Swapping the ghetto for the gown

March 17, 2000

Last week Alison Goddard revealed how universities are

failing bright young, full-time

students from poor backgrounds. This week she asks if they are doing all they can to help mature, part-time students It takes a lot of courage to go back into education as a mature student. And some of the poorest who make the leap feel the government is putting barriers in their way.

Some 96 per cent of part-time students in higher education are mature. The government is seeking to expand the number of part-time students, with another 18,000 places being allocated for next year. Yet universities and colleges are significantly failing to attract those mature students from poor neighbourhoods who have no previous higher education qualifications.

"Seven per cent of mature entrants to part-time undergraduate courses come from low-participation neighbourhoods (and have no previous higher education qualification)," stated the funding councils' report of performance indicators published last year.

"Most institutions take less than 10 per cent from low-participation neighbourhoods, and very few take over 20 per cent. This contrasts markedly with the position for full-time students (where 14 per cent of mature students come from low-participation neighbourhoods), and needs to be investigated further."

Two institutions cater exclusively for part-time students: The Open University and Birkbeck College, London. The OU is the largest, with about 125,000 undergraduates. Some 80 per cent are in full-time work.

For 36 per cent of OU undergraduates starting courses in 1998, the highest qualifications are those taken aged 16, according to OU figures. The percentage of students with these qualifications has not changed in recent years, although the absolute numbers have increased from 14,500 in 1995 to 18,000 in 1998. The university is not seeking to increase the proportion of its undergraduates with low previous education qualifications, although it expects numbers to rise as the OU expands.

Last month, the OU was given Pounds 3.8 million for expanding student numbers in the coming academic year. The OU was unhappy with the funding - it had bid for twice as much.

"There seems to be a remarkable number of places going to full-time places when part-time is known to enable access," said Geoff Peters, pro vice-chancellor.

"The Open University asked for 2,000 extra full-time equivalent places next year, but it has only got 1,000. We are now telling faculties they have got to scale down the number of extra students they were hoping to recruit next year."

Just 5 per cent of the 6,500 mature students who enrolled at Birkbeck College in 1997 had no previous qualification and came from a poor neighbourhood. Given its subject mix, Birkbeck should be attracting twice as many to meet the national benchmark - a measure of the state of access at present rather than a target that institutions should aim for. It bid for 400 additional places for next year but has not received any.

Traditionally, universities have seen access courses as a way of attracting into higher education students with no or low-level qualifications. Yet national studies of access courses as long ago as the early 1990s revealed that such courses under-recruited from lower socioeconomic groups.

The THES visited City of Bristol College, where Jane Wills, head of access, recognised the problem. "Access is increasingly becoming an acceptable route for middle-class kids who dropped out of A levels to go to university at 21," she said.

Nevertheless, there were striking differences between the types of students who enrolled on the college's access courses in different subject areas.

First, very few men were recruited on to any of the access courses. Ms Wills estimates that men have never formed more than 35 per cent of enrolments and that the proportion has declined over the years. "Men feel more threatened and are less likely to put themselves in a position where they could make a fool of themselves," she said.

Second, between subjects there was a distinct difference between the backgrounds of access students. Twenty-four-year-old Sonja Gingell is on an access to social work course. She said: "I got pregnant straight after school when I was 16. I got married and then I had two more daughters. I felt that educationally, I had been left on the shelf."

Ms Gingell lives in a deprived community. She decided to take action and is now heavily involved in community activities.She established a play scheme for children with behavioural problems and has been recruited to conduct research in the community on behalf of social workers and development officers. Through community groups, she heard about the access course, and she now studies for 16 hours a week. Her two eldest daughters are in school and the youngest attends a nursery at the college.

Finding time to study is not easy, and the financial costs are high. Ms Gingell and others enrolled on the same access course are not entitled to student loans, although the college does make money available from its access fund.

"My husband and I are on low incomes and by the time we have paid the bills, it is as if we were on benefits. We live very basically - I don't go out, I don't spend money on myself and we have never been on holiday," she said.

The women enrolled on another course - access to combined studies courses - came from much wealthier, though in some cases dysfunctional, families. Some were privately educated and had drifted after completing school. The access course offered them a second chance.

"My qualifications are not a reflection of my abilities. I want to stimulate my brain and achieve what I am capable of achieving," said 37-year-old Louise Owen, who took her O levels early and left her small private school for the local comprehensive, where she did not cope well with the change. Ms Owen worked as a nurse for several years before the breakdown of her marriage gave her the opportunity to enrol on the access course.

Matty Tidbury, aged 26, is taking the course to regain her confidence after dropping out of a psychology degree at the University of Bath. She has suffered from anorexia nervosa for years, which has caused her to be hospitalised.

The women enrolled on initial teacher training access courses were much more driven. "I watched my daughter's teacher at school and I thought that I could do better than that," said one, who asked not to be named.

"I don't want to be on benefits all my life. I have seen my parents struggle. My dad cleans toilets for the council, but my mum is in her first year at university to become a nurse - it's what she has always wanted to do.

