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HESA data spring 2022: widening participation performance indicators

It's the last ever release of HESA widening participation performance indicators. David Kernohan asks what we have learned
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Shed a tear, fans of UK-wide data.

This year’s HESA widening participation performance indicator will be the last to be labelled as a performance indicator.

After the non-continuation indicators come out in March 2022 the label, and with it an era of regulatory consensus, will end.

To be strictly accurate – much of the WP release is specific to England and Wales – POLAR4, one of two measures of participation included here, does not work as well in the very different social geographies of Scotland and Northern Ireland so providers from those areas are not shown. Some of this is UK wide though, I promise.

For England and Wales the proportion of each year’s intake in the lowest quintile (POLAR4 Q1) of participation are compared with a benchmark based on the performance of a group of similar providers. In England, we get an even nicer benchmark that takes the location of the provider into account.

Here’s the chart for young full time entrants:

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And one for mature entrants:

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Making comparisons

The point here is to compare each provider with its benchmark(s) rather than with other providers – I’ve sorted by absolute values in each case if you are interested in seeing things from the OfS angle. For the rest of us, here’s the young full time entrants from low participation area difference from benchmark – a positive value means performance is above benchmarks.

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We’re here looking at the face of circa 2010 widening participation planning – if we compare the OfS Access and Participation dashboard we get a clear understanding of how the state of the art has shifted. You’ll look in vain for information, say, on ethnicity or subject (the subject range is built into the benchmarks). There is data on school background for young entrants, but there is no read across between the two.

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Back then, POLAR – despite these days being castigated as a blunt, area, based measure – was used in very smart ways. The thinking was that small areas of low participation were likely to capture other axes of deprivation within them – rather than seeing higher education as the solution to all social ills we simply addressed areas where few 18 year olds entered higher education, treating each area individually (and with local providers, and projects like Aim Higher, moving into specific issues as needed).

A change of direction

In the noughties we had limited data but we used it intelligently. These days we have a lot more data, which exposes a lot more of the experience of young people, but it is difficult to say whether we are making better use of it. Recall that the consensus that universities were a good thing and thus university expansion was a good thing held cross party right through both Cameron administrations. Conservative governments used to brag about removing caps on higher education student numbers. Those days are gone.

In times when a continued appetite for expansion is not certain, the mechanics of participation change. It is no longer a zero sum game, and all recruitment is done with a lingering sense that the Westminster government feels that some students, at some providers, should not be at university at all.

The “heroic” WP model postulates an untapped resource of brilliant students who would not otherwise have considered university as a route out of deprivation. Post-”levelling up”, there is a feeling that those prospective students should be staying where they are, surrendering personal gain from university study and a “graduate” career for the good of their community. This is a simplification – universities as anchor institutions can and do contribute to deprived areas via recruitment from elsewhere and bringing skills and qualifications to local people. But, now that the narrative that getting on means getting out is under serious question, we have to ask some fairly fundamental questions.

What is widening participation for in 2022?

It was easier when we all agreed that university was a social good. There was a perception that university expansion disproportionately benefited what I once heard described as “thick posh kids”, but when higher education was an post-scarcity good in a way this didn’t matter as long as university was accessible to anyone who could benefit – and financial disparities could (as Browne recommended) be levelled with grants.

A meaner, colder, political climate resulted in the logic behind Augar, and was arguably drawn from the shattering of the infamous “fiscal illusion”. Borrowing to cover loans was no longer seen as (short term) free money – the implications have been followed through to arguments for a “hard” or “soft” recruitment cap, and to the breaking of the monopoly higher education holds on the fee loan system to allow in cheaper, shorter, forms of post-compulsory education.

Outside of newspaper comment sections nobody can argue that those who can benefit from higher education should not be allowed to participate in it. So instead most of the argument has been based around competing idea of “benefit” – “low quality” courses, graduate earnings, completion rates. The “good” course, at the “good university” – if seen once again as a scarce commodity, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for “good students”, and by “good” I mean the students from the kind of background who would do well anywhere.

Old ways

One day we’ll say goodbye to the schools focus and pragmatism of the latest round of access and participation planning – and move on to another new approach. One day the access and participation will look as antiquated as the UKPIs do now. Until we shake off the last vestiges of an “elite” system the odds on participation, on graduate jobs, on earnings, and on health will be stacked against those from a background where higher education is not common.

Fixing that needs government action, not artificial scarcity.

Bonus data

We also get benchmarked data on Disabled Student Allowance recipients in each provider, a plot that always makes for a curious ranking with no obvious contributing factor. Why does Glyndŵr have a higher proportion of disabled students than University College Birmingham. It is not clear.

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