Home truths: the best education isn't always the farthest away

The Russell Group must not be the only focus for widening access, says Pamela Taylor. Local provision is a good fit for many students

October 23, 2008

An unhelpful message resurfaced in a recent Downing Street-commissioned report on widening access to higher education from the National Council for Educational Excellence.

It was a variation on a theme that has been developed and disseminated by the Government through ministers' comments and policy announcements over the past few months.

Schools are being urged to encourage more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for places at "the most selective universities".

This is the first recommendation in a report whose overall focus on raising aspirations and improving information, advice and guidance for prospective students has rightfully won sector-wide support.

But taken together with recent government initiatives and ministerial comments, it seems inevitable that the message that will prevail is that too many bright, underprivileged pupils are missing out on a chance to study at research-led universities.

Already, many of these "leading" universities have been persuaded to join a recruitment programme designed to attract more such prospective students. Schools have been accused of failing to encourage enough of them to apply to the "selecting" universities, thus hampering their earning power after graduation.

Meanwhile, other policy developments such as allowing students with better-than-expected A levels to "trade up" for a place at a "better" university have reinforced the idea that every student should be aiming to get into a Russell Group university.

The overall message being broadcast to teachers and pupils alike is that studying at a research-led university is the only higher education experience that has any value.

The problem with these campaigns is that they are misdirected as well as ill-conceived. Even if they succeed in their aims, they are likely to get a positive response from only a relatively small number of students who were already thinking about applying to university.

A much bigger and more difficult target is the significantly larger number of young people who are not even considering entering higher education. New research commissioned by Newman University College has shown that a lot more needs to be done to persuade these young people of the personal as well as the economic benefits of studying for a higher education qualification.

Debt aversion looms very large for them and their families and is cited as a major reason for choosing not to go to university. These are students who already have level-three qualifications with good outcomes. But they are daunted by financial and practical considerations, such as how flexible courses are, what support there is for part-time study, and whether they can study locally. Students in the research sample said they wanted to remain in their own communities, find a job and continue to lead a life they enjoyed. What they did not always realise was that they could do all this and go to a local university.

Of course there will be some potential students for whom an internationally focused, research-led university is absolutely the right place to study. But there are many, many more who need something more flexible that fits better with their personal circumstances and provides them with more support.

The Government runs the risk of missing the point of higher education as a way of reducing disadvantage when it seeks to focus its policies on a small group of highly able students, some of whom have made a considered choice to study locally.

Rather than just trying to ensure that a few exceptional students get into Oxbridge colleges, we should be encouraging every young person to consider the benefits of higher education.

But we won't do it by offering more of the same. Courses will need to become more flexible and integrate better with the world of work. That is why institutions such as my own and other members of the representative body GuildHE are focusing so much on these areas.

But we will also need more creative funding methodologies, better advice and guidance for students, and a commitment by the Government of the day, employers and institutions to provide ongoing support and lifelong access to learning.

Particularly as times get harder, higher education has never been more critical to the country's success. And it has also never been more important to focus on the right target.

The majority of students are not going to find their way into universities that set their entry bar at five A grades to protect their place in the world league tables. But if the country does not tell young people that all good higher education is a prize worth winning, some might simply choose not to bother.

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