Quality street for the masses

June 5, 1998

How will welfare work?

Universities, Bahram Bekhradnia points out, already have difficulties taking more students from poor families

Ministers have made clear that one of their major concerns is to ensure that larger numbers of students from poor backgrounds can benefit from higher education. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has established a committee to advise the council on how to achieve this. And universities and colleges are reviewing their admissions policies so that they do not deter poorer and disadvantaged would-be students.

But these questions have many dimensions, and we will cause problems for ourselves if we are not clear-headed about them. Universities and colleges are already far more inclusive than they were. Whereas 20 years ago women accounted for only about one third of HE students, they now account for a small majority. Students from ethnic minority backgrounds participate in higher education to an extent which more than matches their presence in the population. Whereas previously undergraduates were drawn from private and grammar schools, most students now come from comprehensives. And there is a tradition of participation by mature students who were unable to gain entry on leaving school because they lacked qualifications.

But there are still gaps and the statistics only tell part of the story. The next step is that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds must emerge from their schools with the educational attainment needed to benefit from higher education.

A funding council analysis has found that young people from the wealthiest backgrounds are 12 times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest.

We also know that different institutions have very different profiles of social mix in their student populations. However, we know too that A-level scores and social class (taking family wealth as a proxy for social class) are correlated. We should not condemn institutions for being socially exclusive simply because they have demanding entry requirements.

On the other hand, some institutions are failing to recruit even appropriately qualified students from poor backgrounds, perhaps because of weaknesses in their recruitment processes. This must be addressed. Even where applicants may not have conventional qualifications, all institutions need to be imaginative in spotting those students likely to do well.

The question of what qualifications students need to enter university is difficult. The important thing is to admit students capable of achieving the required standard. There must be no compromise over this. Higher education is meant to be difficult. Degrees must be harder to achieve than FE or other lower-level qualifications. But if high A-level scores are regarded as the only way of selecting students likely to achieve a degree, then institutions will be doing a wrong to those potential students who fail to be admitted.

Nor is it enough simply to admit students. Work underway in the funding council shows how non-completion (defined as students failing to achieve the goal which they set for themselves in a particular year) is correlated with a number of factors, particularly with the students' entry qualifications and social class. We are not doing students a favour if we encourage them to come to university and then allow them to fail.

Our work also shows that universities with similar profiles of student appear to have very different student drop-out rates. Poorer or disadvantaged students may need more support. Some universities are providing it.

But policy makers must be careful not to sacrifice policies such as the encouragement of high standards - in pursuit of improved access and participation. Nor, on the other hand, should we penalise universities and colleges for admitting students from non-traditional backgrounds. A successful policy on access will have several dimensions. Universities must maintain their self-imposed standards. They must identify students capable of meeting these standards, including students from non-traditional education backgrounds. They must establish structures to help non-traditional students to succeed and all must try to learn lessons from institutions where high numbers of such students complete their courses. In pursuit of these aims we must ensure that we do not penalise institutions with demanding entry standards, nor those with higher-risk access policies.

We have to be realistic about the possibilities and the pitfalls. In the council we will be looking at rewarding institutions with successful policies on access and retention; but we will also try to encourage those with less well developed policies to recruit more widely.

Why is all this important? There is ample evidence of the improved social standing of those who have been through higher education. Research has shown that having a degree increases earnings by more than 30 per cent on average. Higher education has enormous potential to act as a social leveller, and the corollary is that it can also perpetuate social inequalities. We need to make certain it does the former.

Bahram Bekhradnia is director of policy, HEFCE.

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