Kate Hilpern finds out whether higher education institutions are meeting their benchmarks

If this is the first time you've come across Which Course's Big Question, now's your chance to read about one of the issues at the forefront of the education world. We deal with a different topic in each edition, laying out the facts and then hearing from people on both sides of the debate. At the end there's even an opportunity for you to make up your own mind...

Why have benchmarks been introduced for universities' recruitment of state school pupils?

Because the Government has decided to try to widen participation in higher education. In the past, private school pupils have had a better chance of getting into university than their state school counterparts.

Who brought the benchmarks in, and when?

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) has been collecting data and creating benchmarks on the number of state school students attending university since 2002. Hesa publish the figures on behalf of the Performance Indicator Steering Group (PISG), which is comprised of the higher education (HE) funding bodies, Government departments, HE institutions and other interested bodies.

And are universities managing to meet their benchmarks?

Overall, figures show some encouraging signs for Government attempts to widen participation. The figures, which cover 2005-2006, show that across the UK the percentage of state school pupils going to university has gone up from 86.7 per cent to 87.4 per cent. That beats the high of 87.2 achieved in 2002-2003.

What about top universities?

This is less positive. Only six members of the 20-strong Russell Group - which represents the highest-rated research institutions in the UK - meet the benchmarks for recruiting state school students. In addition, 16 of the 20 fail to recruit enough students from parts of the country where participation in higher education is traditionally low.

Which of the top universities are best at recruiting state school pupils?

Of the 20 top universities in the UK, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow, Sheffield, Southampton and Queen's University Belfast reached their benchmarks. Cambridge's figures were not included in the survey because it is currently changing the way it collects student data.

What about students from deprived neighbourhoods?

Again, in general this is good news, with the percentage of pupils recruited from deprived neighbourhoods going up from 13.7 per cent to 14 per cent, which follows a slump in the last two years. Only four of the Russell Group universities reached the benchmark on accepting students from deprived neighbourhoods though, with Manchester and Glasgow beating their targets and Imperial College and King's College London just reaching it. Nottingham University (with 5.5 per cent of recruits against a benchmark of 7.5 per cent) and Oxford (with 5.9 per cent against 8.7 per cent) were the furthest behind.

Is going to an independent school an automatic ticket to university?

Not necessarily. The latest research shows that elite private schools are having just as much success as they always have in getting their students into university. However, middle-ranking independent schools are finding it more difficult to cope with the competition.


Now it's your turn! Do you think state school pupils have as much chance of going to university as anyone else, or are there added barriers? Or, broadening the argument, is higher education always the best option or are the alternatives more suited to some students? We really want to get your views, so e-mail us at whichcourse@independent.co.uk with the subject heading "The Big Question" and share your thoughts!