Reaching out to make society just

May 12, 2000

David Blunkett unveils a seven-point plan to bring more people from all backgrounds into higher education.

At the University of Greenwich earlier this year, I spelt out my determination that the entrenched exclusion of large sections of the population from higher education must end and that the sector must become a force for social justice.

For most of the past century, higher education acted to cement social stratification. In 1965, only 7.3 per cent of young people entered higher education. University students were predominantly young men, and only 4 per cent of students were aged over 25. Today, of course, more than a third of young people enter higher education, mature students make up the majority of the student population and women outnumber men. But relative participation rates of different socioeconomic groups, as well as those with disabilities, and some ethnic minority groups, remain strikingly and unacceptably low.

Only 17 per cent of young people from lower social income groups entered full-time higher education in 1998, compared with 45 per cent from social classes I, II and III (non-manual). Your chances of entering higher education if you come from a disadvantaged background are dramatically lower than if you come from a prosperous one. And while much of this difference in the probability of entering higher education can be explained by differences in A-level achievement, that is not the whole story.

The proportion of state school entrants is less than half in some institutions, and those from further education colleges far lower. Ten institutions take less than 5 per cent of young students from low-participation areas. Fourteen institutions take less than 5 per cent of mature students from these areas, whereas one took some 30 per cent.

So this is an access challenge to both government and universities. Unless it is met, our efforts to build a just and prosperous society will be held back. In a knowledge-driven economy, earnings returns accrue to those with skills, particularly high-level skills. Moreover, higher education bestows the cultural capital, values and knowledge that are increasingly important to active civic and democratic participation in the ethical and political debates that shape our lives. This is not about quotas or lowering thresholds. That would be wholly wrong. Nor is it about fees and loans: student numbers are up and social class participation rates have remained steady. It is simply about ensuring that people from all backgrounds who have the ability to benefit can participate successfully in higher education.

For the government, the most important contribution is to raise levels of achievement in schools and colleges, which we are tackling through our standards drive. But there is much more we can do to bridge the gap between school and university. We have never in this country had in place the sort of structured, mainstream access programmes that the United States has had since the 1960s - from Upward Bound to the current federal Gear Up programme. These programmes fund structured interventions that engage universities in deprived communities, building links to young people in their teenage years and supporting them in successful progress to college education. We can learn lessons from these programmes and use them to draw together the policies and best practice currently in place. This will enable us, from next year, to secure the foundations of a structured access programme. There are seven key challenges we will address.

First, we will systematically intervene to target under-represented groups through area-based strategies, specifically through Excellence in Cities and other programmes. In addition, it is important that all schools and colleges identify pupils who have potential but need extra help.

Second, we will engage parents and mentors. Mentoring programmes are being expanded in Excellence in Cities areas, and these will work with students who need help and support to succeed. Extra tuition will be provided and summer schools will be expanded to give young people in deprived areas a familiarity with college life. I announced earlier this week a grant of Pounds 63,000 this financial year to support a number of initiatives run by Peter Lampl's Sutton Trust.

Third, we are reforming qualifications, to secure greater breadth at advanced level and higher status for vocational qualifications, and to provide a platform for entry to higher education. It is crucial that admissions tutors accept and welcome the new qualifications. There will also be pioneering two-year foundation degrees and graduate apprenticeships to widen choices for students and enhance the vocational route.

Fourth, we will enhance careers advice. We are piloting a new advice service - Connexions - for all 13 to 19-year-olds, which will give extra support through personal advisers to those who need help to stay in or get back into learning. This service will be progressively extended nationally from April 2001.

Fifth, we need to reform the image of universities and their admissions procedures. There must be institutional commitment to widening access across the sector as a whole, including the provision of dedicated staffing. All universities must benchmark their performance against the indicators published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and put in place strategies to improve. We will also provide new resources for widening participation. Hefce funding now reflects the extra efforts required by staff to support the pastoral and study skills needs of disadvantaged, mature, part-time and disabled students. Potentially the most effective is the premium paid for students from areas with historically low rates of participation in higher education. It is my intention to boost the premium this year with a further Pounds 4 million to reach many more students. I will announce further details shortly. Funding for future years will depend on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review.

Sixth, we will secure a seamless system of fair student finance. We are already expanding educational maintenance allowances for 16 to 17-year-olds in deprived areas, and in January I announced extra measures to help mature students, particularly those with children. I can also announce that disabled students allowances of up to Pounds 5,000 will be extended to postgraduates from this coming aca-demic year onwards.

Finally, I also intend to provide new "opportunity bursaries" for young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. With an initial Pounds 10 million a year, we will offer bursaries of up to Pounds 1,000 each to potential students. These will build on the excellent work already being done by the Robert Ogden Trust in South Yorkshire, and by many individual universities through widening access schemes. The key is that the bursary will be committed early - while the students are still making up their minds.

Our scheme will start in 2001-02 as a pilot, initially in Excellence in Cities areas, but with the objective that all universities mainstream this approach in due course. The scheme will form an integral part of the strategic measures outlined above. Higher education will have to respond enthusiastically to target groups. They must become institutionally committed to the programme, working with schools, colleges, the Connexions service and others, to identify and support potential students. Only then will we be able to say that higher education is a vehicle for social justice.

David Blunkett, secretary of state for education, this week addressed the annual council of the Association of University Teachers in Eastbourne.

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