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University Participation Plans Have Stalled


Universities in the UK have been making attempts to make participation more inclusive. However, these efforts have been hindered as there is slow progress in recruiting state-school and disadvantaged students. The government has pressured universities to increase participation from students from poorer neighbourhoods. Statistically, few students from these backgrounds attend higher education. Despite government pressures, official figures indicate very little progress.

Slow Progress

According to statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) there has only been a 0.1% increase in state-funded and disadvantaged students starting full-time, undergraduate courses in 2016. There is clear variation between universities. Whilst there are institutions who recruited all their first-year undergraduates from state schools, a small number recruited less than half the amount.

Some of the universities with the lowest number of state-funded students included: Oxford and Cambridge. These elite, Russell-Group institutions also had the lowest participation rates of 57.7% and 62.6% respectively. Rates of participation were even poorer in small, specialist institutions. For example, only 44% of full time students at the Royal Academy of Music came from state-schools.

Not Good Enough

Although the education secretary Damian Hinds welcomed the statistics, critics argued that progress was far too slow. Furthermore, critics also debated that the efforts to be more inclusive of disadvantaged students were little more than “tinkering around the edges”. Additionally, disadvantaged students are more likely to be mature or part-time students. The decrease in part-time students seriously undermines the government’s effort to widen participation in higher education.

Further Change Needed to Widen Participation

Universities may be making an effort; however more radical change is required. Structural solutions need to be put in place with more evidence of rapid progress. Universities should work effectively with state-funded students to find the right options for them then actively supporting them. Opportunities and talent are being wasted when disadvantaged students can’t undertake higher education courses, when people who can excel are ultimately being held back.

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