(Mis)diagnosing the problem with access to HE

I tend not to write about policy on higher education, for a range of reasons. But the more I hear about the proposals surrounding the new regime for tuition fees the more problematic I feel they could be. Actually, it isn’t so much the proposals themselves, but it is some of the policy narrative that goes with them. The Government is planning to impose conditions relating to widening participation on any university that wishes to charge more than £6,000. Adherence to those conditions will be subject to annual monitoring. Quite what happens if the conditions are not met isn’t yet clear, but that isn’t the point I have been chewing over.

It is clear that access to higher education is skewed. The statistics are clear – those attending the best state schools and, particularly, private schools are much more likely to attend the better universities. Access to elite Oxbridge institutions is heavily circumscribed. Today I heard senior Ministers invoke a new, more evocative, version of the same story – that more students from Eton went to Oxford last year than from the entire – very large – group of students who receive free school meals.

No one can sensibly deny the broad picture painted by the statistics. But what is the nature of the problem? It is here I think things are rather less clear. At the very least, a very simplistic story currently seems to be dominating.

Policy seems to be taking the statistics and making the leap to the conclusion that it is universities that are not doing enough to encourage access for high quality students from disadvantaged backgrounds. No one would dispute that more could be done on this front. But it is only a small part of the story.

I am proud to be head of a university department at a Russell Group university that puts a huge amount of effort into Widening Participation. My colleagues  run special open days and produce accessible materials. They go out to local School and Colleges to explain to potential students what university is like and what it entails. They try to educate, change expectations and raise aspirations among those who have the potential to pursue academic study at undergradate level. We have significant success in recruiting students from access course, areas of low educational participation, and mature students returning to education. Some of those students go on to achieve excellent results. Last year a number were awarded first class degrees entirely on merit.

But it is a constant battle. Even with all the effort we put in year on year the social and educational profile of our student cohort each year is still not representative of the broader population. There is still an over-representation of students from independent schools and higher social classes. Yet, it is hard to think what more could be done.

By the time we enter the scene it is really too late to address the root causes of the problem. It is educational development in early years and at primary level. It is shaping the way in which families and parents, as well as schools, understand and value education that shapes the aspirations of young people. The Government knows this – indeed it has implemented policies precisely to address these issues – and so it would be somewhat contradictory to place very stringent conditions on universities accessing the level of resources they need in order to simply stand still. For many universities a fee of £6,000 per student will represent a real cut in resources. For some it may not be enough to stay afloat. For many charging near £9,000 is going to be necessary just to stand still. It is simply about preserving the quality of education that is currently being provided. It isn’t going to generate further resources to allow improved provision. And yet at the same time students will, rightly, be demanding more because they perceive that they are, personally, paying more.

While the Government might not feel it is setting quotas for students from poorer backgrounds there is a strong possibility that de facto that is what will happen. Some universities might be tempted to ensure they admit students from certain backgrounds, even if they are not strong candidates, simply to allow them to continue to charge £9,000. Clearly that isn’t a strategy that anyone is going to acknowledge publicly, and I haven’t heard of anyone proposing it. But you can see that the incentive is there. Some may well be tempted. I’m not sure that is what the Government necessarily wants. And I’m not sure that it is best for preserving the quality of the higher education experience for the whole student body.

It seems to me that this needs to be handled with great care. We can only hope that there is some hard thinking going on so as to avoid admirable aspirations unintentionally delivering unfortunate and undesirable outcomes.

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