Posted tagged ‘access’

Higher education and the school dimension

January 22, 2013

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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An ‘Oxbridge obsession’?

September 20, 2011

The British university mission group Million+, which perhaps slightly awkwardly describes itself as a ‘think tank’, has issued a pamphlet in which it expresses its doubts about the British government’s higher education policy for England. The chief concern of the group relates to the policy of trying to secure the admission of some talented students from lower income groups into the higher ranking universities, which Million+ believes could compromise the capacity of its member institutions (which are all post-1992 universities) to have a rather greater impact in bringing disadvantaged students into higher education.

Anyway, what struck me in all of this was the call in the pamphlet for the government to ‘move beyond the Oxbridge obsession’. What the group means, presumably, is that governments and others spend too much time trying to secure access to Oxford and Cambridge and to fund these institutions excessively, neglecting the contribution made by other more modest institutions.

There may be a bit of special pleading in the pamphlet, but there are also some points worth making. On the one hand, if the ‘Oxbridge obsession’ is shorthand for a focus on excellence and a desire to ensure that a reasonable cross-section of the general population can  experience higher education as offered in the best endowed institutions, then there is at least something to be said for it. But if it expresses the view that the Oxbridge model of higher education is the only model that has the capacity to deliver world leading education, then we should pause to think. It is probably true that the Oxbridge model is similar to that adopted by some of the other heading universities of the world, such as Harvard and Princeton, but on the other hand it is quite different from that of other global leading institutions such as MIT and Caltech.

The risk in all of this is to the idea of higher education diversity. On this side of the Atlantic there is some acceptance in theory of diversity, but in practice the assumption appears to be that only one kind of university can strive to be world class (whatever that means). That is not good for the system, however. Diversity of mission is important for all sorts of reasons and should be encouraged, not as a way of identifying a hierarchy of excellence, but as a way of meeting different social, cultural and economic needs. But within that setting universities should still strive to be excellent and to produce outcomes in teaching and research that can challenge the best in the world. That should ultimately be the goal of all universities.

Tuition fees in England and support for access

July 13, 2011

In the aftermath of the details released yesterday by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) on tuition fees and access programmes in England, the 1994 Group of universities issued the following comment:

‘The 1994 Group of leading universities has today pledged to balance investments in widening participation with the need to uphold and enhance high quality student experiences. The Group’s commitment comes on the day that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) reveals that 1994 Group universities will, on average, spend 26.2% of tuition fee income above £6000 on measures to widen participation in 2012, rising to 28.4% in 2015.’

Where a university is charging £9,000 (as is planned by all but one of the 1994 Group), 28.4 per cent of the fee income above £6,000 will be £852. This in turn will represent just under 9.5 per cent of the total fee income. When the remaining state support for teaching is added, that percentage will reduce further.

While it is obviously highly laudable that institutions are focusing on access initiatives, and that they are being encouraged by Offa to be more ambitious in that respect, it has to be said that contrary to what is suggested in the 1994 Group statement, 9.5 per cent of fee income is not an impressive investment in access, and will not necessarily lead to a statistically significant change in opportunities for the disadvantaged.

It would of course be unfair to criticise the 1994 Group, who are working constructively with what they have been given; but there is still much more work to be done on what would constitute a reasonable investment in access in a system where, increasingly, higher education participation is fee-based. But the investment that universities will need to make in such a setting will probably need to be closer to 20 per cent of fee income than 9.5 per cent.

Student selection and social engineering

January 7, 2010

A big row has broken out in Britain over the UK government’s policy on student admissions to the country’s universities. The Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, reportedly called on higher education institutions to ‘look beyond raw exam results when selecting applicants’. This is part of a broader UK government policy encouraging universities to use ‘contextual data’ in the admissions process. That of course is the cue for the Daily Mail newspaper to come forward with its view, and let me tell you that it doesn’t like what the government is looking for, not one little bit. And why? Because Lord Mandelson is clearly being horrid to the unfortunate middle classes; or as their headline writer puts it: ‘Middle-class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade ‘head start”. And also, they take the view that any framework that recognises background and context will be at the expense of real excellence, and therefore will amount to dumbing down.

As for me, I find nothing particularly remarkable about what Peter Mandelson is reported to have said. Access programmes in Irish universities have long allowed access students – i.e. students from disadvantaged backgrounds -to  enter colleges with lower points than would be required for others, provided they meet minimum entry requirements. This has not produced any ‘dumbing down’ in that access students have on the whole out-performed their non-access fellow students, probably in part because they become highly motivated.

Nevertheless, if contextual data are to be used more widely for student admissions they will create operational problems, as making use of such information can be very time-consuming. A good illustration of that can be seen in this article which outlines the selection methods used by Oxford University. The large number of interviews conducted, for example, would be unmanageable for institutions that don’t have the special funding and resources enjoyed by Oxford and Cambridge.

All of this can however serve to remind us that a purely examination results-driven admissions system has one sure aspect: the best predictor of success in seeking entry to the university programme of your choice is not your documented school performance but rather your address. If you come from a strongly middle class area (like, say, much of Dublin 4) then you will get to do what you want at university, because the public and private resources available to you as you go through school will be so much greater than those available to people from poorer districts.

I have previously argued that the CAO points system is increasingly counter-productive. We need to put together a whole new way of  selecting students for higher education, that matches social needs and national policy ambitions.

