Posted tagged ‘access to higher education’

Revisiting university access

April 20, 2011

Whatever country you are in, and whatever higher education system you are reviewing (unless you’ve found an obscure one I am not familiar with), there are serious issues regarding the extent to which the student body reflects in any real sense the population of the country from which it is drawn. Notwithstanding serious efforts to widen access and remove obstacles, in every system the participation of students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups is not satisfactory. While over the past half century or so middle income groups have gone to universities in much greater numbers, the same is on the whole not true of those from poorer backgrounds. Moreover, this pattern appears to apply regardless of the existence or otherwise of tuition fees. Indeed, it is possible that access for these groups in society has been determined more by the arrangements made by individual universities than by whatever is put in place by the state; though it is probably also true that more targeted financial support for the disadvantaged by the state would have a positive effect.

In this setting, it is interesting to read in the Irish Times that the Provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin plans to look at new ways  to ‘increase admissions of poorer students’. Suggesting that the CAO points system (under which Irish students are admitted to higher education institutions on the basis of a points score determined by the final school examination results) may need to be reviewed, Paddy Prendergast suggests that Ireland might use a scheme pioneered in Texas; applying this to Ireland or TCD, Professor Prendergast wonders whether there should be a rule under which ‘the top 5 per cent in all state schools gained automatic access to the leading university’. In fact, the rule in Texas applies to 10 (not 5) per cent, and we’ll gloss over the comment about a ‘leading university’. But could this idea work?

Probably not, if he is suggesting a specific scheme for Trinity College. I haven’t worked out the statistics, but if the top 5 of every state school were to be given automatic access to TCD, and assuming they all wanted to go, it would more or less remove all discretion from the College as to whom to admit. Furthermore, it would create serious confusion in the rest of the higher education system, and probably a high level of hostility between TCD and the others. But even if he is suggesting a sector-wide rule that doesn’t just apply to TCD, it is not immediately obvious that it would work. How would the allocation of students from these groups be decided as between the 40 or so Irish higher education institutions?

I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously, has done more to undermine Irish higher education than almost anything else. I am also strongly of the view that access for the disadvantaged needs to be addressed much more seriously. But the two are not particularly connected. The reason for the unsatisfactory participation rate by poorer students is not a result of university selection practices, but of various social and economic factors, including low expectations, bad advice, inadequate personal and family resources, and so forth. These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Some of Paddy Prendergast’s other comments are interesting and show a willingness to address problem areas in higher education. It is also good that he understands that the route by which students enter higher education is not satisfactory. But on the specifics of access for the disadvantaged, he may want to reflect a little more on what he has proposed here.

The next higher education superpowers?

April 11, 2011

If you were to consider the Times Higher Education global rankings and were to ask which countries are the higher education superpowers, there could only be one answer: the sole and dominant superpower is the United States of America, with its universities occupying 15 out of the world’s top 20 places. Next after the United States, though admittedly after quite a gap, is the United Kingdom, with three in the top 20. Even if you are highly sceptical of the rankings, they do tell a very consistent story. And what are the reasons for the supremacy of the United States? An understanding of the importance of higher education, very significant funding for both teaching and research, an ability of universities to diversify and tap into lucrative revenue streams, recognition of the impact of high value research, alumni giving of major proportions, and genuine institutional autonomy. These are all critical elements of the American success story.

However, while right now it seems difficult to imagine that anyone could displace the Americans, there appear to be a couple of countries determined to have a go: China and India. Through a mixture of structural reform and buoyant funding they have disclosed their ambition of leading the world. The Indian government wants to raise levels of participation in higher education from 12 to 30 per cent in just over ten years. Serious research money is also being made available.

However, the Indian government is finding that the universities simply do not have the capacity to spend the research money being made available, and that the teaching ambitions cannot be met unless more than 1,000 new universities are built over this period. Some of these will probably turn out to be foreign (e.g. American) universities setting up branch campuses in the country.

I suspect that the talk about new higher education superpowers is premature; both China and India have established some really impressive and well-funded universities, but there is also still a major shortage of university places and not all of the institutions are in modern, fit-for-purpose accommodation. But they will continue to push for growth.

