Widening participation - Issue of the Week - 4th February, 2013

The number of disadvantaged students applying to university has reached an all-time high, shows the latest UCAS data.

Students from disadvantaged areas are now 80% more likely to apply to university than 9 years ago and the gap between the most and least advantaged is starting to close. This is promising. The trend ensures that talented students from diverse backgrounds have access to the UK's world class higher education system, and that our universities are full of promising, self-motivated undergraduates. But further progress threatens to stall if the Government does not facilitate the collection of richer, longer-term outreach data.


Outreach has shown itself to be one of the best ways to widen participation at our leading universities. At their most effective, these schemes start early and continue over long periods of time, helping to build up and cement durable academic and social bridges between universities, local communities, students and students' families.

It is for this reason that 1994 Group universities sustain high levels of investment in outreach. In fact, as a proportion of access budgets, 1994 Group universities invest 29% more on outreach than other HEIs.

This financial commitment has helped our universities launch a number of successful schemes: Loughborough University sends staff to high school parents' evenings to field questions about university life; the University of Leicester co-ordinates a mentoring scheme that partners up current undergraduates with disadvantaged local 13-16 year olds; and academics at Goldsmiths, University of London, encourage socially excluded adults, usually with backgrounds in offending and addiction, to take up education.


But tracking the impact of early stage intervention is difficult, especially if pupils move between schools. For that reason we call on the Government to start tracking university interventions through the National Pupil Database. Once this data has been collected and anonymised, universities will be able to accurately benchmark the effectiveness of different outreach programmes, helping to guide later investment into the most effective.

We are also keen to stress that under-representation will not be solved by any single comprehensive outreach programme. Students from different backgrounds will require very different outreach approaches. Fortunately, rich data will enable us to measure the impact of various schemes against gender, background, and residency, ensuring that we are targeting the right schemes at the right students. Maintaining the current rate of positive movement will demand ever more intelligent and effective action; this is why an evidence-led approach is necessary.

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