Education+: Your Views - Dearing data may be unreliable

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The Independent Online
Both Kennedy and Dearing have now reported.

A particular technique that seems to have influenced both authors very strongly is the ability to calculate participation rates by postcode. In simple terms, both the 1991 census and the Ucas returns have, among other data, the postcode of the applicant. Using the power of modern databases, these two items can be combined to generate the necessary analysis by postcode. Standard statistical methods can then group the data into similar clusters of postcodes, each with its own average participation rate.

HEFCE initially identified some 40 clusters, although these can be simplified into 12 more basic categories, or even into five groups that more or less correspond with social classes one to five.

The results are frankly staggering, and are summarised in the HEFCE report, "The Influence of Neighbourhood Type on Participation in Higher Education", published last April. The participation rates vary between about 75 per cent and about 5 per cent, and it is difficult to escape the impression that there is a vast under-exploited resource in the form of postcode groupings with low participation rates. In its simplest form, social classes four and five seem to be missing out on higher education.

My worry is that I am aware of other, alternative data that seems to cast doubt on this underlying thesis, at least in my mind. This is less complete and needs to be interpreted with caution but, none the less, it suggests a different story.

The number of young people studying for degrees has doubled from about 15 per cent to about 30 per cent over the last 10 years. There is no evidence that this overall increase has benefited the so-called working classes; on the contrary all classes have increased by about the same amount.

The second indicator examines the participation rate, by social class, of those who are qualified to enter higher education. This data shows only a small difference between the social classes: in essence, those who are qualified to enter higher education do so whatever their social class.

None of this evidence suggests that students cannot successfully complete a degree and embark on a professional career from any background. However, it does suggest that a further increase in overall participation from about 30 per cent to between 40 per cent and 50 per cent will not increase the relative participation rate of social classes four and five. If the past is any guide to the future, it will affect all social classes equally.

The worry that I have is that we may be misreading the postcode data, with its promise of areas in the country where participation can be simply increased, and that we may be tempted to throw money at the school leavers who have not yet gained the qualifications required to enter higher education. It is my suspicion that this strategy will prove to be ineffective.

There are two different options. If you wish to bring about long-term social change, an idea that I would support, the way to achieve it is to invest at infant and pre-school levels.

If, on the other hand, you simply want more graduates available in the workplace, the simplest way to achieve this would be to encourage the third of those already qualifying for higher education but choosing not to enter to change their minds. Which of these options does the Government really want? Neither Kennedy or Dearing has answered this question.

Professor Eric Billett, Pro-Vice Chancellor, External Relations, Brunel University