Social equity and access to higher education

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.

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4 Comments on “Social equity and access to higher education”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    The latest HESA figures of 27% of students in Scotland from poorest homes while for UK as a whole 31% proves of course that wider access is not achieved by tuition fees policies only and that this issue cannot be addressed by universities alone. The wider measures proposed in the post are sensible ones, it might be worth adding that according to a recent report the gulf between the richest and poorest in British society is at its widest since the Second World War and that the issue of social inequality is not only a European but a global phenomenon, as the Occupy movement with their political slogan ‘We are the 99%’ has demonstrated. The cold HESA figures are just the symptom a wider social and cultural malaise whose deeper causes relate to the crisis of liberal capitalism, that such a malaise could be healed by setting some harder targets for universities is shortsighted, besides if this suggestion comes from a Cabinet of millionaires it becomes ludicrous.

  2. Robin Parker Says:

    Scottish Universities will see from this summer an increase of £135m per year in their funding. That funding was put in place in order that there would be no funding gap to the rest of the UK where tuition fees have been increased, and so that tuition fees continue to no longer be a barrier to access. So, I’m fully looking forward to seeing Scottish Universities put that massive boost in funding towards tackling the shameful rates of access that you quite rightly highlight. I think you are spot on about the kinds of policies that need to be implemented, though.

  3. Vince Says:

    It’s taken me a while to frame a response to this post. Well here goes.
    Reading this blog and reading outside it in order to adequately comment has cause a sea change in my opinion of this subject. For the longest time I held that fully open and free was the way to go with education, all education. But all this does is cause cash to be deployed elsewhere. Where nowadays the professional bodies are charging a kings ransom for what is in essence a duplication.
    If we are to have even the slightest attempt at equality in the eyes of government we cannot continue as we are right now. Dear heavens we had the utterly ludicrous situation where so called labour party ministers were stripping and hollowing out aids to schools adjacent to council estates while protecting the €100million subvention to the spawn of surgeons, solicitors, higher state employees and knights, barons, and earls of various hue.
    Talk about Fine Gael, only shorter. pshaw

  4. James Fryar Says:

    It is, of course, difficult to disagree with anything that’s been said! However, I would argue that such inititives do not necessarily cost large sums of money. This only applies because of the school system we rigorously defend in Ireland and the UK in which Government-declared curriculae must be followed.

    In Germany, Scandavian countries, and Eastern Europe the school system includes specialist schools with curriculae tailored for specific aptitudes. You’re good at languages? Fine, we’ll put you in a school with a high language content and teachers who are incredibly proficient. You’re good at science and maths? We’ll put you in that science-orientated school where you can explore that aptitude.

    This, to me at least, makes a lot more sense than our one-size-fits-all system. And in terms of access to third-level, it ensures students are identified and recieve the education that best suits them.

    If we had schools like those of our European neighbours, we’d not have more schools, just schools with different specialisms. And I’m a firm believer that tailoring the school system for the students is more sensible than attempting to tailor the students for the system. That, in turn, I think would lead to higher participation rates in third-level for students from certain socio-economic backgrounds because their individual aptitudes and abilities would be identified and encouraged.


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