Leader: Depriving the already deprived

In the scrum for AABs, elite institutions risk putting themselves beyond the reach of disadvantaged students

August 4, 2011

There's an old Polish saying that roughly translates as "when poverty comes through the door, love leaves through the window". The same would seem true for competition and altruism.

Widening participation is an issue that appears to be close to everyone's heart. The Higher Education Funding Council for England insists that it is "a crucial part of our mission", and it is the one thing that many vice-chancellors have refused to forgo, come hell or high fees. The coalition government, too, has made clear its importance by forcing universities that want to charge £9,000 in tuition fees to submit agreements to the Office for Fair Access.

But in the first of what will no doubt be many perverse effects to emerge from its own proposed legislation, it seems that the AAB and the 20,000 core-margin places for sub-£7,500 providers run counter to the very principles of widening access that the government professes to champion. Now, this may be summer, but ministers ought to know that the silly season applies only to newspaper articles, not to government policies. What is happening is not only silly but completely ridiculous.

While saying that it wants to broaden access for disadvantaged young people, the government is offering huge incentives for universities to open their doors to students with A-level grades of AAB, who tend to be the most advantaged. Meanwhile, the extra places created for students who do not achieve AAB (and who are likely to be less advantaged) are with providers offering courses for £7,500 and under, which many argue is a restriction of choice.

Such is the competition for top students that some universities, perhaps fearing an exodus to more "prestigious" rivals, are said to be considering "buying" individuals from the AAB team by offering special deals and scholarships, regardless of family income.

In universities a lot of soul-searching will go on. How can they square the drive to recruit more high-achieving students with the access agreements struck with Offa? How will the use of contextual admissions data (backed by the government in its White Paper) for those students with potential from less advantaged backgrounds, who do not manage to achieve the highest grades, fit in with the AAB policy?

It doesn't end there, however. The universities best placed to snap up those prized AABs - the "gold dust" of the new system, according to Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter - are those in what is now being dubbed the "English Ivy League" and which already perform worst on widening participation. They have the lowest numbers of students from state schools, from lower socio-economic classes and from low-participation areas - the Higher Education Statistics Agency's three main access indicators. This, in effect, cements their social exclusivity and awards more money to the universities that need it least.

The government is bringing us closer to the worst excesses of the US system, where students from the lowest socio-economic quartile are hugely under-represented at the most prestigious universities and over-represented at those offering two-year associate degrees and at "for-profit" institutions. This policy on places bestows advantage on the advantaged and further deprives the deprived. Its consequences may well be unintended, but they are desperately unfair and risk setting back social mobility in this country for decades to come.


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