No more have-nots

March 9, 2001

Poorer pupils are put off HE by a system geared to the middle class. John Beckett argues for change.

What does widening participation really mean? I pose the question as the widening participation/Excellence Challenge agenda is clearly at a defining moment. I say this as a higher education adviser working in an inner-city North London sixth-form college. The evidence I have is not anecdotal; it is based on surveys of where our students apply, what and where they end up studying and what they say to me about their experiences. Unfortunately, what I have seen and heard thus far is not encouraging, although there are some excellent initiatives and some determined people trying to change things.

On the plus side, there are some initiatives that are successfully broadening my students' awareness of what is possible and, indeed, offering them places on degree courses. The Oxford FE Colleges link is doing this and Cambridge is following suit. The Excellence in Cities Summer Schools, while dogged with administration problems in the first year, have revolutionised some students' (and some lecturers') aspirations.

But all is not well. Actions, or lack of them, are speaking louder than words. At my college -City and Islington -numbers applying for 2001 entry to higher education have actually gone down for the first time since the great expansion in the mid-1990s. More than 50 per cent of our cohort have applied to just 14 London universities. Only one of the top 20 choices is outside a 50-mile radius of London. We know that 86 per cent of our 1999 leavers are now studying within that radius. Of the 14 per cent outside, 63 per cent are white (only 25 per cent of our cohort are white) with more than half from professional backgrounds.

We still have an alarming lack of success with some of the more traditional universities -only eight out of 268 who started higher education last autumn attend London School of Economics, Imperial College, London, University College London and King's College, London. No one is at Manchester or Birmingham and there is only one student at Leeds. Suitably qualified students are applying, but the chances of getting an offer from UCL last year were 6 per cent (four places gained from 70 applicants) and 0 per cent at King's (none from 44 applicants). Numbers applying for deferred entry for 2002 have declined by 42 per cent this year, not through lack of interest but rather a lack of finance, which would make the traditional gap year possible. Lack of proper financial support is causing these students, the very ones the Excellence Challenge is aimed at, to restrict their options and to feel that they are continuing their education because it is a necessary evil rather than a positive desire.

A culture change needs to happen. Twenty-first century higher education has to be different from the 20th-century version if it is to attract non-traditional applicants and, just as important in my view, keep all options open for everyone. Three things strike me as being fundamental to this.

First, a review and reassessment of student funding. Whatever any politician reading this might think, it is not tuition fees that are the problem or loans the answer, it is the lack of a grant, which acts as an enormous disincentive to students thinking positively about higher education. Opportunity bursaries may scratch the surface, but are a bureaucratic nightmare. Loans and borrowing were always a middle-class solution, completely misunderstanding how non-traditional students and their families feel about the concept of debt.

Second, the elite and traditional universities have to give widening participation a high status among their staff in their institutions. It is they who have to change and look to the new universities for models of good practice. It is good to know that there is a widening participation group within the Russell Group.

Third, admissions tutors need a higher status and proper training -it cannot be the short straw in an academic department. If it is 50 per cent inclusion we are aiming at, then the gatekeepers have to get to grips with the nature and backgrounds of those applying.

We are in danger of creating a dual system, where the haves choose their courses, universities and gap years from the complete range on offer while the have-nots stay at home and have restricted choices and access. The Excellence Challenge is the opportunity to start to correct a system that is patently unfair in denying equal opportunity. We cannot miss it; it may be the last chance.

John Beckett is a freelance higher education adviser working in London.

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