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Poor students at Sussex twice as likely to drop out, says research

The University of Sussex is failing to keep its students who apply through ‘Access schemes’, new figures reveal. The figures, quoted in national newspaper The Sunday Times, show that students who apply through ‘access’ schemes are twice as likely to dropout as those who don’t apply through the schemes. While overall 10.3% of students at Sussex give up their degrees before completion, this rises to 15.8% among those who had entered through “access” programmes. The article named Sussex as particularly bad at keeping students from non-traditional backgrounds. In an interview with The Badger the University also said that despite its commitment to widening participation at Sussex, as yet there are no plans to expand its ‘access’ schemes, which have actually contracted slightly in recent years.

The figures were published in The Sunday Times as part of an article which highlighted the failures of the education system in attracting poorer students. The University has disputed that the figures are particularly alarming as it argues that access scheme students are predominantly mature students who have higher levels of drop-out rates than younger students.

In an interview with The Badger Adam Farrell, the Student Union’s Education Officer, disputed the University’s claim that it was doing enough to ensure students from non-traditional backgrounds settle at Sussex. He called for radical change in the way the University manages its students: “the University has got a long way to go, not only does it fail poorer students but mature students and international students too.  They have failed to create an environment that can account for the difficulties that these groups can suffer whilst studying.”

The results come as part of a trend in research showing that the expansion of higher education has not led to the expansion of social mobility. Despite government pressure and efforts by the Universities, attempts to attract more applicants from poor families have had only limited success. At Oxford University 47% of students still come from private schools, despite only 7% of the population being privately educated. The University of Durham recently revealed that “The proportion of applicants from the state sector is declining each year” and argued urgent action was needed to change its reputation as an elite University. Mr Farrell said yesterday that “despite the government’s best intentions, students with non-traditional educational backgrounds still find the world of University difficult to navigate.”

In a new scheme launched by the government this autumn the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for the first time asked candidates whether their parents attended university in the application process. Universities now have the choice whether or not to use it as a determining factor in choosing students. A number of the Sussex University’s competitors – including Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield and York – have done so, prompting calls for Sussex to do the same.

‘Overall 15.8% among those who had entered through “access” schemes at Sussex give up their degrees before completion, compared to 10.3% of other students.’

But it appears that some Universities do not see it as their role to counter educational inequalities. In September last year Alison Richard, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, condemned ‘meddling’ ministers for their interference in their admissions process. Speaking at the annual conference for Vice-Chancellors, she argued that despite their charitable status Universities should not be used as “engines for social justice” as social mobility should be a by-product of selecting the ‘best’ students, irrespective of background.

Sussex has made some effort to expand its student base in recent years. While the number of students from state schools has remained consistent at 85% in recent years, there have been higher numbers of poorer students coming to Sussex. In 2006/07 22.5% of students came from lower socio-economic groups, up from 20% in 2005/06, but still well below the national average of 23.4%. The latest Sussex Widening Participation plan has as its top target to “increase the proportion of young students from nationally-defined lower social groups, to meet the benchmark indicator published by the Higher Education Funding Council.” The press office at the University was also quick to stress that “we are re-organising our student support teams to focus sharply on early warning signs of students disengaging.”

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