Face it, equity initiatives are too little, too late

September 15, 2006

Are universities' widening participation schemes doomed to failure? Stephen Gorard reveals the inherent problems that threaten these initiatives.

If a British higher education institution announced that its new intake of students had been selected on the basis of ethnicity, social class or sex, there would be outrage, not to mention litigation. Yet every year that is in effect what the sector sets out to do. School-leavers applying to study full time at university are still selected largely on the basis of their prior qualifications. But as everyone who works in education knows, the grades that those students are likely to achieve are strongly stratified in terms of ethnicity, social class, sex and a host of other socioeconomic factors. So when qualifications are used to decide who attends which course at which university - indeed, to decide who attends university at all - the result is inevitably a correspondingly stratified higher education sector.

The widening participation agenda is predicated on this inequality, readily apparent in the most prestigious institutions. There is overrepresentation of white and East Asian students, those from elevated social classes and women.

The widening participation project therefore faces a dilemma: are these prior qualifications largely merited in terms of the talent of those who achieve them? If so, the ensuing stratification of higher education is, presumably, also merited, and all of the widening participation initiatives are mostly irrelevant. If, on the other hand, qualifications are to a large extent a proxy measure of ethnicity, class, sex and so on, then we should not use them to determine who goes to university. Instead, access could be open to all, irrespective of ethnicity, class, sex and qualifications.

There is no evidence of a substantial, untapped pool of young potential university students with suitable qualifications. Most who achieve the equivalent of at least two A levels already participate in higher education - this is often their motivation for continuing full-time schooling beyond age 16 in the first place. Those who do not have university in their sights are more likely to leave education early. Hence, widening participation work faces serious obstacles - which is one reason why its practitioners deserve considerable praise for their persistence and enthusiasm.

The problems run deep. If you change the nature of the student body to include more of those without A-level or equivalent qualifications, you inevitably change the nature of higher education itself. And then the argument for widening participation becomes very confused. The assumption is that higher education is a "good thing", a view supported by evidence of its impact on human capital and social inclusion in recent years.

To deny this good thing to a subset of society is, therefore, regarded as an affront. But if the widening participation project leads to a radically different higher education - with short courses or credit transfer, for example - then past evidence is no longer so relevant. We could not use it to predict to what extent the new university experience would be such a good thing for its new intake.

Furthermore, we in higher education are in danger of appearing arrogant by assuming that everyone capable of gaining from study at university should attend, and so denying the existence of rational non-participation. But how do we distinguish between respecting the choice of those who reject higher education and inadvertently condoning the inequalities in aspiration and attainment predictable from early life, family background and initial schooling? In fact, educational attainment at every age is so predictable almost from birth that I wonder whether any of the problems of widening participation can be solved within the higher education sector itself. For example, the admissions process already increases the equity of the student body in relation to those applying to university, and those applying are already those most likely to be accepted.

Perhaps that is the greatest problem facing those who work in widening participation - the likelihood that the solution to educational stratification lies neither in higher education nor even in schooling. The problem is a manifestation of the same inequality that emerges in studies of housing, crime, birth-weight or transport. Education should have a role to play in equalising life chances - for that is the raison d'être for a universal state system. But it cannot do it alone, quickly or without radical reform. Before we can get to grips with it, we need a debate to agree what higher education is, who it is intended for and whether prior qualifications are a help or a hindrance in our work.

Stephen Gorard is professor of educational studies at York University and author of a report on widening participation research commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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