Young visitors

April 12, 2009

Right now, over this extended Easter weekend, there’s not a huge amount going on in my university. I live on the campus, and as I walked across it earlier today it was eerily quiet, as staff and students are taking a break. But then as I turned a corner I ran into a little group of boys, mostly in the age group of 8 to 12 I think. I won’t say what they were doing, except maybe to point out that they weren’t up to much good. I walked up to them, intending to suggest that they move on. However, one of them asked me what I did here, and I so I humoured them and told them a little about the university and my role in it. I explained the teaching that we did, and some of the research – and the idea that people worked here who might be contributing to the eradication of some diseases or writing computer programs seemed to intrigue them.

It became quite a lively discussion, and from this it emerged that this group of young people had two key questions for us: they did not describe them this way, but the two questions were in essence about entrepreneurship and ethics. They wanted to know whether our programmes of study would make it easier for graduates to start businesses and become wealthy; and what would happen if our research was ‘dangerous’ or ‘bad’. In fact, the visitors were asking the questions that others are also asking, about the role of universities in supporting economic effort and about combining our work with a strong assessment of the ethical dimension of what we do.

It was however extraordinary that, while these young people were in possession of intelligent insights into university issues, not one of them (when I asked) thought they would ever have the opportunity to study in one. They all came from a disadvantaged area not far from the university, and while they were happy to mess around on the campus now, they did not believe there was any prospect for them that would allow them to become students here (or in any other higher education institution) later.

We are still failing the young people from these backgrounds. Not only have we as a society not provided the resources to make a university education a realistic prospect for them, we haven’t even managed to make them feel that they should at least aim for this outcome. Yet here was a group of young people who, from their questions and comments, immediately convinced me that they would have every chance of excelling here. I chatted with them for another while, and told them this was their university as well as mine, and gave them some suggestions as to how they could get the support needed to come here one day as students. I don’t know if it will happen.

Ireland is, as we know, standing on the edge of the economic precipice. In some ways I think that if we fall over the edge it will not just be because of our over-spending, or falling productivity, or inadequate revenue (bad though all these are): it will also be our reluctance to ensure that everyone has a decent opportunity to get a good education and a genuine stake in whatever prosperity we may yet recover. Under the guise of equality in education we have in fact grossly neglected some of the most disadvantaged in a system that is still heavily geared to the tastes of the middle classes. Unless we harness the creative potential of all the population we are in peril.

Accessing the university

September 1, 2008

This morning I had to undertake one of my more pleasant tasks – welcoming the new intake of access students to DCU. Every year we admit a significant number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds or areas, who will get special financial and personal support while they are with us. DCU’s access programme was the first in the Irish university sector, and is still the largest. It is an important contribution to Irish society, and it provides these students with the education for which they are suited and to which they have an entitlement.

Access programmes such as this have contributed significantly to the growing participation rate in higher education, and more particularly to participation by disadvantaged groups. But it has to be said that this has been achieved not because of the ‘free fees’ programme, but rather in spite of it. Free fees have targeted the main taxpayer resources at the middle classes, and have actually resulted in something of a neglect of the disadvantaged, which the universities have had to compensate for with their own resources or the resources of private donors. It is another important reason why the whole resourcing envelope needs to be looked at again.

In the meantime, however, we remain committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds who have the talent and the ability are able to enter higher education, and DCU will, I hope, remain in the forefront of this effort. Our leadership in this area is something of which I am particularly proud.

The end of effective support for access?

June 13, 2008

On Wednesday of this week I had the genuine pleasure of participating in the opening of DCU in the Community. This is part of DCU’s Civic Engagement Strategy, and in this particular instance consists of premises which we have opened in the heart of Ballymun in North Dublin. For years this area has been one of the most deprived in all of Ireland, with high unemployment and almost every conceivable social problem. Participation in higher education was almost non-existent. And yet, amidst the tower blocks and their decaying infrastructure and lack of basic services, there was always a great spirit, and as I discovered when chairing the educational panel of the Living Dublin Awards, Ballymun had a greater number of community initiatives in the arts and education than almost anywhere else in Ireland.

Since the 1980s DCU (or NIHE as it was then) has pioneered an access programme, designed to facilitate the entry of persons from deprived backgrounds into university degree courses. Initially this focused on Ballymun, but more recently it has been extended to all of Ireland, North and South. Students are given encouragement while still at school to consider third level education, and are then helped through the applications process – and indeed are given some allowance for slightly lower points. They are given a bursary, but more importantly an office in DCU looks after their interests and gives them advice and encouragement when this is needed. Over the years we have developed this to the point where 10 per cent of DCU students enter the university by this route.

During this period also other institutions initiated similar programmes, and all Irish universities have them now (though DCU’s is still the largest). But most of the resources that make these programmes possible are coming not from the state, but from private donors. DCU for example is obliged to raise millions of Euros to fund access for the disadvantaged. As the economy moves into harder times, it will become increasingly difficult to raise such large sums, and there are few signs that the state is taking the challenge seriously enough to fund this national priority. Such funding becomes even more important in a difficult economic environment, as many of the young people concerned will be under pressure to seek employment rather than go to college.

On top of that, the ‘free fees’ framework that gives taxpayer support to kids from Dublin 4 (and everyone else coming in via the CAO system) does not support – at all – part-time students, who are disproportionately from deprived or relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. This, I believe, is a scandal, and should be rectified at once; but probably won’t be.

Unless as a country we take our obligation seriously to provide a quality education to all people, regardless of background, we are failing in our national duty. The time has come to take access seriously; otherwise it will now decline, and before too long higher education may once more be the preserve of the social elite.