Leading article: The universities could do better

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The annual higher education performance indicators published today will make uncomfortable reading for the Government. The proportion of pupils from state schools, working-class backgrounds or areas with no history of sending students to university has fallen, according to the figures. This suggests that despite ministers' long-standing drive to widen access to higher education, a university education is still the preserve of the middle classes. Drop-out rates remain high, with 7.7 per cent of young undergraduates not continuing with their studies after their first year. But mature students are increasingly likely to drop out after their first year.

Worryingly, students are increasingly likely to leave higher education with nothing. Nearly 15 per cent of those who start at university will neither get their degree nor transfer to another course.

The figures show the task universities face in attracting and keeping a more diverse population. The drive to recruit more students from deprived backgrounds with no family history of university entry is huge. It requires a change in attitudes among young people for whom higher education is seen as an unnecessary and expensive distraction from the real world of work.

This comes as the expansion of higher education has slowed and A-level results have increased - meaning competition for university places is steadily growing. And students from deprived backgrounds may be less well equipped to compete for places than their middle-class counterparts.

Meanwhile, students will be asked to bear more of the costs of their education themselves when top-up fees of up to £3,000 are introduced in September. It is perhaps not surprising that many young people still wonder if it is worth the struggle. Universities have to do more to convince them of the lifelong benefits of getting a degree and support them when the going gets tough. They also need to be sure they offer them a decent education. There is evidence that some students are getting a raw deal from their universities, as we show on page 6 where students from the University of Lincoln are suing their alma mater for compensation. If young people are to be persuaded to sign up for higher education they have to see they are getting value for money.