Investigation: Downward trend for participation in Durham’s supported progression scheme


Data obtained by Palatinate shows that between 2017 and 2020, the number of prospective students participating in Durham’s Supported Progression programme fell year-on-year.

The programme offers year 12 students the opportunity to experience student life, find out more about Durham, and receive advice on making university applications. Students from underrepresented backgrounds are prioritised for the scheme, such as those with experience of being in care, those who are estranged from their families; those who are first-generation university students; and those who are eligible for free school meals.

Prospective students who complete the programme are guaranteed to receive a contextual offer to study at Durham – typically two grades lower than the normal offer.

While in 2018, 307 students took part in the programme, only 122 did so in 2021. This reduction in participants has naturally resulted in fewer overall enrollments; however, the scheme has become more successful concerning the proportion of participants who later enrol at Durham.

From 2017 to 2020 an average of just 43% of those who completed the University’s Supported Progression programme enrolled at the University. This conversion rate was described by the University as “less than expected” and in 2020 Durham announced that they will redesign the scheme to become a North East programme limited to 100 students from areas with low progression to higher education.

The decline in participant numbers coincides with changes to the programme’s financial support. Students who participated in the programme and later enrolled at Durham used to receive £5,500 per annum in financial support. However, the University’s Access Agreement, published in 2018/19, stated that it would “limit the maximum value of all bursaries […] to £2,000”, including bursaries given through the Supported Progression programme. The University said its decision was based on “the latest research regarding the impact of bursaries on student success”.

Palatinate spoke to Declan Merrington, the Student Union’s Postgraduate Academic Officer, about the low enrolment rates. He said that “I think you have to consider the background of SP applicants: whilst 43% enrol at Durham, a much larger proportion enrol in another HE institution.

“When you consider that these are often first-generation students, this is massively significant. Yes, it would be nice to have every single one of them enrol at Durham, but I think giving them the opportunity to realise that HE is the place for them, but that Durham may not be the best fit, is equally as important”.

Regarding the decreasing number of prospective students attending the programme, Merrington believes the drop-off “reflects the University’s emphasis on ‘contextual UCAS offers’, rather than summer school schemes like SP. Obviously, the past few years have been out of the ordinary: from schools being shut, A-Levels cancelled and the uncertainty of HE’s future, there has to be at least some expected fall in those attending SP.

“It is worrying that it has decreased, especially when you consider that SP widened its pool of applicants to those in London”

Declan Merrington

“That being said, it is worrying that it has decreased, especially when you consider that SP widened its pool of applicants to those in London.

“We fully support all efforts to enable those from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in HE. As an SU Officer, I would not be here without my Supported Progression offer, and so I know just how important these summer school programmes are”.

Responding to these figures, a Durham University spokesperson said that “We run a number of successful schemes aimed at widening participation and our latest Access and Participation Plan is by far the boldest yet, with demanding targets that we are continuing to meet.

“In line with our Access and Participation Plan, we have progressively focused our Supported Progression programme for students living in postcodes with the lowest rates of participation in higher education, while at the same time introducing other initiatives, including the Space to Explore Potential (STEP) programme for black heritage students.

“However, we are not complacent and we are constantly making improvements to our admissions and support systems for all students, and especially for those who are under-represented in higher education”.

Image: Waseem Mohamed

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