Will rich ideas tackle a very poor show?

January 10, 2003

With a new strategy for HE imminent, Geoff Layer kicks off four pages on issues it will address with a look at efforts to recruit more working-class students.

Forty years on from the Robbins report, we can see mass expansion in nearly every aspect of higher education. We have more universities, more students and greater representation among women and from minority ethnic groups. The one area that has seen very little change is the class structure within higher education.

The latest performance indicators from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, using data from 2000-01, show that participation in full-time degrees from the lower socioeconomic groups stubbornly refuses to rise above 25 per cent. If higher education is to contribute fully to building a more inclusive society, we must raise working-class participation significantly.

It is important to recognise that there are no quick fixes. There are good signs that the corner is being turned and progress has been made since 2000-01. However, the extent of the change generated by universities and colleges, which have focused on working with young people in targeted communities, will not be clear for a few years.

Widening participation and providing fair access are crucial to the sector's ability to allow more people to benefit from higher education. To this end, universities and colleges have developed strategic plans that stretch from raising aspirations and giving learning support to increasing employability.

Some see the Fair Access target only as a means of bringing more students from lower socioeconomic groupings into "prestigious" universities. This is a narrow perspective that assumes that this is what learners want and is appropriate for them. A more challenging approach is to focus on employability and to build on initiatives designed to bring working-class youngsters into the most restrictive professions. There are projects that support such shifts by focusing on specific professions, such as medicine, and student progression routes rather than on type of university attended.

Some universities have already made an impact on student recruitment. In 1998, only 6 per cent of the University of Durham's first-year students came from the low-participation neighbourhoods. As a result of efforts to raise aspirations and partnerships with educational providers, that figure rose to 8 per cent in 2000-01. The university's data indicate a further rise in 2002-03 to 11 per cent. Similar universities are reporting such a shift, too. This trend does not necessarily reflect a widening of participation in the sector as a whole - it may reflect that students already likely to go into higher education now have a greater choice of places to study.

Financing study is another key issue. The current system imposes new burdens on students, and we have to recognise that they may have difficulty paying. Most need to work while studying (see box, right), and this places a different emphasis on their ability to contribute to the learning process. Curriculum structures must take account of this change and recognise the experience it can bring.

Many people from working-class communities, who are unlikely to have to pay fees, are put off applying to university because the arrangements for tuition fees and financial support are not made clear to them. Instead of saying that there are fee-waiver arrangements, why not turn it round and say higher education is free at the point of entry unless there is a high family income, which is how the National Health Service promotes dental treatment?

Advances are being made in even the most resistant inner-city areas. The groundwork for change is being lain by initiatives such as joint Hefce/Learning and Skills Council special projects. Most of these have sought to engage with young people in secondary schools or earlier to build a "can-do" rather than an "it is not for me" culture and to work with families to embed the change.

It is too early to say what impact they will have on student recruitment as many of the children in the schemes are only just coming up to their GCSE year at school. But those involved are confident that they will succeed because they are underpinned by a sense of common ownership and commitment among all the schools, colleges and higher education institutions linked in the partnerships.

The projects, which were introduced in 1999, united higher and further education providers in a particular area to increase participation levels within targeted groups. Many used taster days, guidance activities and student mentors and ambassadors to raise interest in higher education, to help convince those in target groups that higher education could be for them and that they could progress. The initiatives that were planned jointly by all the partners have been the most successful.

These projects were the forerunners of the government's £190 million Excellence Challenge, which also emphasised raising aspirations and changing attitudes towards higher education. But the focus now needs to shift to addressing the attainment levels of young people to support progression to higher education.

Many challenges remain, and we must avoid complacency. There is an opportunity to make a significant step towards new types of provision and greater participation. Many universities are seeking to expand the numbers of working-class students, and the Hefce/LSC initiative Partnerships for Progression offers the platform to do so.

Partnerships for Progression calls for regional plans to address obstacles and challenges and to build on current experience. It will require joined-up thinking, action across a region and a shift away from compartmentalised planning to a more integrated approach.

Regional plans will need to consider specific local needs. For example, the Nottingham North constituency has the lowest proportion of young people entering higher education. There is much goodwill among the various providers and a range of creative projects to boost participation. But there is no agreed strategic plan for the constituency to deliver change. In Bradford, the Ofsted/Adult Learning Inspectorate Post-16 Area Inspection raised many issues about progression to higher education, and the West Yorkshire LSC has committed to developing a district-wide higher education progression strategy.

Local strategic planning will bring previously sector-specific initiatives together in one coherent plan and seek maximum gain involving all those who can influence the journey of young people from school into higher education. Partnerships for Progression and the Excellence Challenge provide the opportunity to build the partnerships, secure the progression and ensure key stakeholder engagement.

The target of half of all people aged 18 to 30 experiencing higher education by 2010 raises a number of different issues because it is based on securing an increase in participation and a more inclusive student body. The target, however, is not based on a slavish commitment to the model of the three-year, full-time honours degree. The changing nature of higher education provision through the launch of the foundation degree has seen universities targeting the workforce to develop new skills, as called for by the National Skills Task Group, and to acquire new vocational qualifications.

This is a welcome new form of provision that will secure broader participation, but inclusivity must not be perceived as being solely the province of foundation degrees. Changes in student financial models that see foundation degrees as being a cheaper route to a degree will result in working-class students choosing that route and will inhibit the push for change. We would then face the possibility of having a higher education system in which the haves continue to have and the have-nots continue not to have.

The challenge for Partnerships for Progression is to avoid this and to build the progression routes to allow more young people from working-class communities to succeed in the courses that match their aspirations and their potential.

Geoff Layer is professor of lifelong learning and dean of the School of Lifelong Education and Development at the University of Bradford.

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