NAO report on widening participation

25 June 2008

Responding to the National Audit Office (NAO) report, ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education’, the Director General of the Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt, said:

“This is yet another report which provides further evidence that the main obstacle to widening participation in our universities is educational under-achievement. If a child from a lower social group succeeds in overcoming the barriers s/he faces and achieves good grades at A Level (or the equivalent), then s/he is highly likely to go to university. Similarly, the report also confirms that the introduction of variable tuition fees has had no negative impact on students' intentions of going to university.

“We welcome the fact that the widening participation programmes of Russell Group universities in England are highlighted in this report as examples of good practice. We also welcome the recognition that our universities have made a huge investment in outreach work and bursaries to help the less well-off students and those with the most potential. Our universities are also constantly improving and accelerating the raft of other initiatives they already undertake to widen participation including access courses and summer schools.

“We recognise that the provision of accurate information, advice and guidance is especially important to enable students to choose the best university for them. Our universities publicise their admissions policies on their websites, in UCAS entry profiles, in prospectuses and, in some cases, through podcasts and videos online to ensure it is as accessible as possible to all audiences. We are also working to improve the clarity and accessibility of information on financial support. The Russell Group has now decided to hold special conferences to inform teachers and advisors about key aspects of our universities, particularly their application processes. It is essential to ensure that students make informed choices about applying to the universities which are best for them.

“We are concerned, however, that this report uses HEFCE’s performance indicator benchmarks in its analysis. The Russell Group continues to believe the benchmarks are unhelpful and inaccurate for a variety of reasons. The NAO itself points out the need for data which can accurately identify groups under-represented in higher education.”
Notes to Editors

  1. “The introduction of variable tuition fees and more generous financial support for students does not appear to have reduced the number of applications to higher education” ('Widening Participation in Higher Education, Page 9)
  2. Two Russell Group schemes were singled out in this report, 'Professor Fluffy', which was created at the University of Liverpool to introduce primary school age children to higher education, and the Sheffield Outreach and Access to Medicine Scheme (SOAMMS).
  3. In 2006-07 The Russell Group spent well over £20 million of additional fee income (AFI) on support for low income students – a greater share of AFI than the sector as a whole and nearly £500,000 more than the sector average per institution. For example:
  1. Three key factors which account for the relatively low proportion of students from 'non-traditional backgrounds' at Russell Group universities are not factored in to the benchmark figures:
  • The use of UCAS tariff points inflates the quantity of potentially qualified applicants as these pupils may not have the qualifications required to enter their chosen course
  • The benchmarks do not take into account whether students have the necessary subject combination for particular areas of study
  • The number of applications from ‘non-traditional’ pupils is not taken into account. Lack of applications from such groups is one the main difficulties Russell Group universities face in widening participation.

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