Government set to miss higher education targets

New report finds big differences between HE institutions for disadvantaged pupils

New research from the Social Market Foundation think tank finds that the government is on course to miss its targets of widening participation in higher education – and has found significant differences between institutions’ intake of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The government has ambitious targets for widening participation in higher education by 2020: to double the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going into HE and to increase by 20% the numbers of students from BME backgrounds.

The report, Widening Participation, found that there has been some progress towards these targets, but if current trends continue, it won’t be enough to meet them. Continuing the present trend in widening participation will not be sufficient to meet the ambition to double the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education. By 2020, the participation rate would fall five percentage points short of what the ambition requires.

Widening Participation, found significant differences between institutions, with many taking fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than six years ago and others only showing very small increases.

The research in Widening Participation is supported by the Open University and the University Alliance.

Commenting, University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell said: ‘In recent years, significant progress has been made in recruiting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to university, as well as increasing retention and levels of attainment. We are proud to be the only group of universities above benchmark on both recruiting students from widening participation backgrounds and ensuring they achieve good outcomes once they arrive. 

‘But we cannot and must not rest on our laurels, and as this report shows, there is a risk that unless progress accelerates, the Prime Minister’s ambitious targets will be missed. More needs to be done right across the sector to identify potential and talent wherever it exists, so that intakes reflect the whole community. A helpful first step would be for institutions to collaborate in shifting the focus away from just recruitment to genuine outreach.’

If ministers are serious about encouraging these groups of our society into studying at a higher level, they cannot afford to focus their efforts solely on 18 year-olds – Peter Horrocks

Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks, added: “The government’s ambition to encourage more disadvantaged students into higher education is to be welcomed, however current efforts fail to take into account the vital role part-time and lifelong study has to play in driving social mobility.

“As this report makes clear, if ministers are serious about encouraging these groups of our society into studying at a higher level, they cannot afford to focus their efforts solely on 18 year-olds, as has previously been the case. More than a third of such students entering the English university system last year were mature. These individuals make a huge contribution to our society and economy, and it is in the national interest to make sure this is recognised in any future policy developments.”

Key findings

Overall 28.8% more young full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds entered HE in 2014/15 compared to 2009/10. That’s set against an increase of 9.6% overall.

But this headline improvement hides large differences between institutions.

  • 9 institutions decreased their numbers of disadvantaged students – accounting for a total decrease of 115.
  • A further 12 saw no change (statistics round to the nearest 5 students).
  • 24 achieved an increase, but of 25 students or fewer.

Overall, the bottom half of institutions in terms of their performance on widening participation made a net contribution of only 9.9% of the increase across the sector in numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The following 10 universities increased their intake of disadvantaged students by 150 or more students each – collectively accounting for 32% of the total net increase: 

  • University of Central Lancashire
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • Edge Hill University
  • University of Huddersfield
  • University of Chester
  • University of Northumbria at Newcastle
  • Liverpool John Moores University
  • Birmingham City University
  • Leeds Beckett University
  • Manchester Metropolitan University (largest increase of any institution: 330 more disadvantaged students)

A copy of Widening Participation is available at 

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