Opening higher education to under-represented social groups is perhaps the government's top priority for universities. It is a desirable goal with which, as Conservative spokesman Alistair Burt says, "none of us disagrees". But it is not easy to attain. University education has replaced land and lineage as the key to a comfortable life, and those already doing well invest heavily - via house prices or private fees - to secure their children's access to it. With places rationed because of cost, that determination results in today's social distortion.
This suggests the answer is to cut unit costs so that supply can be allowed to expand. When this was done in Poland ten years ago ( THES , December 21), student numbers almost quadrupled and opportunities became markedly more equal. Both policies are now in place in Britain. Fee and grant policies, however contentious, have cut costs to the taxpayer and expansion is back with the government's 50 per cent target.
Now to make it happen. Some responsibility rests with the government - for secondary education and support for poor students. But there is much higher education can do. To coincide with this week's National Audit Office reports, The THES has looked at those universities that do best at attracting poorer students to see if high dropout rates are a necessary corollary (they are not) and if some institutions do better than others at retaining such students (they do). What emerges is that those most successful are coherently managed for the benefit of students with consistent policies for support, remedial work and flexibility across the institution; with attention paid to staff training and teaching skills; and with opportunities provided for those staff who are good at research. This suggests that imposing diversity in the form of tiering, with research concentrated in a few institutions while others pursue the "access agenda", is not the answer. It would make social polarisation within the university system yet harder to shift. Instead the solution seems to lie with individual universities' management. Developing and implementing consistent and coherent policies across an institution is no easy business and may be unpalatable to many in higher education. It looks, however, like the least worst solution.
Guide to THES access elite stories
Scaling the heights: THES access elite table
Poor face a steep climb
Jacks of all trades pave the way to participation
Sheffield Hallam university
Institutions attacked for bias against poor
Hard-up white men continue to elude recruiters
US offers cash to lure poor to college