Widening access to higher education may not be easy, but it is possible.
Leslie Wagner looks at the role of the new Access Advisory Partnership
The focus on access and wider participation has become more intense in the past two years. The funding councils have responded to the government's social inclusion policies by bombarding institutions with data, projects and new funding.
The performance indicators published last month provide the most reliable system-wide guide to institutional performance on widening participation.
Part-time and mature student numbers have been given additional weightings in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's funding system, access funds have been increased significantly and extra funds have been made available to universities to deliver their strategies.
All this is welcome in changing the status of access in national policy from feelgood outsider to a core priority. But national exhortation and funding can only create the appropriate environment and incentive. It is in the institutions that delivery has to take place.
When access received warm words and little else from policy-makers, it was sustained in each university and college by bands of enthusiasts and occasionally their institutional leaders. The major driver was access courses - now more than 20 years old - which focused on mature students, particularly from ethnic minorities, without formal entry qualifications. In effect, they compensated for the earlier failings of the school system.
Concentrating successfully on mature students who had under-achieved at school, but were now motivated to succeed, was the great achievement in widening participation in the 1980s and 1990s. It was, however, the soft option.
The Labour government is not so easily satisfied. It has posed the hard question about the participation rates of school-leavers in social groups three, four and five. It does not want them to wait ten years or more to compensate for their under-achievement through access courses. It wants their participation in higher education to start now.
There are some in higher education who have shrugged their shoulders and said, in effect, that there is little higher education can do if students are not qualified to enter. They argue it is for the schools to improve and retain their students. Higher education, they claim, cannot "dilute" its entry standards for social engineering purposes. Quite rightly, the government has not accepted this view. There are actions that universities and colleges can take. They can work with schools and colleges to motivate marginal and under-achieving students. They can offer progression routes and study support modules. They can make the entry process less daunting. They can review their curriculum, teaching and assessment methods. And they can provide more support for students in the first year.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has been promoting change within universities in a number of ways. In 1998 it published case studies of good practice in widening participation. Many readers were surprised at the range of the innovation in place. Last year it set up a widening participation and lifelong learning group to ensure the CVCP is proactive and responsive to the changing policy.
Next week, the CVCP and other agencies including HEFCE will officially launch the Access Advisory Partnership to help institutions develop and implement such strategies. It will be administered by the CVCP. Teams of two to three experts will provide consultancy advice to institutions. The average time involved is about six days.
Some 30 institutions have signed up to receive this or have expressed strong interest. It is proof of the seriousness with which universities and colleges are taking their widening participation responsibilities. The challenge to the partnership is to find enough consultants rather than clients.
So this sustained attack on the inequalities of student participation, consisting of exhortation, funding and consultancy, should in due course have an effect. But it will not be without its difficulties. The responsibility lies not only with institutional leaders but with those inside institutions who guard the admissions process.
One cloud on the horizon is the continuing ambiguity of the messages they receive. Is widening participation really such a high priority for policy-makers? When HEFCE published its performance indicators, covering access and quality, comment focused almost exclusively on the student success percentages and the need for progression rates to be improved. Little was said about the remarkable achievement of some universities in widening participation or the effect this might have on their progression rates. It seems it is not only universities that need consultancy advice.
Leslie Wagner is vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and chair of the CVCP widening participation and lifelong learning sector group.