Academics split over value of access funding

Some say initiative will pay off, others say it is best to invest in schools. Lucy Wheeler and Phil Baty report

July 24, 2008

A stark division among academics about the value of the hundreds of millions of pounds invested each year in helping to widen access to university has emerged from a poll of Times Higher Education readers.

In April, Gordon Marshall, the vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, argued that diverting resources into improving school staying-on rates and boosting A-level results among working-class children would be more effective in tackling inequality than focusing cash on higher education initiatives.

In 2008-09, £364 million will be provided to universities by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to help support students from non-traditional backgrounds. A further £100 million a year, on average, has been spent on the AimHigher initiative since 2004-05.

Professor Marshall said that too many working-class children who left education at 16 with five GCSEs, could have gone to university.

"Nothing you do to the university admission system will affect this," he said, arguing that the money should be spent "earlier" in the education system.

His comments were given weight last month when a report from the Sutton Trust showed that 60,000 pupils did not go into higher education at the age of 18, despite being among the top academic performers at ages 11, 14 or 16.

A further study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in June, which tracked 600,000 state-school pupils, found that the small number of students from poorer backgrounds in university is almost entirely explained by lower achievement in school.

A straw poll of 49 academics from a range of disciplines across UK universities shows a clear split.

More than one third of readers agreed with Professor Marshall that funding should be invested into schools to enable the "necessary foundations" to be laid. Yet the same proportion disagreed, with the remainder undecided.

Jon Scott, director of biological studies at the University of Leicester, thought that universities' efforts to widen participation, while worthwhile, were often "too diluted and too late".

"It is much more important for schools to be working to develop the aspirations, educational expectations and attainment of the students from early on," he said.

One reader, who asked not to be named, was in favour of "widening the potential to participate" by investing earlier in the education system, to ensure students were properly equipped for higher-level study.

"Widening participation could begin earlier on, rather than expecting tertiary education to pick up the pieces and try to get people through degrees who aren't properly prepared or qualified.

"It would be a little like admitting someone to the final year of the Royal Ballet School when they have never danced before."

Dominic Newbould, director of external relations at The Open University worldwide, said that money should be directed into providing a strong foundation for pupils even before secondary school.

"The most important time for young people in the UK is preschool and the first few years of primary education ... so the question might be: would funding on supporting A-level performance be better spent on GCSE support of 'working-class' students and so on down the line, until we reach nursery education."

Liz McKenzie, deputy team leader of education at Truro College, highlighted the increasing number of students that come into higher education through "non-traditional routes". Greater investment in schools and A levels will not help them, she argued.

Ms McKenzie said: "To focus solely on A-level routes will narrow the focus of academic subjects (in higher education). A lot of the growth has been in vocational subjects ... taught in further education colleges, where A levels may not be an entry qualification."


Times Higher Education asked readers if they agreed that widening participation resources might be better invested earlier on in the education system, to improve performance among working-class students in schools. Here is a selection of opinions:

"There is no way to undo at university level the damage done at secondary-school level. Most of the students whose chances of getting a degree have been crippled in their early teen years we will never see. I can do a lot to help working-class students attain a degree if they can just get to my university with the necessary qualifications in literacy, numeracy, analytical skills and the ability to concentrate. But no amount of money is going to fix things for students who never reach that point."

Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of general linguistics, University of Edinburgh

"I do not think our role is to compensate for policy failure and poor resourcing at earlier stages of learning. The best investment would be much earlier and would be about housing and poverty relief and wider investment in social equality, with education as only one part of that."

Ian McNay, professor emeritus of higher education and management, University of Greenwich

"Most of the government money poured into this and other initiatives is wasted. It is not the job of higher education to socially engineer society ... the trend in universities today is to reduce everyone to the level of the lowest common denominator rather than to lift everyone to aspire without limits."

Michael Derham, course director of masters in Spanish, Northumbria University

"Supporting further education in all its forms is a good thing, but billing A levels as the only route to university can be dangerous ... Widening-participation funding benefits students who may not have taken a 'traditional' study route, by encouraging them to consider higher education as a possibility and by supporting them once there to engage with what is often a very alien institution."

Sophie McGlinn, education caseworker, Northumbria Students' Union, Northumbria University

"Widening access must be achieved without lowering entry requirements, because otherwise the role of universities will be greatly diminished. (Widening access) is best achieved by making sure state schools provide the necessary foundations."

Robert O. J. Weinzierl, faculty of life sciences, Imperial College London

"Students from certain backgrounds are disadvantaged, and not just by their school results. Having to work to pay fees, looking after relatives and/or children all place huge pressures on students. Widening access is a tricky issue. It's all very well taking a student from a disadvantaged background, with slightly low qualifications. Then we put them in an alien environment, often with no support, in large classes and wonder why they don't do so well? What exactly is widening access money being spent on?"

Anne Tierney, science faculties' employability officer, University of Glasgow

"It is true that universities' scope to widen participation is severely constrained by what happens before students apply to university ... (but) under what circumstances will widening-access students be better off going to university than if they hadn't? More benefit might come from raising achievement of all school-leavers, whether they go to university or not."

Kate Blackmon, lecturer in operations management, Oxford Said Business School

"Students from widening participation backgrounds ... may face a range of non-academic support needs - for example cultural or social - that would not be addressed merely by improved A-level performance pre-arrival."

Andrew West, director of student services, University of Sheffield

"I fear that wherever and however such tiny amounts of money are spent they will make little difference. And I suspect the term 'working class' is well past its sell-by date: there are bundles inequalities of geography, ethnicity, language, money poverty and cultural access that cannot be encompassed by the term."

Andrew Blake, associate dean, School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies, University of East London

"Alison Wolf argued the case five years ago in her book, Does Education Matter? She shrewdly observed that poor education at the lower levels doesn't necessarily prevent students entering university. Rather, in an increasingly competitive market for students' fees, it means universities are forced to spend more resources teaching skills students should have acquired earlier in their education. In practice, then, the shift of resources to secondary schools would help to stem the tide of 'dumbed down' standard in universities."

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology, University of Warwick

"I think (diverting money to schools) would be counterproductive in that widening participation is concerned with creating the opportunity for students to get into university based on their ability rather than on their background and personal circumstances."

Donal Shanahan, senior lecturer in applied sciences, Northumbria University

"Widening-participation money is one of the only ways in which non-research-intensive universities do well out of funding allocations. They have a harder job in undergraduate teaching than research-intensive universities ... and they need extra funds to help resource this."

Patrick Honeybone, lecturer in linguistics, University of Edinburgh

"This is a calculation that cannot be made on any objective basis; rather, it is a political judgment. What is the evidence that £364 million (or any amount) would improve A-level performance among working-class students in schools?"

Stephen Badsey, reader in conflict studies, University of Wolverhampton

All opinions expressed were done so in a personal capacity.

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