Page last updated at 23:30 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 00:30 UK

Undergraduate intake mix widens

Coventry University
Coventry takes in more state school pupils than its benchmark

Universities in the UK have continued to recruit more students from backgrounds with no tradition of going into higher education, figures show.

The 10th annual Higher Education Statistics Agency dataset, for 2006-07, shows more students from state schools and from low participation areas.

The drop-out rate after one year also improved slightly but statisticians' projections are that it will rise.

Funding councils and unions say more needs doing to support new students.

England's Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell, said: "It is particularly encouraging to see that the proportion of young entrants from the lower socio economic groups and from state schools has continued to rise and is in fact at their highest ever levels."

Mr Rammell added: "Although there has been a slight increase in the proportion of full-time first degree starters expected neither to get an award nor transfer, we still have one of the highest levels of student retention when compared internationally.

"This has been achieved and maintained during a period when the student population has increased and its diversity widened."

The Commons public accounts committee recently criticised the lack of progress in lowering drop-out rates despite more than 800m having been spent on activities designed to help those most at risk.


In Northern Ireland almost every university entrant had been to a state school or college (99.6%).

Across Wales 93.1% came from state schools (up from 91.8% in the previous year).

In England it was 87.2% (86.9%) and in Scotland, 86.6% (85.7%).

The chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Philip Gummett, said universities there tended to be ahead of the UK average in widening participation.

Wales had, for instance, more part-time students and more from poor backgrounds.

"There is a negative area though: retention at the end of the first year, those who don't continue," Prof Gummett said.

"The number has fallen but still remains above the UK figure."

The UK average is that 8.6% of young undergraduates who began courses in 2005-06 dropped out after a year. In Wales it was 9.5% (down from 10.3%).

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 22.6% of people are expected to leave the degree courses they started in 2005. This figure includes those who transfer to another course in the same university or go to another institution.


Prof Gummett agreed that wider participation and higher dropout rates tended to go hand in hand.

"There may well be a relationship, yes, to the extent that universities in Wales have been appropriately ambitious about widening participation and trying to respond to the expectations of the Assembly Government.

"There's always going to be a trade-off if you do that. It's always going to be a tougher job."

He said the gap between school and university was especially great for those with no family tradition of higher education.

Institutions were attempting to tackle this by, for example, having more student mentors to work with new arrivals, he said.

The general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Sally Hunt, said: "Once disadvantaged students actually get to university, more needs to be done to help them complete their studies."

'Two-tier system'

Scottish universities had the lowest proportion of such students - yet a drop-out rate after one year of 10.1% against the UK average of 8.6%, concentrated in those institutions doing most to widen participation.

UCU Scotland president Terry Brotherstone said: "A two-tier system with, on the one hand, an elite aiming exclusively for prestige in the international research 'market' and on the other, an under-resourced sector focusing on social inclusivity will not serve Scotland's people well in the future."

In a joint statement, the Scottish Funding Council and Universities Scotland said the drop-out rate had fallen.

And because Scotland had been relatively more successful in widening participation, it had proportionately fewer "low participation neighbourhoods" on which to draw.

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