Fresh drive to widen access
A joint report by the FE and HE funding councils, Learning for All, concludes that, while the drive to widen access is showing results, progress is slow.
The report, by a review group of the two councils chaired by Professor Jim McGoldrick, of the HE funding council, was published at a time when the spotlight fell once again on university drop-out rates.
The survey by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed the Scottish figure for HE institutions is 18 per cent, compared with an overall UK average of 8 per cent. The increase in numbers of students from less privileged backgrounds, and with little or no experience of HE in their families, is cited as a reason for this.
But the report confirms that there continues to be a stubborn resistance to HE from those who are most disadvantaged, with people from the least deprived areas twice as likely to be involved in HE as those from the most deprived areas - 27.8 per cent against 14.2 per cent.
These proportions have barely changed since New Labour came to power - they were 28.8 per cent in 1996-97 and 12.8 per cent in 2003-04. The result is that the target of a 10 per cent increase in HE participation by disadvantaged groups has not been achieved.
The report reinforces yet again the contribution made by colleges, which provide most HE courses taken by those from the poorest areas. Where these groups do choose university education, they tend to be concentrated in the newer institutions. Colleges account for 20 per cent of those studying HE from the 20 per cent most deprived areas, compared to 9 per cent in the ancient universities.
The figures also show that, of those entering first degree courses from the most deprived areas, 14 per cent drop out in their second year, compared to 8 per cent for other groups (2001-02 figures).
Concern has also been raised about the difficulties faced by male students: in FE colleges, 17 per cent of courses taken by men were not completed in 2003-04, compared with 15 per cent for women, while the respective figures for HE institutions were 16 per cent and 12 per cent in 2001-02.
The gap between the number of young Scots males and females under 21 entering HE has grown from nothing to more than 10 per cent in only 10 years - "a significant issue and one we recommend is given more attention", the authors of the report state. Professor McGoldrick, former vice-principal of Abertay University, said that all parties involved in lifelong learning had to develop more coherently to meet learners' needs.
"Tackling uneven educational participation and achievement is a crucial national effort. We need to tackle it both to create a more just society and for economic effectiveness. We simply cannot afford not to make the best use of Scotland's human capital.
"Because these patterns are set early in life, the most important actions to make progress have to be taken by Scotland as a whole through schools, communities and careers guidance agencies, as well as by HE and FE."
Roger McClure, chief executive of both funding councils, suggested that the emphasis should turn away from "widening" participation to the concept of "optimum" participation.
This should include the economic and social costs of continuing with the current rate of non-participation, not just the additional costs of increased numbers of students from disadvantaged areas. Strengthening the business case for institutions to contribute will be one of the elements of the suggested national campaign.
It would concentrate on persuading more people from disadvantaged groups to go to college or university or take a training place.