Horses for courses

January 25, 2002

Geoff Layer applauds a government initiative to promote a greater variety of learning experiences.

Higher education is continually urged to be more inclusive but demand is at best steady. Interestingly, the government has been making noises about different types and flavours of higher education that it may begin to recognise. But it needs to hold firm in its commitment to 50 per cent participation and social inclusivity if it is to ensure that the learning society plays a key role in social and economic regeneration.

The past five years of Labour rule have seen a relatively crude approach to developing more socially inclusive universities, ranging from changing admissions practices to the creation of more higher education places.

Unfortunately someone forgot to brief the learners: places are unfilled and demand is being outstripped by supply. The problem is not just financial. A look at the participation levels for the peak period for grants does not show buoyant participation rates among the lowest socioeconomic groups.

The focus on young people entering higher education direct from school on a full-time degree course assumed that this was required to meet the skills needs and aspirations of the target groups. But just because "middle England" regards higher education as being about full-time degrees does not mean that this is the best model for everyone.

The Excellence Challenge is a classic example of the government's approach. It was designed to bring the inner cities into partnership with universities and increase the number of young full-time undergraduates in the lowest-performing boroughs. But anyone who works in the inner cities will tell you that the majority of the people in the 14-19 age group who are most likely to change their view of higher education are those who are the most likely to apply anyway.

The scheme will help them to attain at higher levels, but it will not change the make-up of the sector as a whole, although it may change some universities.

The real challenge is to address the really young and their parents at an age when minds can still be influenced. To do this, we need more successful role models from the targeted communities. This is why education and skills secretary Estelle Morris's two recent changes of tack - moving the widening-participation focus away solely from getting underrepresented groups to university to helping them to succeed once they are there, and recognising learning through work-related and part-time study - are so welcome.

The first moves us away from a culture focusing on "these people can join us" to one that forces us to ensure that our approaches and cultures do not themselves promote non-participation or lack of success.

Too often we hear that widening participation leads to lower standards. This reinforces the culture that the system and curriculum we have is not for those in the target groups. It is only by seeking to develop an inclusive curriculum and support structure that builds on where the student is that real change will begin.

Of course, standards need to be maintained, but that does not mean no change. Once we have more role models and peer group successes, we will begin to generate the demand that will lead to change and be able to influence the minds within some of the most disadvantaged communities.

Morris's brave approach is likely to have far more effect than yet another scheme to promote the importance of higher education within a community that regards it as being for someone else. But she needs to go further and include employability as an initiative. Research shows that graduates from minority ethnic groups are more likely to be unemployed than white graduates. This is likely to be the same for graduates from low socioeconomic groups and should be addressed with institutions and employers, otherwise targeted groups will ask whether higher education is worth the investment.

The second key change is not new, but its shift up the agenda could really tackle social inclusion as it enables individuals to study and pay in a manner that is more appropriate. Crucially, though, it will lead to change in both the curriculum and learner support approaches.

So let us give a big welcome to Morris's change of direction, but hope at the same time that the emphasis on widening participation will not lead to funding cuts in other areas, such as research.

Geoff Layer is professor of lifelong learning and dean of the school of lifelong education and development at the University of Bradford.

How can universities be more socially inclusive?

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