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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 00:32 GMT
Top universities fail on access
students
A slight increase in students from poorer families
Leading universities in the UK are still failing to widen access to young people from poorer backgrounds.

New figures say some of the most prestigious universities have the worst records on inclusiveness.

Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Sussex, Bristol, Durham, Newcastle and St Andrews are all falling short of national targets for widening access.

The figures were released on Thursday by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

They show only a quarter of undergraduates come from the three lowest socio-economic groups.

But 40% of the population is described as belonging to this group.

Access watchdog

Widening access to higher education is one of the government's aims.

Under plans to increase tuition fees, the government aims to set up a watchdog - the Office for Fair Access - which will work with universities to widen access.

Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson said he was pleased "most universities are making positive progress on their access benchmarks".

Professor Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University
We must dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that surround applying here
Alison Richard, Cambridge University

"The biggest problem is not admissions but getting more talented people from working class backgrounds to apply to our leading universities," he said. Overall the proportion of students whose parents worked in skilled manual, semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, as the three lowest social classes are defined, rose 0.4% to 25.8% from 1999/2000 to 2000/01.

The funding council sets each university what they call a benchmark for the percentage of young people from the lower-income groups they should be taking.

It refuses to use the word target, which has become politically sensitive, particularly in the light of plans for an access watchdog.

Worst universities at attracting working-class students
(With more than 1,000 new entrants a year)
Ranking Institution Benchmark Achievement As a percentage
1 Exeter 21% 13% 61.9
2 Cambridge 14% 9% 64.3
3 Oxford 13% 9% 69.2
4 Sussex 23% 16% 69.6
5 Oxford Brookes 28% 20% 71.4
Source: Hefce

Benchmarks are adjusted to take into account the subjects taught at particular universities and the A-level grades needed to study there.

Universities which fall furthest short of their benchmarks include Exeter, which for entrants in 2001, was set the goal of having 21% of people from lower-income groups.

Instead 13% came from that group.

Cambridge's 'target' was 14%, it achieved a rate of 9%, while the goal for Oxford was 13% (9% achieved).

Oxford Brookes University, the former polytechnic, also under-performed on this measure. Its 'target' was 28% and it achieved a total of 20%.

Fewer drop-outs

Universities which more than reached their targets include Queen's, Belfast (goal 22%, achieved 31%) and Wolverhampton ( goal 33%, achieved 45%).

Several Welsh universities also perform well on this score.

They include the University of Glamorgan (goal 32%, achieved 39%) and University of Wales College, Newport (goal 31%, achieved 40%).

The figures from the Higher Education Funding Council also include data on drop-out rates and graduate employment.

They show a slight fall in the overall drop-out rate in the UK, which is very good on an international level.

Of the full-time students who began courses in 2000-1, 15% dropped out, compared to 16% in the previous year.

Cambridge senate
Traditional leading universities have further to go
London Guildhall University and the University of North London, which have now merged to become London Metropolitan University, had the worst drop-out rates, at 35% and 39% respectively.

There has been an increase in the proportion of graduates unemployed six months after graduation of just over half a percentage point in 2001-2.

The chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England Sir Howard Newby said: "I welcome the small reduction in drop-out rates for full-time students, which maintains the UK's position as one of the most successful countries in the world for students completing their courses.

Best universities at attracting working-class students
(With more than 1,000 new entrants a year)
Ranking Institution Benchmark Achievement As a percentage
1 Queen's, Belfast 22% 31% 140.9
2 Wolverhampton 33% 45% 136.4
3 Aston 25% 33% 132.0
4 Ulster 29% 37% 127.6
5 East London 33% 42% 127.2
Source: Hefce

"But there is no cause for complacency. Although there are signs of some progress in other areas, overall the figures show relatively little change on last year.

"This underlines the scale of the task facing universities and colleges as, for example, they tackle the problems of recruiting more students with potential from poorer backgrounds."

For the tables, BBC News Online did not feature smaller universities with fewer than 1,000 new entrants a year.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's James Westhead
"Today's figures show only a quarter of students come from working class backgrounds"



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: University admissions
11 Dec 03  |  Education
Blair: No retreat on top-up fees
02 Dec 03  |  Politics
Top universities' warning on fees
24 Nov 03  |  Education
Cambridge 'to do more for poor'
01 Oct 03  |  Education
Oxbridge heads to Tyneside
01 Mar 02  |  Education
Students told to cast net wider
17 Sep 03  |  Education
Bristol denies admissions bias
26 Feb 03  |  Education


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