Still struggling with the access story

It has, rightly, become a public policy priority to ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have a realistic chance to get a university degree. Governments in many countries, including those in these islands, have attempted to incentivise universities to recruit and support access students, and to reprimand those not making too much of an effort. In England there is a whole new agency, the Office of Fair Access, tasked with trying to ensure that high tuition fees don’t work against the disadvantaged. In Ireland 16 higher education institutions operate the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), under which students from disadvantaged backgrounds can get into degree courses even where they don’t satisfy the normal entry requirements. In Scotland the government has just published a Bill which, when enacted, will allow the government to make funding dependent on the institution meeting targets for the recruitment of access students.

But despite all these initiatives and obvious determination, participation levels in higher education by the disadvantaged are still unacceptably low, in some cases extraordinarily so. A few days ago St Andrews University (famous for its royal graduates) disclosed that it had admitted just 14 disadvantaged students at the beginning 0f the session; it went on to argue that it couldn’t do more than that without compromising standards. Furthermore, a few weeks ago the most recent statistics in Ireland revealed that, despite a decade and a half of no tuition fees, the proportion of disadvantaged students going to university had barely grown.

There are some conclusions to be drawn from all this. First, free higher education visibly helps middle income groups, but does very little (perhaps nothing) for the more disadvantaged. Indeed it could be argued that the money necessarily spent on the wealthy middle classes in the absence of tuition fees leaves less scope for targeted access programmes for the poor; this is so particularly during times of budgetary constraints. Of course these are political choices, and it is our duty in the universities to work constructively with them, but free higher education is no silver bullet for problems with access.

Secondly, as long as universities believe that admitting disadvantaged students undermines standards not much will change. Poorer students go to less well resourced schools, potentially with other social problems. They will produce less impressive exam performances, despite the fact that many of them are very bright. If no allowance is made for this, nothing will change. In my experience access students, once admitted even with worse school results, will often outperform those that entered by the normal routes. The Irish HEAR project is a good one, and universities like St Andrews should perhaps have another look at what has been achieved by others.

Thirdly, solving the access problem is not a cheap undertaking. In particular, it is vital that access students, once admitted, are given strong care and support to ensure they stay the course, and this needs to be resourced. An average size university that spends less than £1 million each year on special services and supports for access students is probably not doing enough. The consolation is that access programmes are an attractive cause for philanthropy. But governments must also be aware that access targets are pretty useless if there is no targeted funding.

It is entirely positive that there is so much talk about university access these days. But there is still much to do.

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11 Comments on “Still struggling with the access story”


  1. The HEA survey on access shows that apparently lower middle income students faired worse in terms of access than lower income students. Nonetheless, the story of access doesn’t begin with access to 1st year university but with 1st year in life. The BIGGEST reason why fewer students from disadvantages areas go to third level is to do with the absence of a culture of valuing higher education; often, third level is seen as ‘not the done thing’. The BEST way to improve third level access for students from disadvantaged areas (with the exception of not having disadvantage in the first place) is to fund early education of children from these backgrounds – starting in the first year of life.

  2. V.H Says:

    If St Andrews continues to act (much like TCD did until about 1970) as a colonial outpost it will increasingly be thought of as a Porterhouse University. In fact that is the danger for the Russell Group as a whole. What can begin in a seemingly logical attempt to preserve standards may rapidly become an entrenched rump where the term ‘preserving standards’ becomes a code for active exclusion.
    Over these last few years the higher ed sector has come to a T in the route where two entry tracks are diverging from each other. This will be to the long term good of neither.
    All we’ll end up with is a sickly blood drained segment getting ever smaller and ever nostalgic. And a rough, bent on business, with rude health but generally unsighted vast majority.

    Fourteen !. I’m shocked and disgusted. This was lazy, stupid, nasty and utterly pointless.

  3. Kate Says:

    I agree with the comments around disadvantaged students coming from lesser resourced schools (and potentially falling at that first hurdle); however what we don’t address here is the cost of living when at University.

