Elite fare badly in latest Hesa statistics on widening access (UK)

By Jack Grove

Almost all Russell Group universities have failed to reach independently set levels for admitting pupils from state schools and poorer backgrounds, new figures show. Of the 20 large research-intensive universities, only the universities of Sheffield and Liverpool reached the required “benchmarks” set by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the percentage of students from state school admitted in 2010-11.

Of Sheffield’s first-year undergraduates, 86 per cent were state-school pupils against a target of 78.8 per cent, while 85.6 per cent of Liverpool’s intake came from the maintained sector against a benchmark of 82.8 per cent, according to data released today by Hesa. Excluding small, specialist colleges, the University of Oxford had the lowest rate of state school entrants at 55.2 per cent, while 59 per cent of students entered the University of Cambridge from non-private schools.

Overall, 88.2 per cent of young, full-time undergraduates in the UK came from state schools. When assessing entrants from areas where university participation was low, the Russell Group fared little better. Just 2.5 per cent of students entering Oxford in 2010-11 came from low-participation neighbourhoods, while for Cambridge first years the figure was 3.1 per cent – against benchmarks of 4.8 per cent for both institutions. Commenting on the latest performance indicators, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said: “Demand for higher education remains strong, but we want to ensure that background is not a barrier to university. “Our reforms expect institutions to do more to attract applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

But Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, criticised the benchmarks as “fundamentally flawed because they fail to provide a full picture of the student body actually qualified to enter many courses”. “Despite all our efforts to encourage applications from disadvantaged students, we can’t offer places to those who don’t apply,” she said. Other data from Hesa show the dropout rate among first-year students in the UK increased from 6.5 per cent in 2008-09 to 7.2 per cent in 2009-10. Almost one in 10 students (9.9 per cent) from neighbourhoods with the lowest levels of higher education participation dropped out – the highest level since 2006-07.

Post-1992 universities tended to have higher than average dropout rates, reflecting the fact that they admit more students from poorer backgrounds.  The University of Bolton had the highest rate of non-continuation in England at 21.1 per cent, but also one of the highest rates of participation by students from working-class backgrounds and low-participation areas. The University of Cambridge had the lowest dropout rate, with just 1.2 per cent of freshers leaving, followed by the School of Pharmacy (1.3 per cent) and the University of Exeter (1.4 per cent).

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents modern universities, said: “These figures underline that it is modern universities which do all the heavy lifting when it comes to providing opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds to access higher education. “These same universities are losing student places, while other universities, with more socially exclusive student profiles, argue that they should be able to recruit as many students as they want simply because they have higher A-level grades.”

Source: Times Higher Education http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=419498&c=1