Why does this matter? It is critical to national economic success, because investment and innovation seek out the location with the most high value and excellent universities. If your universities are topping the charts, certain companies (and actually, the ones most likely to make global investments) will want to trade near them. That is why the current British and American picture of cash-starved universities facing funding cuts and internal turmoil is so dangerous.

The United States (and Britain) can for the foreseeable future maintain their world leadership positions, but only if they provide the money necessary to sustain that. Giving outside observers the impression that the claim of universities for public money is not regarded as any more important than the claims made by anyone else leads to the conclusion that the system is in decline, and this will influence investment decisions.

Demographic and economic factors – as well as the fact that you cannot create large numbers of world class universities overnight – will for now, I believe, inhibit the Chinese and Indian quest for supremacy (though they will both advance significantly). But if the American and British governments continue to make universities absorb large cuts, then the game will change. Governments (and this includes Ireland as well) need to understand the extraordinary importance of higher education at this difficult time.

University access for the disadvantaged

April 5, 2011

Just as English universities prepare to charge high tuition fees and consequently deal with the new Office for Fair Access (OFFA), statistics for Scotland have shown that, notwithstanding the absence of tuition fees, Scottish universities admit fewer students from socio-economically deprived groups than their English counterparts. According to a report in the Herald newspaper, just over 25 per cent of  students studying in Scotland come from lower socio-economic groups, compared with 30 per cent in the UK as a whole. There are complex issues at stake, and statements made by Universities Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council have pointed out some of them. But the fact remains that the position in Scotland is not satisfactory.

One of the problems with publicly funded higher education that is free to students is that it limits the resources that could be spent on programmes to support disadvantaged students. Free higher education leads to a large investment in the education of comparatively wealthy people, and relatively few additional resources to target disadvantage, particularly in schools. As resources become scarce this effect is aggravated. The experience in Ireland has also been that the abolition of tuition fees has not produced a noticeable benefit for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose participation levels have not particularly improved since fees were removed over 15 years ago.

Those who have voiced dissatisfaction with these figures are right to do so. But the solution will only lie in increased and targeted financial support. Most of that will need to be provided by the taxpayer, with some room for funds built up from philanthropy.  The issue requires urgent attention.

Education and social exclusion

February 28, 2011

One key change in the way in which we view higher education has been thrown into relief by the funding crisis in most western countries. As resources have dried up, university representatives (including me) have warned that poorly resourced institutions cannot compete globally and will not be recognised as being at the cutting edge of scholarship and innovation. Interestingly, over recent months there has been a tendency on the part of some politicians and business leaders to respond by saying that world class excellence may be incompatible with an inclusive approach to teaching and may be inappropriate at this time. This in turn has been driven by the policy of widening access to higher education and increasing the levels of participation; and it is assumed that to do this requires more flexible entry standards and a willingness not to be ‘distracted’ by a research agenda.

This was first brought home to me at a meeting I had about three years ago with local government representatives and voluntary organisations from Dublin City University’s neighbourhood, when I was the university’s president. I had arranged the meeting in order to consult local stakeholders about the DCU’s strategic plan, and in order to ascertain what they felt they needed from us. To my surprise the most passionate contributions came from those who were arguing (at a time when DCU had just entered the global top 300 university rankings) that we had lost our way and had diluted our support for the community by pursuing a high value research agenda. We were, they suggested, a ‘teaching institution’ and there was no need to ‘run after all those research deals that won’t make any difference to anyone here.’

My fear is that this particular outlook is gaining ground in Ireland, sometimes pushed by people whose main agenda is to justify cutting funds for universities. It is of course true that not every university can pursue research in exactly the same way. DCU’s research agenda, while (I would argue) highly successful, was certainly not the same as that of Harvard. But the idea that high value scholarship is a luxury that we should leave to other countries would, if it gained ground, damage not just Ireland as a location for innovation, but also the interests of those whose representatives I was addressing three years ago. The next generation of young people in Ireland will need to graduate with skills and with knowledge that is typical of the world’s leading universities. Industries that a decade or two ago recruited employees with undergraduate degrees will today often look for those who have done postgraduate programmes or research.

There will still be a need for diversity, and for institutions with different missions. But there will be no demand for lower standards and cheaper education. Indeed, while there is no conflict between social inclusion and educational excellence (provided universities that consider themselves to be the elite are pushed to remember their social obligations), there is a particular need to fund social inclusion programmes well, so that their students can be properly supported and their graduates can take their places in the new careers and businesses of the future. The idea that there is a pleasing convergence between budgetary restraint and progressive social policy is an idiocy that needs to be corrected at every opportunity.

