Headlines: January 18th, 2002

Insufficient students from poorer families are entering higher education and too many of them are dropping out. The National Audit Office is critical of the steps being taken by universities and college to address theses issues.The DfES and the Funding Council allocated over 200m pounds million in the current academic year to support widening participation, but the NAO questions whether the funds are targeted appropriately. A major problem is that there is no systematic information about how institutions are spending the money to achieve wider participation. In addition the system of discretionary funding for poorer students is over complex and creates uncertainty. Institutions have failed to increase the participation of poorer students in the last 6 years and there is little evidence to show that they are improving.

The NAO auditors found that applicants from poorer families are less likely than others to succeed in converting their applications to accepted offers. They have particularly low success rates in applications to study medicine, dentistry and veterinary science. Their participation rates in these subjects are also low. Some institutions have low participation by these groups because they do not attract many applications from them, while the problem for other institutions is the high failure rate of applications from these groups.

The report is critical about the lack of support institutions give to poorer students in helping them to succeed. Highly vocational courses tend to lose fewest students while mathematics, computer sciences and engineering lose most. Institutions are urged to identify the students who may benefit most from extra academic support and to further develop rewards for staff who are innovative and effective in their teaching.