'The approach of the Government must be sophisticated...

January 21, 2005

... if it is to be fair and protective of academic standards'

Hefce's Young Participation in Higher Education report proves access is not a one-dimensional concept, says Times Higher editor John O'Leary

There was a time when the debate about access to higher education was couched exclusively in terms of class and, just possibly, race. Now, as this supplement, based on the report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, shows, disadvantage can also be calculated in terms of geography, income, disability, schooling, age, birth date and gender. That there are imbalances is undeniable, but which ones should universities seek to right? None, according to critics of the Government's policies, who see achievement criteria as higher education's only defence against dumbing down and social engineering.

For the majority in universities and colleges, however, extending access is not just a matter of social justice but a process that can raise standards by unlocking potential. The Higher Education Statistics Agency analyses entrants by postcode, parental class and secondary education for its performance indicators. Some institutions do well on one or more of the measures and badly on others. Lancaster University, for example, takes nine out of ten entrants from state schools (above the national average for its subjects and entry standards) but most do not come from the lowest socioeconomic groups or areas of low participation. Derby University has among the highest proportions of state-school and working-class undergraduates but, until adjustments are made for its location, is below the norm on the postcode indicator - which is what carries extra funding.

With the Office for Fair Access scrutinising institutions' plans to broaden their intakes, it is time to consider the objectives and instruments of policy. The calculation of benchmarks for each institution is under review after the unexpected changes brought about by the switch to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff. But there is a more fundamental task to be addressed in drawing a line between national and institutional priorities. It is surely sensible, for example, for an institution in an affluent part of the South East of England, where there is a strong tradition of enrolment in higher education, to focus on issues other than recruitment from areas of low participation.

Hefce's report shows that access is far from the one-dimensional concept generally portrayed in the media. Even the divide between state and independent schools can be misleading: grammar schools are often more selective than their independent neighbours, and the comprehensive label covers a multitude of different types of intake. The approach of the Government and its agencies must be correspondingly sophisticated if it is to be fair and protective of academic standards. Universities and colleges are in the best position to set their goals in this area. Once the principles of fair access are established, Offa and the funding council should take a back seat.

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