Faint heart never won fair access

Failure to evaluate the impact of widening participation funding - and to fight for its retention - has left it vulnerable to the axe

There’s often a depressing familiarity about the discussion of higher education that makes it into the mainstream, particularly over fair access and widening participation.

This week began with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reporting that the proportion of state-educated students at Russell Group universities fell over the past decade, with about 3,700 who should be at the most selective institutions “missing”.

The response added to the sense of déjà vu: Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, told BBC Radio 4 that “more progress must be made, everyone recognises that”, that “huge progress has been made” and that “we can only do so much”. The problem is that students from poor backgrounds are not getting the necessary A‑level grades, Piatt said, or if they are, it is in the wrong subjects.

No one doubts that the role of schools is crucial. To quote Nicholas Barr on the key determinant of university progression: ‘It’s attainment, stupid’

“Progress is slow because we are so dependent on progress in state schools,” she added.

Alan Milburn, who heads the commission, responded with a claim that state school children need higher grades than their privately educated peers to get into the most selective universities even though they are likely to perform better once there. “The Russell Group as a whole could commit to closing that gap of 3,700 kids who do get the grades but don’t get the places,” he said.

Piatt replied: “Without any help from government or other stakeholders? Just purely alone? It’s not realistic.”

It’s an argument that never seems to end, and no one doubts that the role of schools is crucial – to quote Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, on the key determinant of university progression: “It’s attainment, stupid.”

But if, as Barr says, the people with the best A-level grades go to university regardless of their background, why are 3,700 state-educated students who have gained the necessary grades missing? And what can be done about it?

Milburn wants clear statistical targets for improving fair access and greater use of contextual data in admissions.

Outreach efforts are also crucial (and this week we report on one charity, IntoUniversity, which is doing some good work in this field).

The government must also do its bit, yet previous poor decisions, such as the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, are in danger of being compounded by next week’s spending review, with the “student opportunity allocation” for widening participation and retention under threat.

The lack of a serious and evidence-based lobby to protect this funding – which, at £332 million this year, is the biggest chunk of the teaching grant under the new funding regime – has been in stark contrast to the ever-active lobby for the protection of the science budget (which is expected to remain safe within its ring-fence, if only in cash terms).

In March, a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England warned that, despite the large sums involved, there was “little evidence that the impact of the WP allocation is being systematically evaluated by institutions”.

If a lack of evidence condemns this funding to the axe, this will be a costly mistake.

It will also contribute to the feeling that the Piatt-Milburn argument will still be raging a decade from now.


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