The government has set itself ambitious targets for widening access to higher education.
The first ambition is to double the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education. There is a second ambition to increase by 20% the numbers of students from BME backgrounds. The aim of this analysis is to inform debate and action primarily about the first of these ambitions though we touch on the second one at the end of this paper.
- On current trends, the government will not achieve its ambitions for widening participation by 2020.
- Looking at progress so far, and in particular the wide variation between institutions, there is a dilemma to be resolved: whether to focus on improving the performance of institutions which have made little progress; or to rely even more on those who have contributed the largest share of widening participation.
- Improving the performance of those who have made little progress may require institutions themselves to get much more involved in raising prior attainment. Outreach alone may be insufficient.
- The wider market environment in the sector will also have a major impact on progress. Many institutions are exposed to new competitive pressures. On the other hand, some new providers may provide a boost to widening participation.
- Focusing on young, full-time students alone in terms of improving social mobility creates the risk that there may comparatively be much less progress on widening participation among part-time or mature students.
- The second ambition on widening participation – focusing on young people from BME backgrounds – may run at odds with the first one, especially given the lowest prior attainment and HE participation rates currently are among young people from white backgrounds.