time study".

He told the conference that part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses offered "the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity".

But the apparent "solution" of more part-time study is not that simple, Bekhradnia warns.

Besides the fact that he is "cynical enough" to think that the Government is pressing for it because the student support costs are cheaper, he points to a Hefce study that took a cohort of part-time students who entered university in 1997, and examined what had become of them 11 years later.

Putting to one side The Open University students, of those who declared that their aim was a bachelors degree, 59 per cent left university without a qualification.

"That, of course, is not to belittle the importance or the value of part-time higher education - and it could be that this is an argument for more generous support arrangements for such students - but those who make policy pronouncements had better be aware of the implications," he says.

One change on the horizon does give hope to those who want to widen participation. The 2008 Education and Skills Act will raise the age of compulsory education and training to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015.

Bekhradnia says that this, when combined with the facts about the number of pupils with good GCSEs who do not attain Level 3 qualifications, could have a major bearing on future demand for higher education.

"If these students are forced to stay on, then some at least will get the Level 3 qualification they need to go to university, and many will do so," he says. "I think this could be one of the most significant developments in widening participation for 20 years."

A PICTURE OF PARTICIPATION

  • In 1999, the Government said it wanted 50 per cent of all young people to have higher education qualifications. In 2007-08, the participation rate was 43 per cent.
  • This puts the UK at 15th among countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  • Few top candidates for university are from poor backgrounds. In 2007, 80,000 pupils over 16 were eligible for free school meals; of these, only 5,000 did A levels.
  • In 2009-10, Hefce gave universities £141 million for widening participation, and BIS and Hefce provided the Aimhigher scheme with £90 million.
  • Although applications to university are at a record high - up 23 per cent on 2009 - there will be up to 6,000 fewer places for full-time undergraduate entrants this autumn compared with last autumn.

ON THE BALL: ENCOURAGING BOYS INTO HIGHER EDUCATION THROUGH SPORT

It may sound unlikely, but one Aimhigher scheme is encouraging young boys to apply to university by linking football with discussions about higher education.

The project - run by Aimhigher Leicestershire - targets working-class boys who play for local football teams in areas where, for many, higher education is an alien concept.

According to a spokeswoman for Aimhigher, it is based on the premise that the boys "have more respect for their football coaches than for their parents or teachers".

Footballers from university teams work alongside coaches as assistants, supporting training sessions and acting as "mentors" for the boys.

Meanwhile, university staff attend some training sessions and talk to parents in the clubhouse about the benefits and financial side of higher education.

"Kids of that age can sometimes be dismissive of certain things," says Martin Pond, 21, who took on a mentoring role during his final year of a contemporary history degree at the University of Leicester.

But Pond's socio-economic background helped him to win the children's respect.

"I come from a single-parent family and worked hard at school, so they could relate to me."

Over several months he helped out once a week with training the under-15s, and watched them at weekends when they played matches.

"It took them a few weeks to not think we were 'just uni kids' and posh boys. After a while they started to open up," he says.

"I never went in thinking 'all these kids are going to go to uni' because not all kids want to go, but it certainly helped to open their eyes to the idea.

"They started to ask more questions about university. It was something they were interested in finding out more about.

"There was one lad who was quite quiet. He had an interest in music, a keen interest in jazz - he could talk about it all day. Before the project, he hadn't realised that he may be able to pursue this through higher education. It had been drummed into him that he was going to be an electrician."

The Aimhigher spokeswoman says that 130 boys were involved in the project last year, and the results indicated an increase in their aspirations to enter higher education.

