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.