Is the accessible university an unwelcoming one?

Ever since higher education ceased to be the classroom of the elite, questions have been raised from time to time about how accommodating universities are to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these students will not have attended schools in which a degree is seen as the natural culmination of a young person’s formation, they will have grown up in families in which there is no experience of (and sometimes not much sympathy for) university life, they will have peers and role models whose success (where that has been achieved) will often owe little to any programme of study. So what impact do such students have on the university, and how will the university appear to them in turn?

One university warned in 2012 that requiring it to admit access students might force it to ‘lower its academic standards’; more recently the same university suggested, according to a newspaper report, that ‘moves to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is discriminating against the middle classes’.

In America there are sometimes still more robust criticisms of initiatives to bring the disadvantaged into higher education. A conservative website recently argued that ‘intellectual damage’ is inflicted by ‘forcing the university to admit academically ill-prepared minority students’ – in this case using a survey conducted by the University of Illinois-Urbana.

What all this shows is that the case for inclusive higher education needs to be made and regularly re-made. Of course universities need to trade in intellectual excellence, but there is very little evidence that when they mainly educated the social elite their capacity for scholarship and discovery was greater. There is in fact very little evidence to back the suspicion that access students lower standards; in my experience they often outperform those from a more traditional higher education background.

Non-traditional students from disadvantaged backgrounds will only be problematic if the system does not properly support them. They have the same intellectual capacity for curiosity and scholarship, but need to be supported in nurturing and developing it. A higher education system that wants to include greater numbers of access students needs to have the resources to support these, a point that is not always understood by policy-makers. But given such resources, universities will find that these students will enrich their intellectual life and create a body of graduates who will both thrive in their careers and lives and be particularly loyal supporters of their alma mater. Access is not just a good cause, it is an enriching one.

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6 Comments on “Is the accessible university an unwelcoming one?”

  1. jeffollerton Says:

    “There is in fact very little evidence to back the suspicion that access students lower standards…….they often outperform those from a more traditional higher education background.”

    Absolutely, couldn’t agree more! However in my experience it’s often the older access/non-traditional students (what we used to call “mature students”) who really fly and make the most of their time at university. Quite often they are looking for second careers and know that time could be against them. Their influencing effect on the younger students in a class is often valuable too.


  2. When I taught at University a student stopped me and said that I was the first lecturer that had ever smiled at him whilst passing in the corridor. I think it works both ways. When I taught at College I was taken by the number of students not prepared to be humane to staff. Of course I was getting paid to tolerate such minor suffering but the issue I am trying to draw attention to is levels of maturity.

    The latter has been highlighted by the tragedy of 4 student deaths at my alma mater Durham University due to late night drinking. I remember too the son of Tony Blair being left, whist incapacitated, by his so called friends in Leicester Square one evening. Finally campus rape seems a hot topic.

    It is seldom lack of resources in the edu-sphere rather their mis-application. More needs to be appear to be done to support all students as Caesar’s wife might have said.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    The conservative website quoted in the post is really interesting, in that it connects, unsurprisingly in the American context, the widening access aspect to the issue of race. The colourful description of black students as ‘marinated in paranoia-like victimhood from Kindergarten onward’ exposes the potent narrative that is often opposed to measures which might correct systematic discrimination. Women are also portrayed as prone to victimhood, allegedly the only hurdle on an otherwise meritocracy-based path to a successful career in academia. (for a debunking of the ‘Myth of Meritocracy’ from an American and British perspective see respectively http://www.ncsociology.org/sociationtoday/v21/merit.htm
    and http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/meritocracy-is-a-myth-9483779.html
    The case for inclusive higher education, as rightly argued in the post, ‘needs to be made and regularly re-made’ and how well universities perform in this respect should be the best indicator of our democracy.


  4. Didn’t know if you’d seen this. As a first-generation post secondary graduate, I related to this in so many ways

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2015/04/09/what-like-poor-ivy-league-school/xPtql5uzDb6r9AUFER8R0O/story.html

  5. Debbie Bridge @ucodeb Says:

    Spot on comments from Ferdinand and Jeff – the benefits of being able to engage in higher education go way beyond the achievement of a qualification for an individual student. The impact, whilst not always immediate, spreads to families and communities and employers. The case for inclusive higher education is so much stronger than any case made against it. I like the point that it ‘needs to be made and regularly re-made’.

  6. Vincent Says:

    Why should a university be any different to any of the schools that went before for a student. Isn’t that very expectation of collegiality which is patently impossible concealing and therefore exacerbating the core problem. Isn’t there something of handing someone a bottle of water and equating him/her to someone in possession with their own reservoir.
    If you take Galway as an instance. Once the university expanded after free fees, the grant didn’t keep up to the costs of accommodation, or anywhere near. So unless a poor person lived in the city of Galway they couldn’t afford it. In fact the English system of loans is far more balanced for the poor than a sop cast at people the civil service considers lesser.


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