Widening participation is back on top of the agenda. Alan Thomson opens a series on the issue
The introduction of tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants will close doors to higher education for thousands of poor, black and disabled people, European access experts have claimed.
The European Access Network said that the new student funding package - with means-tested fees from this autumn and grants ended for all undergraduates from next year - could undermine the government's aim of improving participation rates among disadvantaged people.
EAN's Maggie Woodrow said: "In financial terms the new funding package makes things worse. They are saying to (less well-off) people that they will not have to pay the fees they did not have to pay anyway, but that they lose the maintenance grants they did have before. This must be worse."
Ms Woodrow said there was a danger that universities, many of which have started access schemes, may be left to foot the bill for increasing participation among target groups.
She said that much will depend on whether the government provides extra funding year on year for access and how much is made available.
EAN is running a British access project based at Westminster University. The project, Good Practice in Widening Access to Higher Education, aims to audit institutions' access policies. Good practice will be identified and disseminated.
The project is sponsored by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, the Standing Conference of Principals, the Council for Industry and Higher Education and the English, Welsh and Scottish funding councils. It has involved sending questionnaires to every UK university. Full findings will be published in the autumn.
Ms Woodrow said: "The project has already found encouraging evidence of the efforts of institutions to widen access for lower socioeconomic groupings."
Universities were also asked to propose case studies exemplifying good practice. From the 58 case-study proposals received, 16 have been selected for more study. Some of these projects waive tuition fees and offer help with maintenance and thus, in some ways, undermine government funding policy.
CVCP policy director Tony Bruce, who is on the project's managing committee, said: "If you look at access figures there has been a substantial rise in the number of people from lower socioeconomic groups, but that figure needs to be improved further."
Participation is being studied statistically, using admissions figures to examine the rate of participation of young people from less well-off backgrounds by institution. Results are expected in the autumn.
Figures from the Department for Education and Employment show that there have been significant improvements in participation across all socioeconomic groups. The lower socioeconomic groups have increased the fastest.
Yet, tellingly, less than a fifth of young people in the lowest three groups chose to go to university in 1995-96. The average age participation rate for the top three groups was 51 per cent in 1995-96 compared with 15 per cent for the lowest three. The overall participation rate was 32 per cent.
A report on participation will be published in September, to be followed in November by a national dissemination conference. A series of regional seminars will be held to ensure that the findings on good practice reach all institutions.
One of the aims is to influence the future policy considerations of the English, Scottish and Welsh funding councils on widening participation.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is due to publish a consultation paper on broadening access within a few days. It will include a range of proposals for funding mechanisms that will encourage universities to attract students from poorer backgrounds.
SHEFFIELD HALLAM: CAMPUS DESIGNS WITH DISABLED IN MIND
Having nearly doubled the numbers of students with physical handicaps, Sheffield Hallam is well on its way to becoming one of the country's most disability-friendly universities.
The university has almost 1,000 students with known disabilities. They account for close to 3.5 per cent of the university population, compared with 2 per cent in 1994-95. The target is 4 per cent by 2000.
Much of the success is down to the university's disabled students support unit. With six full-time staff and about 60 part-time assistants, the unit offers help to wheelchair-bound, blind, deaf, dyslexic and otherwise disabled students to enable them to study alongside their colleagues with no physical handicaps.
Specific help might include providing signing for the deaf, note-takers and special tutors for dyslexics and carers for wheelchair-bound students. Money and architectural structure permitting, the university has also tried to adapt the physical environment. A hall of residence was designed specifically with the disabled in mind.
Geoff Layer, head of access and guidance at Sheffield Hallam University, said: "We would like to expand the numbers of disabled students beyond 4 per cent, but we have to be careful that this does not dilute the quality of the support we are able to offer.
"Ultimately, the ambition is to make the university entirely disability-friendly - not just in terms of the physical environment but also in the institutional culture. There is a long way to go, however."
Full-time students at Sheffield Hallam fund the support service from their disabled students allowance.
Mr Layer said that one of the biggest problems of funding for access is that part-time students do not receive this extra money.
LEEDS: CASH FOR ACCESS
A LEEDS University access programme for lone parents and carers acknowledges that tuition fees are a potential deterrent to second-chance adult learners.
The Optimise programme, which was launched last week, offers two years of free study, with expenses covered, to people over 25 who want to gain higher level, vocationally oriented qualifications in order to return to work. The study can lead to mainstream certificates, diplomas or, eventually, degrees.
Initially 50 undergraduate places will be available from this autumn, when most other university entrants will be charged up to Pounds 1,000 per year of study.
Tony Donajgrodzki, director of part-time education, said: "As far as this group of people is concerned we realise that there is no possible way that they could find the money to pay tuition fees."
Once accepted into the scheme, the students undergo a diagnostic interview to help them tailor their studies to a career. They can select from more than 20 part-time programmes. The university expects business studies, law and social studies to be among the most popular subjects, although students may take any programme that will support their career objectives.
Students are helped in developing a personal career plan, and they have regular opportunities for review through the course. They get help in juggling the demands of study and home life and in finding companies where they will do at least four weeks' work placement.
The university is ploughing more than Pounds 50,000 into Optimise, and that amount is being matched by the European Social Fund. The university hopes to continue the programme year after year, but much depends on funding. The university would like to set up a similar programme for 18 to 24-year-olds from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. WESTMINSTER: INFORMATION FOR ORIENTATION
PAINTING a full picture of university life is the key to attracting undergraduates from poor backgrounds, say access specialists at Westminster University.
The university's Link project aids school pupils and further education students in making choices about university by raising their awareness and providing information about different subjects and costs.
Katherine Hewlett, Link coordinator and Westminster's education liaison officer, said: "It is aimed at raising awareness among those who would not necessarily have gone on to university. I have found young people assertive in voicing their anxieties, such as how much debt they will incur by going to university. We supply information to help orientate them."
About 300 local school pupils and college students are involved in the project. School teachers select those most likely to benefit, and they are sent information and invited to events. Parents are invited to some events to emphasise the benefits of a university education for their children.
LANCASTER: ASIAN WOMEN ARE PUT AT EASE
Lancaster University's access officers are building bridges with Muslim communities in an effort to tell women that higher education is a real prospect for them and their daughters.
Lancaster's Parents and Families into Higher Education project tries to help Asian communities untangle the complexities of Islamic culture and traditions in order to put western culture, and higher education specifically, into context. The families, predominantly Muslim, come from poor communities.
The community access team's approach involves mostly women and their daughters, who are invited to discussions where they air their concerns about western universities and what could happen if they or their daughters attend.
Programme manager Julia Preece said: "It is a fear of losing cultural and religious identity, a fear of picking up western moral behaviour and a fear of racism."
To counter this, visits to the university are arranged. While the daughters are set tasks, their mothers are invited to see the campus mosque and talk to members of the student Islamic society. More discussion sessions are held after the visit.
Ms Preece said: "The aim is to get people to use their Islamic language and reasoning to back the arguments in favour of university."
The university also runs a project trying to develop courses for adult Asian women. The key to these courses, Ms Preece said, is to make them local, part-time and culturally relevant. The access team hopes to extend its efforts into poor non-Asian communities.