Letter: High cost of less well-prepared

January 4, 2002

Universities are busy preparing responses to the Higher Education Funding Council's consultation on student supply and demand for the January 25 deadline. Key issues are whether to retain control on maximum student numbers, and whether funding for students from low-participation backgrounds is sufficient.

To achieve some stability, Hefce should ideally plan to determine student numbers at, and in partnership with, individual institutions. But numbers should address regional development needs, access and improving social balance.

Such detailed planning is probably not feasible, so why not encourage growth and widen access by linking a higher financial premium to attracting students from low-participation backgrounds and abolish maximum-student-number quotas?

The 5 per cent funding premium for undergraduates from low-participation neighbourhoods meets only a fraction of the costs of teaching students from non-professional family backgrounds who are more likely to achieve less well before entering higher education. Costs include more support, more guidance and a much higher reassessment workload because many students fail modules on their first attempt.

As these students tend to concentrate in particular institutions, those institutions face steeper teaching and learning costs. This compares with universities that take largely middle-class students who make fewer demands on teaching and learning resources. With academic staff under less pressure from underfunding, these institutions would have a better chance of benefiting from research assessment exercises and the funding and reputation that follow.

This doubly disadvantages students from non-professional backgrounds. Not only are their learning needs under-resourced but they more often attend institutions with lower prestige and reputation. This intensifies a pattern of social polarisation. Hefce has reported a growing divergence between graduates in terms of salaries and career prospects.

For these reasons, students from non-professional backgrounds should attract substantially more funding to meet their learning and teaching needs. These include better staff-student ratios and enhanced part-time opportunities to enable study to be combined with paid work.

These resources would also help attract more students from advantaged professional backgrounds seeking a better level of student support for their studies.

A substantial "low-participation" premium would begin to break the pattern of social polarisation. Predominantly middle-class universities would have a significant incentive to admit working-class students, and middle-class students would have a significant incentive to apply to universities that they might not otherwise have considered.

Academics in these universities would also benefit from more time to conduct research, thereby raising the RAE profile and reputation of their institutions.

Tim Blackman
School of Social Sciences and Law
University of Teesside

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