"My brother and sister are in dead-end jobs and cannot afford to give them up to go into education. None of my family is educated, but none is stupid either. It takes a lot of courage (to go back into education)," she said.

Another complained bitterly that the country is supposed to need teachers, not single mothers on benefits, but that, in attempting to move from one category to the other, she was facing difficulties in identifying the financial support to which she was entitled and calculating whether it would be sufficient.

"I want to go to university but the government keeps putting barriers in the way. It's so hard; it's mentally exhausting," she said.

This lack of joined-up thinking by government also bothers staff in the centre for continuing education at the University of Bradford.

The university offers a two-year part-time course that leads to a certificate in higher education in inner-city access. The course covers subject areas on understanding modern society, including sociology, history and politics. It also offers study skills and modules that deal specifically with the problems faced by inner cities.

Linda Davies is unemployed but wants to be a teacher. She dropped out of a course at the University of Huddersfield - "we were treated like youngsters," she complained. Successful completion of the access course would lead her into the second year of a degree in social and economic studies.

The university keeps the cost of the access course artificially low at Pounds 86 a year, and offers financial assistance and reduced tuition fees for people on benefits. Yet students on the course struggle financially.

"There are wider issues that need addressing if communities are to have real equality in education and choices. These include the nature of benefits and the effects of the Jobseeker's Allowance," said Nadia Mriza, a project officer at Bradford.

Universities and colleges must woo mature students if they are to meet government targets for expansion. It is expected that the bulk of the expansion will be achieved through the introduction of two-year degrees, which will be available from September 2001.

In contrast to the female-dominated ranks of access students, the City of Bristol College has attracted mature, male students on to a two-year full-time Higher National Diploma in aircraft maintenance engineering.

Egyptian-born Nady Hanafy said: "I want to get a degree. Before I applied for this course, I went to the University of the West of England to ask them whether they take students from this college. I can do two years here and another two years at UWE to get a degree."

Mr Hanafy's dream job would be teaching, perhaps training aeronautical engineering students in the aircraft industries, but at 45 years old, time is not on his side.

Carl Hamilton, 28 years old, is enrolled on the same course. After leaving school, he completed an apprenticeship with Rover in Birmingham then worked for them for nine years. "You would have to be blind not to see what's happening to the industry," he said, so he decided to come back to college. "I had looked at what else I could do as an engineer and decided that I wanted to move into aircraft maintenance."

But it will take much more creative approaches for institutions truly to succeed at making higher education attractive to all who could benefit .

Anita Gallati is employed by four higher education institutions and eight colleges in the South-West plus local employers and regional government bodies. With colleagues Candida Weston and Emma King, she wants to encourage people into education through using community-based groups.

"I don't think policy-makers appreciate the difficulties in getting people on the margins even to countenance any learning, let alone higher education. A lot of people aren't the least bit interested in education. Our work has to change values," she said.

"We are not necessarily talking about a generation. For example, a college tutor recently spent some time on a housing estate in Weston-super-Mare, working in a health centre alongside health visitors. They advertised free baby photos and about 35 women turned up with their babies.

"The tutor then asked the women what they wanted in life, and they asked for an hour free from the kids. So we set up a creche and a coffee morning. Gradually, over several months, the mothers started to say that they were worried that when their children went to school, they wouldn't be able to help with their maths homework.

"The young mums didn't even know they were doing an accredited course until six weeks later when they got the certificate. Two years down the line, eight of the women have gone on to college and one has gone into higher education."

OPENINGS OFFER A WAY IN TO The Open University

The Open University set up its centre for widening participation last year. From May, the centre will offer short "openings" courses to give potential students a taste of higher education.

"The concept of 'openings' is important. People can start in education in a way which is not threatening and which allows them to test out where they want to go," said Chris Baker, director of the centre.

"We are seeking to introduce supported open learning to students from under-represented groups, to build

a bridge from further education to higher education, and to enable such students to succeed in higher education," he said.

Students will have a choice of three courses offering an introduction to the arts, the social sciences and the sciences. Course material is posted to the student, each of whom is allocated a personal tutor who contacts the student weekly by phone.

"Students who are reluctant and under-confident can find coming into an institution quite intimidating. Using the telephone, we can introduce them to supported open learning and this will be particularly good for students who have difficulties leaving the house or who have caring responsibilities," said Mr Baker.

Priced at Pounds 50 each, the courses are designed to appeal

to people on low incomes. One-third of the places to be filled

in May will be free to people receiving state benefits. These places will be paid for from

The Open University's own coffers.

"One of the difficulties is unlocking funding despite all the rhetoric about more flexible study. The whole idea is to make education available when and where it is wanted," said Mr Baker. The OU is trying to persuade the Further Education Funding Council to contribute towards the costs.

The OU has delegated responsibility for identifying and targeting groups that would benefit from the "openings" courses. Outreach activities include handing out

flyers in local shopping centres. Recruitment to the courses will be

monitored, as will the progression into higher education.

So far, some 800

students have expressed an interest in starting a short course this May. The courses will run every two months, and the university is aiming to enrol 3,500 students on the programme by the end of December. Teaching, page 36

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