HEi-think: It is time to redefine widening access goals
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Last Thursday Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, called upon universities to remove the barriers that were blocking access for under-represented groups of young people. It was time, he argued, for universities to play their role as engines of social mobility.
Johnson’s call came shortly after the Prime Minister David Cameron issued guidance that will require universities to publish data on admissions by gender, class and ethnic background, an initiative that is aimed at identifying institutions where representation of students from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds is low. Particular disapproval was reserved for some members of the Russell Group and towards Oxford University in particular, which, according to the government’s data, recruited just 27 black students in 2014.
In order for universities to continue to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000, they will need to set ambitious targets to boost social mobility and raise aspirations. This will mean increasing outreach activities and partnership work with schools in neighbourhoods with lower levels of participation in higher education as well as the smarter targeting of resources and efforts to improve retention.
All of these commitments underline the Government’s pledge to double to proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university by 2020. However, it is important to remember that more students now enter university than ever before. The 532,300 students who began their undergraduate degrees in 2015 was the highest number ever recorded, with the least advantaged young people in England now 65% more likely to go to university than they were in 2006.
If universities are to be able to respond effectively to the Government’s proposals and embark upon ambitious programmes of outreach to make access to higher education more equitable, then two things will need to happen.
First, universities will need good quality data on the characteristics of applicants and those who eventually take up places. The recent linkage of data from the pupil census with that collected by UCAS on university applicants will be useful, if only for students in England. But good data on key variables linked to poverty, in particular, remain allusive. In addition, procedures will need to be developed within institutions to allow for the effective analysis and use of data on student progression, retention and their eventual destinations. Such data will need to be robust and comparable within and between different types of institution.
Secondly, there is a need for clear and transparent indicators of what is meant by under-represented groups. The characteristics of the undergraduate student population have changed considerably over the last twenty five years and groups that were once in a minority are now well-represented. However, differential rates of participation at the level of subjects and institutions remain entrenched and reveal stark inequalities in who studies what subject and where they study. We need a full and frank discussion about which groups of students will need, and will benefit from, this additional support and attention.
Politicians are often telling us that going to university is a ‘great way to get on’ and gaining a degree has quickly become the default next step for the current generation of school leavers. This narrowing of choice post-18 represents an important challenge to the education sector. Despite a recent focus by the government to reinvigorate apprenticeship schemes, the range of options for 18 year olds remains small and is starkly segregated between an academic route to university and a narrower vocational based route into employment and training. This limited choice combined with some of the highest university tuition fees in the world means that we are in danger of leading our graduates, be they from under-represented groups or not, into an over-heated graduate labour market and high levels of debt.
While it is certainly the case that inequalities within the higher education sector persist, it would be trite to assume that our ‘elite’ institutions are refusing entry to students simply because they are poor. Academic attainment at 18 is closely related to academic attainment at the earlier stages of schooling and this in turn is closely related, at the aggregate level, to poverty and inequality. Children from economically disadvantaged homes who lag behind in the foundation years will find the attainment gap between them and their peers from less disadvantaged homes increasing as they move through school.
If we are, in the words of Frank Field, to prevent ‘poor children becoming poor adults’, then we need coherent social and educational policies aimed at reducing inequality and alleviating poverty. Waiting until students start to apply to university is simply too late.