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.

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4 Comments on “Higher education and the school dimension”

  1. V.H Says:

    The very stepping across the threshold is more an achievement for some than swimming against the Severn bore. I was amazed a while ago when I read TCD had at long last concluded getting in from crap second level schools where few got in showed more drive, gumption and grit than having a fistful of ‘A’s’ from a private/grammar/hothouse where 98% passed in.
    But then you see Labour Party representatives producing delusional justifications for a subvention of 100 million and continuing tax deductions for private education. Even FF in their worst days wouldn’t have produced that drivel. And they were particularly good at baffling people with statistical BS.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    The evidence for Ireland, based on work by myself and other colleagues in the Geary Institute, is that access students and low ses students generally do fine in college once they get in. The challenge is to get them in.
    It’s a pity universities view this primarily in terms of “performance” presumably degree grades. I would say a Uni whose students are not a diverse group is not performing very well. Imagine a US college with no African American students?

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    ‘Leaving aside whether the English framework of student loan-funded tuition fees is a good idea’
    This might be the appropriate thing to do, however I think that any discussion regarding widening participation cannot but consider every aspect, holistically, the loan-funded tuition fee and, crucially the abolition of the Aimhigher support scheme, are key related factors in England, although, as it is quite rightly noted, free tuition in Scotland is no guarantee to wider access either.
    Besides financial considerations, what also matters, and maybe hardest to achieve, is how to ‘raise aspirations’, as in the OFFA guidance document above, to progress to Higher Education not only for children but for adults alike! if learning is a lifetime kind of journey, going to university (no matter whether the brick and mortar one or online) should be an opportunity which lasts a lifetime. Not everyone *must* go to university of course, however everyone must have the right to, should s/he have the capability and desire.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    As an appendix to the above discussion on widening access policies, Scottish readers of this blog might find of particular interest the latest reports in the Scottish and UK media regarding university leaders resisting governance reforms (which include such aspect)


    Tackling such issues is not only a moral imperative for universities, but a matter of cogent urgency.

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