Posted tagged ‘educational disadvantage’

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.

The postal code qualification

November 19, 2010

The President of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, has said on a number of occasions that the most reliable predictor of higher education performance for any person is available from the moment they are born: the zip code (US postal code). Where you are born and where your family lives will, more than anything else, affect the level of your educational ambitions, and will be decisive in determining whether you will go to university. The same is true in Ireland, and as politicians keep indicating that Ireland is to get postal codes shortly we will shortly be able to use these also to predict educational outcomes.

Yesterday the Irish Times published its list of university feeder schools, and this once again demonstrates that schools in affluent areas (often in South Dublin) send the largest number of students to the country’s universities. But beyond that, the Irish Times has produced a separate list that shows that private (fee-paying) schools dominate student entry to those programmes with the highest points and the greatest social cachet and income potential. These are the programmes that demonstrate more than anything else that free fees have not in any serious way affected the tendency of higher education to cement class divisions, and that they have not helped to end social disadvantage in higher education.

As a country, we are well aware of the educational inequality that we have been maintaining, but the only major measure we have taken to address it has actually had a disproportionate impact in supporting wealthier families and has done very little to combat disadvantage. We really should not go on like this.

Universities, disadvantage and postal codes

February 8, 2009

Last week the Guardian newspaper had an interesting article about the postcode profile of university entrants. It found, probably to nobody’s great surprise, that people living in certain postal districts are overwhelmingly more likely to go to university than those in others. We know that is true in Ireland as well: Dublin 4 has a close to 100 per cent participation rate in higher education, and Dublin 9 (which includes DCU) has a figure well below 20 per cent (with some areas within it less than 5 per cent). In the Guardian article, a working class mother from Bristol is quoted as saying:

“Most of the kids round here can’t be bothered. They’re in groups and would rather nick cars. It could be that the universities just aren’t picking them because of the way they dress and act. They don’t completely finish their words. Universities don’t like common people, do they?”

The Guardian found one other interesting feature: that children from Asian families were much more likely to go to university than those from white working class families. At a time of economic stress and a much more ethnically mixed population, that sort of profile can have an impact on racism and xenophobia.

Educational disadvantage is perhaps the greatest social cancer of any society. It installs itself within a depressing vicious cycle of deprivation, ignorance and prejudice, fuelling a whole array of social problems that quickly get out of hand. A society that ignores this is a society on skids. In Ireland we have shown some awareness of the issue, but only a very limited determination to solve it. Free fees, seen by some as part of the solution, have probably exacerbated the problem. In any case, programmes targeted specifically at alleviating disadvantage have been under-funded and neglected.

It’s time to get serious about this, and to tackle educational disadvantage head-on.