Leader: Two systems, no easy answers

September 15, 2006

The concerns over widening participation expressed by Stephen Gorard and Emma Smith have been echoed this month in the US. In both countries, concerted attempts to draw into universities sections of the population unused to higher education have produced disappointing results. The two systems are different in character and have adopted different strategies, but there are lessons to be learnt that could lead to some progress - without resorting to such extreme changes as the abandonment of entry qualifications.

In the US, the concern is not just for social equity but economic competitiveness. The need for a large pool of graduate skills is accepted more widely than in the UK, and the low completion rates and falling enrolment identified by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education will no doubt be explored more pointedly by the US Government's higher education commission later this month. Americans take it for granted that they have many of the best universities in the world, but they expect them to seek out and accommodate talented students of all backgrounds.

For the UK, labour market concerns are not so pressing, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Teenage numbers are still rising (for the moment) and overseas recruitment is healthy, if disproportionate in some areas. The questions here are over the effectiveness of current programmes and their value for money. It may be too soon to judge the impact of schemes intended to mitigate the effects of top-up fees on low-income families, but the continuing skewed class composition of the student body over several decades tells its own story.

Professor Gorard knows that UK universities are not going to abandon entrance qualifications - and would face enormous government pressure in the unlikely event of them considering such a radical change. His report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England could be read as an admission of defeat for university-level attempts to widen participation.

The educational die is cast too early in life for such schemes to be effective. But to adopt such an approach would be to abandon whole generations of prospective students from unpromising backgrounds - not something that any of the main political parties is prepared to contemplate.

A review of widening participation must look pragmatically at the balance of funding at different levels of education, but universities will want to play their part. One area in which they can learn from the US is the allocation of scholarship and bursary funds, which are increasingly given for academic merit rather than financial need. The first signs of such a trend could be seen in English universities' access agreements, with substantial sums going into rewards for high A-level scores. If higher education is serious about widening participation, this is one US route that should be avoided.

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