Access issue not so simple

July 31, 2008

Your survey of opinions on whether widening-participation resources might be better invested earlier in the education system ("Academics split over value of access funding", 24 July) did not include the views of staff working in widening participation and, as such, conveys a simplistic view.

The problem is multifaceted and there are no straightforward answers. Yes, there are students out there with good grades at A level or equivalent who just need a gentle nudge in the direction of higher education. If such students come from a background where there is no experience of university, then they may be unaware of the opportunities available and that undergraduates are "just like them". This is the value of traditional widening-participation activities such as summer schools, and is money well spent. Many more widening-participation students never make it as far as A level.

This larger problem, that of systemic underachievement that begins much earlier in the education system, still remains unaddressed. Aimhigher South East Region (soon to be abolished) has data that clearly illustrate the relationship between achievement and social status. It is well beyond the capacity of the higher education system to address this systemic problem. The relatively small sums spent on widening participation are a mere drop in the ocean compared with the cost of reforming the national educational system so that all pupils could access higher education on the basis of ability rather than income. Widening-participation resources are at best a sticking plaster to help the lucky few make it through a profoundly unequal system. It's better than nothing.

Sue Dunn, Regional STEM manager, Aimhigher South East.

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