‘Fixing’ higher education

February 18, 2011

The president of an American liberal arts college, Doug Bennett of Earlham College, has suggested four steps to ‘fix higher education’, published in the Washington Post. These are the four:

1. Fix the Broken Financing of Higher Education.
2. Strengthen the Focus on Assessment of Learning Outcomes.
3. End Intercollegiate Athletics As We Know It.
4. Build a National Open Access Digital Library System.

Three points made by the writer struck me particularly. First, treat higher education as an investment, not as an act of consumption. Secondly, assess funding in terms of how it supports access to higher education. Finally, in looking at learning outcomes, Dr Bennett makes what I regard as a very interesting comment, that higher education ‘is much too dominated by considerations of prestige and much too little dominated by considerations of real value or effectiveness.’

Leaving aside the athletics, which is less of a problem over here – and indeed, sports are making a positive contribution to university life in these islands – it can be seen that our priorities for tackling the crisis in higher education may not be too far off those that would apply in the United States.

Class divisions

September 29, 2010

OK, I know many of you are tired of league tables, but bear with me on this one. What would you say is being measured by a UK university league table in which London Metropolitan University and the University of Greenwich come out on top, and the stragglers right at the bottom include the Universities of St Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge? Well, I suppose it’s not a difficult one to figure out: this league table, published this week in the Guardian newspaper, records what percentage of students come from a manual occupational background. So for example, Oxford University in the academic year 2008-09 admitted 2,875 first year students, of whom only 275 came from a manual employment background. Actually, St Andrews didn’t admit any from that background at all.

I shouldn’t really spoil the story, but when you get to the top of the league table the positions may be right, but the numbers given don’t add up at all: but hey, it’s the Guardian

But more interesting still is the proportion of manual background students in particular degree subject areas. Medicine, history, philosophy and languages have the least participation by students from a manual background, while the highest participation is in education, agriculture and computer science.

One of the real risks faced by an education sector during a financial crisis is that of social exclusion and apartheid. As I know from my DCU term of office, we always had to work extremely hard in order to maintain a reasonable diversity of background. It was also noticeable that as the recession appeared, we lost applicants from poorer backgrounds, even when we were able to offer them financial support.

Amidst all the wonderful things that higher education does, it also has the capacity to entrench social divisions, and constant care (and, to be honest, lots of money) is needed to avoid that. Right now we are in real danger of allowing the re-gentrification of higher education, and we had better get moving to stop it from gathering pace.

Widening access

September 2, 2010

Some good news, for once: a report in yesterday’s Examiner newspaper  revealed that the number of third level applicants seeking to enter a university or college through pathways for the disabled and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds has risen significantly this year. If these applicants – 10,500 of them – secure admission in reasonable numbers it will represent a significant increase in these categories of students.

But it is also important to remember that these advances are possible on the whole not n]because the state has facilitated it, but because the institutions themselves have raised or set aside sums to provide the special support that these students need. It is my fear that as resources become tighter still we may find that the capacity for these special entry pathways will decline. That would have appalling consequences for both higher education and for our need to regenerate Ireland at this point. We must not return to the days when a social underclass was largely excluded from higher education.

Accessing higher education

August 25, 2010

Last week the Irish Times published an article by a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin, Ross Higgins, which made a case for action to address the under-representation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds at Irish universities. He argued that existing access programmes (actually, he only specifically mentioned the TCD one – by no means Ireland’s largest – but that’s Trinity for you) had under-performed:

‘Trinity College Dublin deserves praise for its access programme to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education. But, sadly, this programme and others like it have failed lamentably in their core objective of opening up college entry.’

The solution proposed is an adaptation of the so-called ’10 per cent rule’ applied since 1997 in Texas, under which the top 10 per cent of each final year class in high schools (i.e. secondary schools in our system) are guaranteed access to university.

