Posted tagged ‘access to higher education’

Is it misguided to lower entry requirements for disadvantaged students?

May 29, 2017

So-called ‘contextual admissions’ are becoming an increasingly accepted method for mitigating educational disadvantage: students without the benefit of an elite school education may be allowed lower entry requirements for their chosen university courses. However, the Independent reports that in a recent survey of Russell Group undergraduates, 63 per cent thought that ‘lower entry grades for disadvantaged students could be perceived as patronising’. Instead they thought that additional resources should be used to support potential students at secondary level so they can achieve better GCSE and A-level results (in England).

For once I would hope that this particular student view is not followed. Educational disadvantage is deeply rooted in socio-economic disadvantage, and this will not be corrected by spending a little more money on some A-level students. If we are serious about access to higher education, we need to look flexibly at the achievements students carry to the end of the secondary school experience; and if we have additional resources, we need to apply them to student support and care once they have entered university. That isn’t patronising, it is making a contribution to correcting injustice.

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The articulation challenge

March 27, 2017

The aim of widening access to higher education has been a public policy priority in a number of countries for some time. The intention is to ensure that a university degree is not seen as a privilege to be claimed primarily by the wealthy, but as an entitlement based on intellectual attainment and ability. How successful this has been in practice is another matter and varies from institution to institution – but overall the participation rate by disadvantaged groups is now much higher than it was a generation ago.

One driver of the widening access agenda has been the practice of articulation. This involves a transfer of students from further education colleges (or equivalent) to universities under arrangements where the college education is counted as relevant to the university degree, therefore allowing students to enter university directly without having to start again. In other words, credit achieved while studying at the college is recognised and counts as credit (and therefore relevant study time) for the course and award at the university. The concept is widely known in a number of countries – in the United States for example it would apply to transfers from community colleges to universities. It helps in the access agenda because even highly talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may be reluctant to apply for a university course, and may find a transfer later to a university course to be easier.

Articulation has become a significant feature of Scottish higher education. But it has been observed that not all universities are as active or as successful in pursuing it. Now Professor Peter Scott, Scotland’s first commissioner on fair access to higher education, has according to a report in the Herald newspaper suggested that some universities are not entirely enthusiastic about the practice. The number of students articulating from colleges to universities varies enormously from institution to institution. So for example Glasgow Caledonian University in 2014-15 admitted 1,557 articulating students; of those 57 per cent were admitted with ‘advanced standing’ – that is, the received full credit for their prior college studies. In the case of my own university, 734 articulating students were admitted, of whom 67 per cent were with advanced standing. On the other hand the University of Edinburgh admitted 95 articulating students, and 5 per cent were with advanced stating. In the case of St Andrews University the figures were 29 students and 10 per cent.

In order for articulation to work well certain conditions have to be satisfied. Students need to see the whole articulation journey, from college to university, as a seamless transition in which they are part of the family of both institutions. Staff from both institutions need to believe in the process and to respect each other.  The syllabus in each needs to be aligned to the other. And the student needs to be seen as a valuable member of the learner community in both. If these conditions don’t all exist, the process may not succeed.

But beyond that, for articulation to work we all need to accept that a student who pursues a vocational course in which she or he transfers between further and higher education is doing something of real value in both systems, and that in doing so she or he does not diminish either sector. According to the Herald report, Professor Scott fears that some universities don’t like articulation because they fear it will undermine their standing in league tables. One must hope that this is not a widespread view; it is only when we celebrate articulation that we allow it to flourish.

Widening access – the struggle for progress

March 22, 2016

Most people working in higher education will agree that one of the biggest crimes we can commit is to deny an education to someone with the talent and aptitude to benefit from it. It is also true to say that in 2016 more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in our universities than would have been the case, or would even have been conceivable, a generation or two ago. And yet, as the most recent report on access has reminded us, higher education ‘disproportionately benefits those in our most affiluent communities, meaning that, through accident of birth, those in our most disadvantaged communities have nothing like an equal chance to realise their potential.’

Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access, chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, has set out four guiding principles for public policy on access:

• Equal access is fundamentally about fairness
• Equal access is a social good
• Equal access is compatible with academic excellence
• Equal access is an economic good

These principles seem obvious enough until you realise that, in practice, much of the system doesn’t support them. Academics worry about standards, middle class parents worry about their children being displaced, funding and resources don’t sufficiently target disadvantage. Too many people believe it’s all a matter of free tuition, when almost all of the evidence shows that fees are not the main barrier to widening access.

The Commission chaired by Dame Ruth makes a number of very interesting and potentially exciting recommendations (to some of which I shall return in future), but perhaps the one that will be seen as most difficult is this:

‘By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately re ects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.’

This recommendation is about contextual admissions, under which minimum attainment thresholds are set for each course to ensure that students are able to manage the syllabus, but with a recognition that there should be some compensation at the point of entry for applicants who have come from less well resourced schools. In other words, entry requirements for access students should be lower than for other applicants, while maintaining the basic thresholds.

A university education is not as right per se. But having the same opportunity of access to it regardless of background is a right, and a civilised society should ensure that it is protected. Contextual admissions are an indispensable tool in progressing to such a society. I hope that this recommendation will be debated and the best approach assessed; but I hope it will not be resisted.

Talking points: Getting poorer students to university

August 4, 2015

Throughout this week, I shall be raising, in a series of brief posts, some issues that I regard as being of current significance, inside and outside higher education.

One of the failures of almost every higher education system over recent years has been the inability to increase significantly the number of students from what one might describe as poor backgrounds entering university. Removing tuition fees has, where it has been applied, provided effective support to middle income groups, but has done little for the more seriously disadvantaged. Until recently it had been thought that, perhaps surprisingly, the English system (with loans-based tuition) had been most effective, but a recent analysis by the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University has called that into question, in particular because of the system’s apparent negative impact on part-time students.

There seems to me to be little doubt that the key driver of success is targeted support for the disadvantaged, with public money focused on this particular objective. Very few countries have shown themselves to be good at this.

Is the accessible university an unwelcoming one?

May 12, 2015

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.

University admissions in context

November 5, 2013

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a middle aged businessman who told me that he was the first person in his wider family ever to have gone to university. Coming from a family of modest means, he had been fired up by the adventure of learning and, having passed all his examinations with very high marks, he eventually entered a top university. He went on to make a fortune in business. As he told me all this, he mused that he was the only one of his class to get to university; and in fact it took another eight years for anyone else from his school to go that way.

It is of course not difficult to grasp why some schools send so few students into higher education. A school with inadequate resources, shabby looking classrooms, inadequate or no science or language labs – and most of all, a lack of ambition – will not compete with well resourced private schools that will expect all of their pupils to go on to get a degree. And yet many will argue that the criteria for higher education admission should be blind to this fact, and should accept only those who meet the institution’s entry requirements; anything else would be social engineering and would undermine standards, as those admitted with lesser qualifications would struggle to cope.

As it happens, recently published evidence shows that disadvantaged students admitted to a university, having lower grades than those applying normally, will in fact often out-perform more privileged students by the time they get to their examinations. The practice known as ‘contextual admission’ is therefore  a useful tool in the box of those wanting to erode the discriminatory effect of schooling.

Contextual admissions are not a radical step designed to undermine the aspirations of middle class students and their parents. Rather they are a genuine effort by the higher education system to correct the discriminatory effect within higher education of poverty and deprivation. Many universities now routinely use such admissions methods, leading to not just a fairer system but, it appears, an intellectually superior one.

Still struggling with the access story

December 4, 2012

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.