One of the great developments of higher education across much of the developed world over recent years has been the dramatic increase in participation rates. Where once it was common to find fewer than 10 per cent of each age cohort going to universities and colleges, today it is not unusual to find up to and more than 50 per cent getting a degree. What was an elitist system is now much more inclusive.
Or is it? The latest data from Scottish higher education shows that the proportion of students coming from socio-economically deprived areas is actually falling. This is in line with statistics from Ireland, where also participation rates of persons from deprived backgrounds remain stubbornly low, having hardly increased at all since tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s.
The policy of securing equal opportunities for all groups within society seems not to make much of an impact in higher education. Why is this so? There are probably many reasons, but one of the chief ones is that too many politicians and policymakers have persuaded themselves that removing tuition fees is a sufficient way of securing social equity. This is not so, not least because in countries with tuition fees disadvantaged students often get their fees paid by the state anyway. The main beneficiaries of free higher education have been the middle and lower middle classes; those from poor backgrounds have hardly benefited at all.
Any policy to secure greater participation by such groups must pursue a combination of measures: tracking talented students in the school system from an early age and bringing them into the universities and colleges; persuading parents to support their children’s aspirations; ensuring good secondary education so that students have equal chances of being prepared for and passing final school examinations; applying flexibility in entry requirements for universities; providing adequate financial support to poorer students while at university; and maintaining professional offices in universities dedicated solely to supporting disadvantaged students.
All these measures are not only important, but also expensive, and in many countries the resources are not made available, or not sufficiently, to allow participation rates to grow. It is time to stop believing that any policy on tuition fees can fundamentally improve access, and to understand that access needs to be fully resourced. It is an important and necessary investment in our future as a society.