Student achievement rates in English higher education institutions have remained high during a period of considerable expansion of student numbers, although rates vary widely between institutions. The higher education sector will have to recruit and retain more students from hitherto poorly represented social groups and help them to succeed if the government’s learning targets are to be met.
Those are the principal findings of two reports into higher education presented today to Parliament by Sir John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office. One covers widening participation, the other concerning the improvement of student achievement.
Widening participation in higher education in England
Women and ethnic minorities are well represented but participation levels are still low for people with disabilities and those from poorer social classes. Thus an 18 year old with a disability or other health problem is only 40 per cent as likely to enter higher education as an 18 year old without a disability or other health problem. And poorer social classes have significantly lower participation rates than others, occupying the same low share of places on courses in 1999-00 as they did six years previously.
The Department for Education and Skills, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, universities and colleges are taking steps to remove the obstacles to participation by people from the groups with low representation. These obstacles include early loss of interest in education; poorer educational opportunities before applying to higher education; concerns about the benefits of taking part; and difficulties in securing financial support. There is scope to widen participation further by developing existing good practice.
The DfES and the Funding Council are allocating over £200 million in the current academic year to institutions and students to support widening participation. Whether these funds are targeted appropriately is a matter of concern: systematic information on the costs of institutions’ widening participation activities is not currently available, and the system of discretionary funding for poorer students is over complex and creates uncertainty for those students. The Department and the Funding Council have work in progress to address some of these problems.
According to the NAO, there is widespread activity by institutions to raise aspirations in groups with low representation but much less to ensure that their applications have a fair chance of succeeding. Applicants from poorer social classes are less likely than others to succeed in converting their applications to accepted offers. They and applicants with disabilities have particularly low success rates in applications to study medicine, dentistry and veterinary science. Their participation rates in these subjects are also low. Some institutions have low participation by these groups because they do not attract many applications from them, while the problem for other institutions is the high failure rate of applications from these groups.
Improving student achievement in the English higher education sector
Achievement rates of students in higher education have remained steady at the high level of 77 per cent despite a considerable increase in student numbers. Achievement rates vary, however, between 98 per cent and 48 per cent. The Funding Council’s performance indicators show that of all full-time first degree entrants, some 90 per cent continue into their second year, and over three quarters will go on to obtain their degree at the same institution at which they started. A further six per cent will either transfer to another institution or obtain a different qualification. However, some 16 per cent of students still fail to get a qualification.
According to the NAO, students who withdraw tend to have lower prior academic qualifications. Most of them cite personal reasons (feeling unprepared for higher education, changing personal circumstances or financial matters) or withdraw because of academic failure. Highly vocational courses tend to lose fewest students while mathematics, computer sciences and engineering lose most. Although there are wide variations in continuation and achievement rates between different institutions, most perform close to the Funding Council’s benchmark.
Sir John’s reports to Parliament identify a number of good practices and make recommendations to the Funding Council and institutions on how to improve participation and achievement and graduate employability. These cover ensuring that funding to institutions and students reflects widening participation objectives; monitoring applications and selection procedures to identify groups that need encouragement to apply and to ensure that applicants from groups with low representation receive fair treatment relative to others; and developing principles of good practice in selection strategies and admissions staff training, including taking account of applicants’ backgrounds and circumstances to help identify those most able to succeed.
Higher education institutions should also be helping students to choose the right course, for example, through the provision of comprehensive information especially for all prospective students but also particularly for those applying through “clearing”. Information should include graduates’ destinations and employment. Institutions should also identify the students who may benefit most from extra academic support; further develop rewards for staff who are innovative and effective in their teaching; promote wider access to careers services to help students identify suitable employment after graduation and use job shops or similar schemes to work alongside the careers departments to help students wishing to work part-time during their studies, to identify work compatible with their longer-term career objectives.