Expansion first, equality later

April 2, 2004

Widening participation does not automatically lead to a fairer society, but it's a start, says David Watson

An international group of scholars gathered this week at a symposium in memory of Colin Bell, former vice-chancellor of Bradford University and an authority on social inclusion, to explore the hard questions about widening participation around the world.

The first question concerns polarisation. The more successful national systems are in growing participation and achievement, the greater will be the gap between those who stay on a ladder of educational attainment and those who drop off. There is a growing gulf between the successful majority and a disengaged minority, lacking access to not only skills and work but also to information and influence.

The second question concerns increasing the pool of those ready for higher education. Higher education advocates are very good at displacement of responsibility: "We can't admit them unless they prepare them." They are less ready to assume their part of the responsibility for the schools themselves and features of the communities that prevent pupils from progressing to higher education.

Then there is the question of class. The weight of the evidence suggests that the key determinant of participation around the world is decreasingly gender or ethnicity or disability. Instead, it's good, old-fashioned socioeconomic circumstances. In this context, the big illusion in the UK is that "aiming higher" and "widening participation" are the same thing. The challenge is emphatically not moving the small number of entrants from working-class families around the system, but rather about getting more of their peers to the starting gate.

There is a particular resonance to my fourth question as new Labour seeks to put the concept of "under-represented groups" on the face of its 2004 Higher Education Act. Turn the question on its head. Who, in fact, is meant to be left outside? At any point there may be consensus about who the under-represented groups are, but it is surely dangerous to give the power to decide to politicians.

There's also the critical issue of what the "new" students in higher education do, and what its value turns out to be for their careers and their lives. A recent report from the Open University Centre for Higher Education Research notes that, as we have made higher education fairer, we have further exposed patterns of discrimination in employment.

Sixth, it is a hard fact that it is easier for public authorities to invest in excellence than in equality. This is why, for example, the government continues to invest heavily in research (especially science) but has yet to lay sound plans for the expansion it says is needed.

Then there is the phenomenon of admissions. Almost every institution will admit the students whom it is easiest and most profitable to recruit and then go looking for the rest. This is true within as well as between universities, to an extent that the Schwartz committee's distinction between "recruiting" and "selecting" institutions is probably unsound: almost all universities are both.

Putting all of this together, the one absolutely iron law about widening participation in higher education is that if you want the system to be fairer it has to be allowed to expand.

Above all, we have to be realistic about the long haul. Much of this reduces to public consensus and to political courage. Higher education participation at the levels now being achieved around the world does relate to healthier, happier, more tolerant societies (a point completely missed by Alison Wolf in her book Does Education Matter? ). In the UK in particular, this argument has yet to be won. It will be, but only as we reach a proportion of graduates in society who will insist on it.

Sir David Watson is vice-chancellor of Brighton University.

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