A leisure technology levy could help cut financial barriers to access, says Gordon Marsden.
"Wider and wider still" rightly remains the thrust of this government's policy for higher education. But to break out of the bunker that has kept participation rates from working-class backgrounds at about 15 per cent, low income must be removed as a barrier to higher education.
Ministers and their advisers are wrestling with alternatives to the current system. But whatever answer emerges - commercially based loan repayments, a "graduate tax" or the ambitious extension of maintenance grants - is almost less important than the threshold at which it starts. Income of £10,000 a year is not a realistic base. That is why in both its recent reports, the education select committee recommended a substantial rise in income threshold for any repayments. I would say at least £16,000 and possibly £20,000 should be the future benchmark. Only then will we be able to remove the perception as well as the practicalities of debt or funding shortfalls deterring non-traditional entrants.
Broadening participation is, however, about more than cash. It is about getting rid of the "dreaming spires" complex that convinces many people that university is not for them. Active recruitment of under-represented groups (and rewards for doing so) is an important part of this, but so is tailoring the delivery of higher education to these groups.
Further education must be the midwife, but officials and old-university bureaucrats have not yet fully grasped its importance. There are several ways this could be taken forward, such as a feeder system for universities from further education colleges in participation cold spots and seamless syllabus development, with the possibility of taking some FE credits into a first undergraduate year along the lines of schemes in the United States and those operated by the Open University. Education delivery could also be expanded via community centres, housing estate offices and online learning, and by recognising the more flexible nature of the learning that many non-traditional applicants will want.
Estelle Morris has emphasised "early aspirations" - getting schools and their pupils focused on the possibility of higher education and removing myths about it. The government already has an initiative, the educational maintenance allowance (EMA), to encourage 16 to 19-year-olds to stay on. Its £40-a-week cash incentive is raising these rates in pilot areas with low post-16 participation. But EMAs need to be expanded and linked into other schemes. A 16-year-old from a single-parent family on a Blackpool council estate with no family tradition of higher education needs to know that an EMA could automatically become a grant or opportunity bursary if he or she stays the course.
Where could the money come from? Extra, hypothecated funding could be collected and administered easily. A leisure technology levy - 20p paid out every time a recreational video or CD-Rom game is rented, 50p on every sale - could raise more than £200 million a year. Putting that in a funding initiative for EMAs and opportunity bursaries could raise the number of students helped from 25,000 to 125,000 a year. Using some of that money for the recently enhanced universities access and hardship fund would have a big effect, too - particularly if targeted as "LTL awards" to institutions and teachers who had blazed a trail on access.
Both Estelle Morris and David Blunkett have shown real commitment to broadening participation, but the devil has been in the detail. Keeping things as simple as possible, offering carrots to students and teachers to take up that challenge, using the stick sparingly so as not to strangle autonomy, while placing further education and other non-Russell Group areas at the heart of participation strategy are the right ways to turn aspiration into reality and 21st-century economic achievement.
Gordon Marsden is Labour MP for Blackpool South and a former member of the Commons select committee on education.
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