Higher education and the school dimension
The path that takes a young person to a university, or that diverts them from it, starts very early in life. It has been said that the best predictor of higher education success – far better than school examination results – is a person’s post code. The environment in which people experience life and educational formation from a very early age will often determine their level of educational ambition. By the time a young person has reached the age at which he or she might complete a university admissions form, their likelihood of doing so has long been decided. Universities seeking to extend access to disadvantaged students must begin with schools – preferably primary schools, or even with pre-school children.
This obvious fact has now been emphasised in England by the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), the body established to ensure universities charging higher tuition fees implement effective access strategies. In a guidance document issued earlier this month, OFFA Director Professor Les Ebdon said:
‘OFFA has long emphasised the important contribution that institutions can make in helping to raise aspirations and attainment among bright students in schools and communities where very few progress to higher education. However, my meetings with the sector to date suggest that there needs to be a further step-change in the efforts devoted to this area. So let there be no doubt – sustained, well-targeted outreach such as summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring can be very effective and we want to see more of it.’
In an accompanying press release, Professor Ebdon indicated that pupils as young as seven years old should be targeted by access strategies.
Leaving aside whether the English framework of student loan-funded tuition fees is a good idea, it is easy to agree with the OFFA Director that potential access students need to become familiar and comfortable with the idea of a university and the look and feel of a university campus from a very early age; as do their families, who often need to be persuaded that this is a good ambition for their children.
But this also reminds us that really effective access programmes are very expensive, if they are to be done well. I still hear university leaders claim that access students damage university results and performance – which mainly tells me that the university leaders in question have not understood how access programmes really work. As the statistics show, British universities are on the whole still quite bad at securing greater participation by disadvantaged groups. It is also possible that in Scotland too many think that free tuition is a support for access, which on the whole it is not. It is important that international best practice in this area is considered and taken on board; and right at the top of the list of desirable strategies must be a proper engagement with young people from the time (and from before the time) they first enter the education system.