DESPITE the advent of mass higher education, access to university remains on the margins. Budget cuts make it difficult to hold the ground already gained, and higher education still serves as a form of social exclusion that restricts entry to management and the professions for people from minority ethnic groups, those on low incomes or with disabilities.
Delegates from 21 countries at the annual convention of the European Access Network in Cork last month pinpointed the absence of a policy for higher education based on social justice as a barrier.
They recognised that, irrespective of whether or not expansion continued, the upper and middle-classes had to relinquish their stranglehold on higher education to get equitable participation. Proposals from the Council of Europe on access are recognised as offering the best opportunity for this. There is already widespread support from European education ministries for the recommendation that the profile of students in higher education should mirror society as a whole. The question now is not whether access should be widened, but how.
For the Council of Europe, James Wimberley identified three European reactions to the council's access recommendations - those of the Atlantic group, which includes Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom; those of the central group, which includes the Nordic countries where it is claimed that a greater investment in social services has reduced the necessity for access policies; and those of the eastern group where the notion of equity is still discredited in favour of hard-line meritocratic attitudes as a reaction to previous regimes.
The European delegates were presented with contrasting models from the United States and Australia. In the US, access policy is dedicated to correcting the inequalities of a higher education system which, according to Tom Wolanin of George Washington University, "should not be considered a model for anything", since it works against the interests of wide sections of a society where poverty is more widespread than in Europe.
Arnold Mitchem, who allocates funding within the federally-funded TRIO programmes in the US, reported on their success in helping low-income and first-generation students overcome financial, class, social and cultural barriers to participation. TRIO operates at three levels - pre-entry, on-course, and exit - on a $600 million budget. It provides nearly 2,000 programmes in over 1,200 institutions and aims to make "those who are alienated from and estranged by higher education become the invited and the involved".
However there are three big limitations. First, TRIO's budget represents only a fraction of the federal resources invested in higher education, from which higher income groups are the main beneficiaries. Second, funding is only available short-term and selectively through a competitive bidding process. Finally, TRIO does not and cannot address fundamental inequities in the system.
In Europe, delegates from the Netherlands and the UK, in particular, had experienced both the benefits and the limitations of this access model.
As an alternative, Postle of the University of Southern Queensland presented a model for mainstreaming access, illustrated by his 1997 study of the Australian system. The Fair Chance for All policy, designed "to ensure that Australians from all groups in society have the opportunity to participate successfully in higher education," identifies six "disadvantaged" groups - those from low socio-economic backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women (particularly in non-traditional areas of study), people from non-English speaking backgrounds, disabled people and those from rural and isolated areas.
To get universities to expand access for these groups they face "a mix of regulatory sticks and deregulatory carrots" with grants dispersed through an assessment of institutions' equity plans, evaluated on the basis of specified goals. However, as in the US, chronic under-resourcing undermines the commitment to access, with total equity funding representing only 0.4 per cent of the recurrent budget for higher education.
Universities have also undermined the government's strong desire to get mainstream equity by their reluctance to monitor their access activities. While all universities produce strategic plans and have structures in place to support this process, Glen Postle's survey found that in less than a third equity planning is an integral component of institutional planning.
Nevertheless, the consensus among European delegates was that the Australian mainstreaming approach was to be encouraged as being less marginalising for access.
Patricia Callaghan from Ireland's programme for students with disabilities said that people needed to recognise that higher education represented a pluralist culture, rather than one "rooted in the culture of uniformity which sees differences as inferior", and therefore requiring special measures. That is not to say that some targeted initiatives have the potential to become future mainstream policy.
Brendan Goggin of the Cork Regional Technology College reported on the effectiveness of financial incentives to encourage those experiencing long-term unemployment in Ireland to return to full-time study - a far cry from the former British 16-hour rule, which imposed financial penalties on this group for full-time participation.
Next to mainstreaming, priority must be given to effective equity monitoring. The Council of Europe was urged to continue and complete its pilot study of monitoring access in eight higher education institutions in eastern and western Europe. Fears that monitoring might place too heavy a burden on institutions' information systems were countered by the Russian experience. Here despite desperately limited resources, Chelyabinsk State University has successfully developed a system for monitoring intakes by socio-economic group, family background and ethnic origin.
Finally and inevitably there is the question of money. Conference delegates endorsed the view of Oscar Hernandez of the University of Texas that "talent and ability are not distributed in direct proportion to income and financial resources", and put its weight behind calls for a shift in funding for higher education from those that need it least to those that need it most. There are plenty of options and alternatives for doing this - given the political will to pursue them. What is required is not more rhetoric but a transfer of resources.
Was this too much like utopian thinking? Not according to David Crosier, also from the Council of Europe, who concluded with a quote from Le Corbusier - "today's reality is yesterday's Utopia".
Maggie Woodrow is executive director of the European Access Network based at the University of Westminster.