Switch access focus to schools, urges v-c

Tackling class inequalities early on will inspire more children to go to university. