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.