REACHING OUT: UWE'S EFFORTS TO MAKE UNIVERSITY ACCESSIBLE

Universities must provide Hefce with widening participation strategic assessments, which set out their admissions policies and outreach strategies. Institutions do not have to make them public, but the University of the West of England offered to share its assessment to demonstrate the work it is doing. The 120-page document reveals that:

- In 2008-09, the University of the West of England worked with more than 37,000 young people and adults in schools, colleges and communities with low higher education participation rates;

- About 600 of UWE's undergraduates were involved in widening participation as student ambassadors, tutors and mentors last year. They contributed about 28,000 hours of their time to supporting learning and raising the aspirations of young people;

- UWE has been actively engaged in academy sponsorship since 2002, when it became the first university to sponsor an academy, City Academy in Bristol. Today, it sponsors four academy schools and it is involved with a number of trust schools, too;

- The university runs a "compact" scheme, known as the Heading Higher Passport Scheme, designed to increase applications from under-represented groups;

- Student-support arrangements are designed to cater for a diverse student body, with a particular focus on the provision of specialist support services to assist students in financial difficulty, students with mental health difficulties, vulnerable young people with no parental support, lone parents, disabled students and care leavers;

- The university has formed a widening participation "research cluster" with colleagues at the University of Bristol to further knowledge and understanding of widening participation and educational inequality;

- In 2008-09 the university spent £14 million on widening participation, including Higher Education Funding Council for England widening-participation allocation and spending on outreach and bursaries;

- It has the fourth- highest level of expenditure on bursaries and outreach activity.

LONDON SOUTH BANK'S LEGAL EAGLES SPREAD STUDENTS' WINGS IN THE CLASSROOM

Louise Andronicou, director of recruitment and marketing for the faculty of arts and human sciences at London South Bank University, was a bit taken aback when a school headmaster asked her whether she could deliver degrees in his school.

A whole degree may have been a bit much to start off with, but Andronicou decided she could offer sixth-form students at London's Virgo Fidelis Convent Senior School the chance to study a 15-credit first-year higher education unit in law, delivered by London South Bank tutors in the school classroom.

The idea was to raise the aspirations of the students and give them a taste of university study without having to travel to university itself. Students fitted in three hours a week of undergraduate-level tutorials alongside their AS-level studies.

The experiment, which began with a small group of students, was a palpable hit.

"It was a lot of work for them, but the feedback was fantastic," says Andronicou.

"They said: 'I thought university wasn't for me, I now know differently'; 'I thought law would be really boring and too hard but I can do it.' A minority (of the students) said: 'We could even go to a "posh" university.'

"It was about giving them the confidence. Widening participation is all about getting them to university, and if they come here, great.

"Visiting a university for an hour or two is not the same. This is getting to know tuition over a long period of time, the assessment and the requirements," she explains.

Now the programme has been extended to other schools and colleges and to a unit in tourism and hospitality.

"The students do fantastically," Andronicou says. "One even achieved first-class marks in the unit. I said to her: 'Your parents must be so proud of you.' She laughed.

"I asked her why and she said: 'They don't know I did it. My parents are divorced, I live with my dad and he doesn't even know what university is. If he hears about it he just laughs.'

"To get a first-class mark is phenomenal, particularly when there is no support from home," Andronicou adds.

Students tell her they prefer the work to their A levels.

"They say: 'University is fun; I love this way of teaching.' I think it is because it requires them to be independent - they are relying on themselves more, and they find that interesting."

Schemes such as the "progression accords" LSBU runs with five London boroughs, which guarantee a conditional offer to all students in the area who apply, also help.

"Before it, my work with these kids showed that many of them didn't apply because they thought they were going to be rejected.

"The students still say: 'What if my reference predicts low grades?' I tell them that it doesn't matter, I will still make them an offer, but they must get the required Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points for law (240 Ucas points or equivalent).

"That makes them work really hard and they do get the grades."

Andronicou passionately defends the principle of widening participation.

"There are so many different perceptions of what it is, and a lot of them are negative. "People think: 'Oh well, that means letting everybody in through the door,' but that is not so."

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Related images

  • THE cover: 25 February 2010
  • 'It's attainment, stupid': Entrance into higher education by age 21
  • Young higher education entrants by social class group
  • Young participation by area (England). Classified by higher education participation rates among 18- to 19-year-olds
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