Extending Participation in Higher Education: An Investigation into Applicant Choice Using Postcode Analysis

Marc Farr, 2003

Statistics clearly show that large sections of British society are significantly under-represented in Higher Education (HE).  In response, the government is providing incentives to universities to recruit more widely from specific social groups. This issue has been particularly newsworthy in recent years and provides the primary general context for this research.

A secondary context for the research, alongside the political debate over 'widening participation' to HE, is concerned with Marketing.  As universities find themselves competing to attract students, the whole HE sector has had to become more marketing-orientated.  Almost all universities and colleges now have marketing departments and are gradually beginning to articulate their recruitment policies in terms of market-share figures, league tables and recruitment targets. This has led to their adoption of traditional marketing techniques, such as direct mail and 'above-the-line' advertising, in an attempt to improve their position in the HE 'market-place'.  The techniques used in this research provide an insight into the most up-to-date methods used by HE institutions to quantify and plan student populations.
The specific focus of this dissertation is a study of the application and acceptance data for entry into HE, as collected by the Universities and Colleges Admissions System (UCAS) for the period 1998-1999 application cycle. Previously, such data has been analysed only at a macro-level to reveal the extent of 'widening participation' to HE. The general conclusion of these studies has been that while more people have entered HE, their socio-economic profile has remained largely unchanged. The aim of this dissertation is to present results at a much finer level of detail, in order to identify patterns in application at the subject and institution level.  Its findings suggest that the profile of those studying the more prestigious courses at the older universities is not changing, despite the increase in overall HE student numbers.  A new term, 'extending participation', is proposed to refer to attempts to address this inequality.

All of this analysis is presented within the framework of a decision model, which in this study is taken to mean a diagrammatic representation of the stages and influences that a prospective student goes through during the application cycle.

The primary hypothesis confirmed by the study is that socio-economic status, as measured by geodemographic classification, is predictive at each stage of the decision process; earlier models of HE decision have consistently portrayed it as being influential only within the initial stages.  Alongside socio-economic status, the distance from home to institution for each application is also analysed. The results demonstrate that HE 'supply' (in terms of where different courses are offered) is as important an issue to consider as 'demand' (where people would ideally like to study). 

The results of this analysis are statistically significant and have important practical applications for: i) planning the funding of universities by government; specifically the Department of Education and Employment and the regional Funding Councils; and ii) planning by universities and colleges of their own specific portfolios of courses and where to focus their marketing activities.