Poor still slipping behind

November 12, 1999

Widening participation strategies for further and higher education have increased the gap in achievement between the poorest in society and the better-off majority, according to a new report.

The House of Commons' education select committee report, published on Wednesday, says that the gap between the educational "haves" and the "have-nots" has widened despite 20 years of widening participation.

MPs took this as the theme for their 54-page report, Access for All? The report welcomes the overall increase in most forms of post-compulsory participation but says that because some groups - such as the poorest in society - have made relatively slower progress, the gap has spread.

Loans for part-time higher education students would help narrow the gap. Echoing a submission from the Coalition of Modern Universities, the report says: "Part-time study is of greater importance in higher education, perhaps... because it is a mode of study that suits many 'non-traditional' learners whom the government are keen to see encouraged."

It says that the amount of the loan could be pro rata depending on the time taken on the course and that the same means-testing could apply to part timers' tuition fee contributions as to full-time students.

MPs also discussed the possible impact of the government's decision to scrap maintenance grants and allow tuition fees for home undergraduates, as well as the general lack of financial support for further education students.

The report concludes that it is too early to draw firm conclusions about the introduction of fees in higher education, despite much of the evidence submitted to the committee.

The Association of University Teachers, the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, the Further Education Development Agency, HiPact, lecturers' union Natfhe and the Engineering Council all said the costs of studying in further and higher education were barriers to some people.

Most of the other recommendations in the report relate to the Learning to Succeed white paper. This proposes a single post-16 funding agency with a strategic role in planning a more seamless post-compulsory sector. The white paper excluded higher education.

The select committee's other recommendations include:

A balance in resourcing must be kept between the skills and labour market agenda and learning and the social exclusion agenda

Better information and guidance for learners

A level playing field for the funding of comparable learning across the post-16 sector, including the ending of differences between the funding of school sixth forms and further education colleges

A broader interpretation of what learning is eligible for public funding. This might include a wider range of informal and community-based learning

More creative schemes to encourage learning by the unemployed

An extension of individual learning accounts to the unemployed

More steps to solve problems caused for learners by poor transport and by geographical factors

More money for child-care provision across the post-16 sector. Further education colleges should be encouraged to devote more money from the access funds to extend such provision

More universities and colleges should enter compacts with local schools to reach those young people who tend to rule out college and university at an early age

Greater efforts to change adults' attitudes towards learning

Particular attention should be paid to learning in the community and to family-learning schemes, with employers in a key role

Television and other media should be used to promote the learning message. This might include campaigns using pop and film stars and sporting heroes.

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