In this world of constant connectivity and good road and transport systems, should it matter where you live if you want to go to university? Evidently, it does.
A recent Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) study of how many university places are available around England shows provision is still concentrated on the cities and industrialised areas. Efforts have been made to address these gaps: in 2012, the government moved to upgrade ten smaller HE colleges in England, including the Royal Agricultural College, to become full universities. In some areas, such as Cornwall, universities have worked with FE colleges to allow access to university-accredited places on a local basis. But the fact is, the ‘cold spots’ in provision have changed little since the last time the situation was examined, in 2000. The South West, the Cumbrian coastline, Humberside and North Yorkshire, East Anglia and along the Welsh borders remain yawning gaps where there are few university places easily accessed by young people living there.
The HEFCE research was commissioned in the spring by then minister for universities, David Willets, who highlighted the lack of provision in cathedral cities, county towns and coastal communities such as Shrewsbury, Hereford and Yeovil. The government believes universities are a good way to revive the economic fortunes of an area, such as the new institutions in Lincoln and Worcester which have apparently added millions of pounds to the local economy, generated jobs and up-skilled the local population. The HEFCE research certainly shows a link between higher graduate numbers and lower levels of unemployment in a region. But do we really need more universities? Critics of the focus on pushing students into HE say that we don’t need more graduates, because there aren’t enough skilled jobs to absorb the numbers. Meanwhile, limits on student numbers are to be completely lifted in England from next year, with the number of undergraduate places expected to increase by about 20%: but, of course, within existing universities.
For the first time, HEFCE also compared pupils’ performance at school with progression on to university, examining data down to ward level. This threw up some curious anomalies. Despite excellent provision of places in Birmingham and Leeds, for instance, a lower percentage of students with the right grades go on to university, compared with the average. Meanwhile, parts of Liverpool send a much higher proportion of students to university.
What emerged most strongly from this data is that many rural areas, even those in the relatively affluent home counties, tend to send a much lower proportion of their qualified pupils into higher education. For example, in Box Hill and Headley, Surrey, just 25% of pupils went on to university between 2006 and 2010 when, given their grades, one would have expected nearly 40% to go. In Dorchester East, Dorset, around 31% of pupils went into higher education – 16.8 percentage points lower than expected. In London, with so much provision on the doorstep, progression to university is high, even from poorer areas. But move east along the Thames, and parts of Dartford and Thurrock have some of the lowest levels of university participation in the country.
Why is this happening? At local level, it may even be down to the attitudes of individual schools or to community culture and the jobs available nearby. Distance to travel also has to make a difference. We know that more and more young people are remaining at home for economic reasons, and with today’s high university fees, having the option to stay local and not pay for student accommodation must influence choices. While long-term plans for improving provision grind along, perhaps the Government should look at simple solutions, such as much greater subsidy of travel and accommodation, for students who don’t have access to university places near their home town.