    Of course a combination of either scholarships / no tuition fees will help with immediate access, but what about the cost of living during those 3/4 years of study? Accomodation, bills, food, transport, books, computer access……and some form of social life. After all, that is part of the social learning experience!

    Of course many students do work during their academic studies, however they can’t be expected to meet the ever increasing cost of living through a simple part-time job. This is shown by the number of graduates leaving with huge loans and bills to pay.

    Until we take a full rounded approach to addressing access for all, starting with the quality of early education and funding, this will never change.

  4. Jacco Says:

    One reads the argument that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be as smart or smarter than many from more privileged backgrounds and should, hence, been given a chance quite often. However, isn’t the problem not so much whether or not these students are clever, but whether they have the right skills coming into university? For a degree in, say, mathematics, a university has to be able to rely on a basic level of mathematical skill, otherwise the curriculum can never be taught in the three years. It seems to me that emphasizing access at university level is misguided: one should focus on properly resourcing secondary education.


    • But that argument is constantly fought at school level – is the point of A levels to guarantee that students have a minimal level of knowledge, or to enable students to be ranks in order of achievement?

      The RG universities frequently argue that A levels are failing if they don’t enable those institutions to determine which are the highest achieving students – hence the introduction of the A* grades at GCSE in the 1990s, and at A level more recently. Every time the proportion of students getting As increases, there are cries that the exams are getting easier. There is active resistance to the idea that a greater proportion of students should achieve the highest grades than at present, with elite institutions arguing that this will make it harder for them to identify which students deserve to be educated at elite institutions.

      Whatever system you devise for identifying the best and the brightest, the richest will find a way of paying for their sons and daughters to win. I think that’s a given. The RG institutions’ insistence on their right to identify the “most talented” students is always going to work against a system where A levels are a guarantee of a particular level of knowledge.

      • Jacco Says:

        The problem there, I think, is that there is a lot of pressure from especially better-off parents to make sure that their offspring end up in these universities. That creates a pressure to have an exam system that is to a large extent predictable. All I see on an almost daily basis is that foreign students (EU and non-EU) are consistently outperforming UK students in maths. I suspect that has a lot to do with the emphasis on rote learning in the UK. That’s worrying if we need those skills to operate effectively as a country in a more open world.

  5. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    So if Ferdinand is right, and disadvataged students get better results at UNI than those from middle class backgrounds, if they can get in, what does this say about A levels/ highers? The real worry is that ST Andrews is basing its argument on performance in these exams which predict nothing about subsequent performance. And it’s getting away with it.

    The whole argument about middle class welfare would only work if the actual resources that are currently dedicated to subsidizing middle class students were fully diverted to poor students. Instead, it’s used as an excuse to cut absolute funding to institutions which then offer a few crumbs to poorer students. This is public policy vandalism.

    • V.H Says:

      Much the same as it says at a Sea World when the Blue Whale lifts a ball with his snout. But at least you know it can be trained I suppose.

  6. litljortindan Says:

    On p10 of the NUS Access to HE report I think it is interesting to note that the proportion of HE students that is quintile 5 or 4 is biggest in the over 21 age category. To me this would mean that universities have to compete with vocational employers to get their under 22 quintile 5 quota and persuade employers and employees of the benefits of HE to get their over 21 quintile quota.
    By the time my quintile 5 brother had sat and passed his 5 highers he’d been to no fewer than 5 secondary schools. No wonder he just went straight into the RAF. My quintile 5 sister also passed her 5 highers and then went into nursing. I suppose they’d both had a good close up look at the benefits of having no money and moving from job to job and possibly opted for job security. However, both later did engage with HE, my sister gaining a Masters with distinction (and becoming an academic author) and my brother supporting his daughter through her degree.
    So I think quintile 5 people see the benefits of HE, but maybe not when they are just out of school. Do universities really try to persuade quintile 5 people of economic benefits of a degree? I think that is one thing that could bring more into university. Do employers really see quintile 5 employees as graduate employees or potential graduate employees that they are willing to allow to study part time?

    http://www.nus.org.uk/Documents/NUS%20Scotland/Unlocking%20Scotland's%20Potential.pdf


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