Hitting target will not be cheap

December 14, 2001

Attracting more school pupils into higher education requires greater resources, says Diana Warwick.

Expansion of higher education means social inclusion. What might have been seen as a moral imperative and a political choice is now a practical and logistical necessity. The recent Higher Education Funding Council paper on supply and demand in higher education suggests that, because of changing demographics, a wider group of students must be attracted in even if we are to stand still.

A large part of the solution will be raising levels of retention and attainment in schools and colleges. Higher education institutions have an important role to play in this. Through working with schools and colleges, they can help meet the government's 2010 target of 50 per cent participation in higher education among 18 to 30-year-olds by bringing in students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Funding these students is key. There is the fees issue and how much students should pay; there is the matter of parental contributions or loans for maintenance; and the cost to universities in supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds.

It is Universities UK's contention that fees are not a bar to achieving wider participation. After all, 50 per cent of students do not pay fees, including those from low-income groups. Tuition fees do, however, form an important component of total university funding - up to £400 million a year - and we believe that students and parents who can afford to contribute to their children's higher education should do so.

But it is student maintenance that is at the heart of this debate. Loans can seem a substantial hurdle to debt-averse groups. A real rate of interest on loans, if adopted, and the fear of debt may put off the very people the government is targeting to enter higher education.

The current arrangements are also very confusing. In its recent submission to the government's 2002 spending review, UUK called for a simplified system of student support to replace the current plethora of schemes and to better target those in greatest need.

Support is also needed for universities. Widening participation incurs additional costs to universities and colleges. Raising aspirations and encouraging application to higher education costs money.

This is why in its spending review submission, UUK asked for £9.94 billion, which included an increased access premium of 20 per cent. Work done in this area is often dependent on initiative-based funding, yet widening participation is a mainstream activity that requires mainstream funding.

Higher education institutions have already gone some way to tackling these issues. UUK's 1998 report, From Elitism to Inclusion , provided evidence that the higher education sector was addressing social-inclusion. There will be a follow-up report in the new year. These reports identify and evaluate examples of good practice in widening access and so encourage institutions to do even more.

Which brings us back to the role of schools in the access debate. Aiming at the young and those with no aspiration to higher education puts a greater onus on preparing people for higher education at a younger age. Raising their aspirations, ensuring they remain in secondary education and equipping them with the qualifications and skills to benefit from advanced study must take place in schools.

Universities and colleges already play a part in this effort through many activities, from curriculum changes to summer schools, but a large part of the task is in the hands of schools. The New Opportunities for All Concordat, initiated by UUK, enables all parts of the education sector to work together to explore new ways to encourage those who are underrepresented to participate in higher education.

But more needs to be done. People from non-traditional backgrounds, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities remain underrepresented in higher education. This is where work on access now needs to be targeted. And this is why the extra money requested for access is a necessity, not an option.

Baroness Warwick is chief executive of Universities UK.

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