Posted tagged ‘widening participation’

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.


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.

Are we seeing the end of higher education expansion?

August 12, 2010

One of the constant themes of higher education in most countries over recent decades has been its continuing expansion. After World War 2 a degree was still the expectation or aspiration of only a very small proportion of the population in western societies, usually those coming from a privileged background. Then, as one of the later consequences of the welfare state, came the so-called ‘massification’ of the sector, with higher education opening up to people and groups who had previously largely been excluded. Over recent years many governments have suggested further targets for expansion – in Ireland it became government policy to target a participation rate of 72 per cent of any given age cohort.

But this expected further expansion is not now happening in some countries, on the face of it largely for funding reasons: governments simply cannot afford to pay for it. Ironically right now it would, if the money were there, be relatively easy to let the system expand, as an increasing number of young people, unsure about their career prospects in the aftermath of the recession, are anxious to go to university. So governments face the dilemma of either pushing ahead with a further upskilling of the labour force, or facing the funding reality and cutting back. Only few will attempt the feat the Irish government has in mind, of increasing participation aggressively while paying less to the universities for providing the education.

The issue has just been highlighted in Britain, with both Universities UK and individual institutions indicating that this year they will not be offering the same number of places through ‘clearing‘ (the system used to match vacancies with aspiring students after universities have allocated places to the initial successful applicants), or even any places at all.

In Ireland the universities are having to examine very carefully whether they really can increase their intake any further in the light of continuing funding (and staffing) reductions, and with the real fear that these reductions are already seriously compromising quality.

Outside of the specific funding considerations, it should be noted that we have not really addressed in any coherent way what level of participation in higher education is workable or desirable. It is clear beyond doubt that there is further scope for increasing substantially the intake from disadvantaged groups in society, but whether an overall increase is desirable or sustainable, and what impact this would have on the overall mix of qualifications and career patterns, has not really been properly discussed, and it needs to be. Right now, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that the expansion of higher education will, or can, continue.

An end to higher education expansion

June 8, 2010

It is, I believe, time to raise one uncomfortable issue affecting our system of higher education: is it still conceivable that as a country we can or should meet the current government target of widening participation in higher education to 72 per cent of each age cohort? Ireland already has one of the highest participation rates – now over 60 per cent – in the developed world. The arguments in favour of continuing this trend and reaching the target include the desirability of a highly trained and educated workforce, and the capacity that this would give the country to sustain a high value knowledge society and economy.

But it may also be right to query the target, for reasons that include the following. Higher education provided for such a large proportion of the population must inevitably become more training than education-focused. There is an overlap between the two, but they are not identical. Secondly, unless we actually provide higher education for the entire population, an ‘excluded’ cohort of 30 per cent or so will become a visibly disadvantaged group, which may have the perverse effect of increasing the marginalisation of the poorer sections of society; even now we are seeing that while participation is at around 100 per cent for the wealthy, it remains very low for the least prosperous in society. Ironically, a serious effort to increase participation by the disadvantaged may require a slow-down in the overall rate.

But finally, it is becoming clear that, at least for now, we cannot afford to educate so many students. The budgets of higher education institutions are currently being devastated by public funding cuts, and the result is that a larger group of students is experiencing an increasingly frayed education with real resourcing and quality issues.

Continuing the expansion of higher education has been an article of faith in Ireland. It may be time to revisit that objective.

Widening access: the confused agenda

November 1, 2009

In Ireland as in other countries, one of the policy objectives for higher education has in the past decade or so been to ensure that a greater proportion of the population has access to universities and colleges. It is government policy to increase participation rates in higher education to above 70 per cent, and also to ensure that students from a disadvantaged background are given access. If policy objectives were a guarantor of outcomes we would be on our way to a system that is both inclusive and fair. If…

However, as we know, policy objectives are fine and dandy, but they have little impact if the means to implement them are not available. Right now, as we face significant funding reductions, it is clear that they are not. The higher education system cannot at this point afford a major increase in student numbers; part-time students (for incomprehensible reasons) are outside the ‘free fees’ scheme and thus must carry their own costs; university access programmes (which began in DCU) are not really being funded by the state and rely on philanthropy, which is also not an easy source of money right now. Some of these issues are not unique to Ireland, as this BBC article shows.

We may need to face up to the fact that our supposed agenda of increasing participation in higher education cannot currently be pursued. It is at any rate foolish to maintain existing policy objectives when we have no chance of implementing them. On the other hand, we should consider how important access to higher education is to us, and whether we believe it is enough of a priority to resource it.

But chiefly, we need to show that we are aware of the changed situation, and that we are clear as to what we want and need to do. Our policies need to match our circumstances.