First, the comment on access programmes is highly questionable. They may not have reached their full potential, but they have hardly ‘failed lamentably’. The largest such programme – that run by DCU – accounts for 10 per cent of the annual intake and has been hugely successful in changing attitudes in some of the schools and communities that have benefited from it. There has been research into the UCD access programme conducted by the Geary Institute which has also shown the impact of that university’s programme. The throw-away comment on such programmes suggests that some further research on the available evidence might be useful.

As for the Texas ‘10% rule’, I must confess I am not convinced it would work. In Texas itself, where the law was passed in order to advance racial equality of opportunity in higher education, the impact was not clear – indeed there was initially almost no evidence of increased participation by the key disadvantaged racial groups, whiole at the same time university presidents complained that it had in some cases removed almost all discretion as to whom to admit.

In Ireland it is difficult to see how this particular initiative would work. The key issue is not a reluctance of universities to admit disadvantaged students, but the effect of socio-economic disadvantage on expectations and choices. Furthermore, the Texas ‘10% rule’ does not provide students with support or resources, the lack of which is the main inhibitor right now.

Ensuring an appropriate socio-economic mix in our universities is clearly an appropriate priority, but it is not easy to achieve. It requires careful collaboration with schools and communities, starting at primary level,  and significant resources so as to make higher education a realistic option for students. The by far most appropriate tool for achieving this is the access programme, but this needs to be properly resourced. This is where our challenge lies.

No tuition fees for the wealthy: the highest priority?

June 1, 2010

Regular contributor Kevin Denny has managed, with his recent paper, to reignite the higher education tuition fees debate, both in this blog and elsewhere. Yesterday the Irish Times newspaper published a letter from my DCU colleague Gerry McNamara (a hugely respected educationalist) in which he argued that ‘free fees’ have widened access, and that the absence of a significant impact on participation by the disadvantaged had other grounds and that an increase there ‘was never realistic in the short term.’

Leaving aside for a moment his other points (which merit discussion), this one doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What DCU has found (as have other universities) is that people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be encouraged to enter higher education, but doing so is expensive and requires working with schools from an early stage and providing significant supports once the students enter the university. In our case we have raised substantial private money to do this, in the absence of adequate support from the state. We could do much more, but we would need the resources.

And why don’t we get the resources? Because too much money is being spent on those who don’t need it. To put that into perspective a little, according to the HEA in 2008-09, in the university sector, some 22,000 students came from ’employer and manager’ and ‘higher professional’ backgrounds. Assuming for a moment that all other students would have needed free fees or other supports, this still means that the taxpayer provided approximately €100 million in fees for these privileged groups. If they (and only they) had been asked to pay fees, and even if the state had clawed back half of the money, that would still have left very substantial resources that could have been used to off-set budget cuts and also provide targeted support for access students. That we did not as a country do this is unjustifiable, and unethical. We need to think again.

On the road to something less inclusive

May 12, 2010

In the higher education system of this country, we are still talking the talk of inclusiveness and diversity, but in fact we are retreating from that position and walking the walk of a return to elitism.

OK, maybe I am overstating the case a little, but it is time to sound an alarm. Why? According to the most recent available statistics, the proportion of university students in this country who come from a disadvantaged background is now declining. For a number of years there has been an annual increase in these numbers, but that now appears to have come to a halt. In the HEA’s annual analysis of the backgrounds of students, the percentage of students from the groups ’employer and manager’ and ‘higher professional’ have risen, while the proportion of those classified as ‘lower professional’, ‘non-manual’, ‘skilled manual’ and ‘semi-skilled’ have fallen. The figures for ‘unskilled’ have stayed the same, but at 4.1 per cent it’s not significant anyway.

In fairness, the shift is not large for now, but the reversal of the trend is still alarming. But more importantly, it is very likely that this trend will continue and accelerate. It is a well established fact that the capacity of a higher education sector to provide for the socio-economically disadvantaged depends on a reasonable level of funding and income, and as this drops the very expensive supports for those whose families have no traditional link with universities are quickly compromised. In Ireland we have exacerbated this problem voluntarily by deciding to focus the declining resources for higher education on the more affluent classes, courtesy of the well meant but ill judged ‘free fees’ scheme.

Running a university system that takes its students largely from the more affluent classes is much less complicated and troublesome than being inclusive. But it is immoral. I fear that as a country we are abandoning our inclusiveness agenda by stealth, and if we do so we will pay a price for it in due course.

What we are doing is not good enough.