Funding flaws

October 26, 2007

Many of my colleagues are passionate about the need to address inequality of access to higher education. At first sight, Bill Rammell ("Why first-time students come first", October 12) makes a persuasive case for the Government's intention not to provide institutional funding for places on courses where a student has a higher or equivalent qualification. He presents this as a means of enabling more first-time students to study for a degree. However, the changes have consequences for the education of adults that are not widely known.

My university has an honourable 80-year record in addressing educational disadvantage for adults of all ages. This provision has been made under various guises: extramural education, adult education, continuing education and now, aptly, lifelong learning. Lifelong learning courses address two forms of educational disadvantage experienced by adults: vertical disadvantage, which faces those who have not had the benefits of higher education, and horizontal disadvantage, where graduates lack knowledge of particular fields because of earlier specialisation. It is a proper role of a government, intent on creating a more equal and civilised society, to provide state support for universities that addresses these two kinds of educational inequality.

Some may argue that addressing horizontal disadvantage is a relative luxury that must come second to increasing the numbers of first-time entrants into higher education. However, the connection between vertical and horizontal advantage has not been grasped by education ministers. Rammell writes: "The Government's decision to funnel £100 million away from students taking second degrees and other qualifications to those entering higher education for the first time is socially just and supports the need to improve our skills base."

Lifelong learning classes do not neatly divide themselves into those recruiting only first-time entrants and those containing students who have already benefited from higher education.

If the Government's proposals are implemented, those with equivalent or higher qualifications are unlikely to be able to afford the prohibitively high student fee that will have to be charged if the state removes its funding. As a result, many lifelong learning courses will be unviable and unavailable to precisely those first-time entrants to higher education who Rammell claims are a priority. Unfortunately he has failed to appreciate the critical cross-subsidy of lifelong learning courses. Nor does he appear to understand the positive aspects of a course whose student composition consists of men and women from a range of backgrounds.

Unless universities receive funding for students experiencing both kinds of disadvantage, they will be prevented from continuing to address the profound educational inequalities to which ministers refer.

Michael Somerton, Hull University.

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