Access: an unhealthy obsession

October 2, 1998

Instead of seizing lifelong learning and developing a stimulating vision for an inclusive, interactive yet excellent higher education system, we seem to be driving down a narrow road obsessed with only one goal: widening access.

By setting an inappropriate course, we shall create too great a gap between stated and achievable objectives. Universities are core contributors to other key agendas, particularly those relating to competitiveness, and restricting their focus risks a damaging imbalance.

The assertion that there can be a single-issue agenda for the rich complexity of post-compulsory education is absurd.

The common target of a long-needed, pervasive programme of change is social exclusion, something universities know all about. They are part of its mainstay. They have helped to define the privileged group empowered to run the country and they have been the gatekeepers of a knowledge structure that limits access. For too long they have guarded their privileges while accepting public funds and avoiding accountability.

Participation is widening. It is a core part of lifelong learning in every university, but desirable diversity means it should be a dominant theme only for some. A simple increase in the proportion of 18-year-olds entering higher education does not counter the problems of exclusion, and the entry of under-represented groups remains uneven.

But the Higher Education Funding Council for England's own advisory group notes that "the question of increasing the participation of students from social groups III to V may not be one the HE sector can address because it requires action at an earlier stage of the educational process".

This is neither platitude nor excuse. Higher education can provide earlier action through partnerships with schools, as we and others are doing.

Universities have always been involved in lifelong learning. Before the phrase joined our vocabulary, I had taught on Workers Educational Association courses, run classes for unemployed people and developed an adult education programme across west Yorkshire.

We introduced part-time degrees and access courses and developed training courses for industry. We extended training programmes for research students. And a lot of others were doing the same thing.

Nonetheless, we need to think cross-sectorally and not constrain ourselves to a single phase of lifelong learning. An important part of the new agenda for universities will be their regional strategies, paramount within which are partnerships with other organisations, such as those further education colleges that have a clear understanding of how to implement educational inclusiveness. The emerging strategies of the regional development agencies must also receive close attention. Perhaps the key regional contribution for the sector will be the development of high-level skills. No other sector can undertake this.

We must develop a meaningful lifelong learning strategy for universities. If we do not, then we will generate a cynical and gratuitous political response. But the loss will not be ours alone. Universities will continue to have a major role in the research base. The greater loss will be to those for whom we could have done so much more.

Jonathan Adams

Dean for strategic development University of Leeds

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