Leader: Local solutions to national needs

October 20, 2006

Compact schemes were among the first manifestations of a proactive approach by universities to broadening their intake of students - and in many cases the most successful. Demand for higher education has been stimulated in previously unpromising areas through regular contact with a particular (normally local) institution and a variety of admissions incentives. At a time when politicians are casting a more critical eye over efforts to widen participation, the Leeds University report on compacts has important points to make about the way in which such schemes have developed and the potential for further advances.

Perhaps inevitably for local schemes, there is now such a variety of approaches that it is easy to accuse universities of inconsistency. Most compacts are based on groups of schools and/or further education colleges, where activities mounted by a university aim to raise students' aspirations and show them that they could cope with higher education. But some schemes take all comers, while others limit participation to students from poor backgrounds; some guarantee admission interviews to those who stay the course, others take the next step of reducing entry requirements. The report does not advocate a national scheme, but it does talk of "equality of opportunity across the country for people in similar circumstances".

In so far as this relates to sharing ideas and experiences, this can only be welcomed. The Leeds researchers show that many teachers and prospective students are unaware of the existence of compacts. They also provide valuable reminders of the legal pitfalls that can confound the most well-meaning schemes: they may fall foul of race relations laws, for example, if financial criteria exclude students from a particular ethnic minority. However, the principal strength of compacts has been the ability to adapt to local circumstances. The disadvantages associated with rural communities may demand a quite different approach from that adopted in an inner city, and the incentives available for oversubscribed courses are likely to differ from those where access is more open. Spreading good practice is one thing; "developing a framework", as the report's title has it, is quite another. The Department for Education and Skills, which commissioned the research, should beware of applying the dead hand of uniformity to arrangements that are generally working well.

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