Universities have been urged to broaden their admission horizons. Susan Young reports.
Students from ethnic minorities and those without A-levels are now well represented at university, but there are still too few disabled or working-class undergraduates, according to a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
It has discovered considerable variations between the admissions policies of different universities and higher education colleges, with older institutions enrolling a narrower band of students.
Future expansion is unlikely to come in the form of "traditional" entrants, school-leavers with A-levels, but with people from more diverse backgrounds. Therefore institutions will need to adapt their approach to education with even more innovation and flexibility.
"For example, entrants with general national vocational qualifications will have experienced different learning processes from those of traditional A-level entrants (such as active learning and the development of communication, planning and evaluative skills)," says the report.
"These may influence the nature of HE provision. On the other hand, the level of academic coverage of GNVQ programmes may leave students ill-equipped for conventional degree programmes and thus lead to a realignment of undergraduate standards and level of study."
The report suggests that the funding council might one day wish to consider differentiating between institutions on the basis of how accessible they made themselves to less traditional students.
Direct action taken by some universities included specific admissions policies, links with communities, schools and employers and collaborative arrangements with FE colleges. The HEFCE has made a total of Pounds 40. 4 million available for past and current initiatives to encourage access.
The report also proposes that the focus should move away from increasing numbers to improving the quality of higher education for non-traditional groups, including better pastoral and academic support and flexible study options.
Overall, says the report, minority ethnic groups are not under-represented in higher education, with black African, Chinese and Asian groups particularly well represented. However, young black Caribbean men and Pakistani and Bangladeshi women do appear to be under-represented.
Nearly 27,000 undergraduates are known to have a reported disability, around 2 per cent of the total student body.
About half of these young people have an "unseen" disability such as diabetes, epilepsy or asthma, while the next largest group suffer from dyslexia. Around 2,500 have mobility problems, while there are about 1,000 blind and partially sighted students and 1,500 with hearing problems.
The funding council believes there is "substantial" under-representation of skilled non-manual, skilled manual and partly skilled social classes in higher education. The report says the professional, management and associated social classes represent more than 60 per cent of young undergraduates yet make up only 37 per cent of the wider population.
Widening Access To Higher Education: a report by the HEFCE's advisory group on access and participation.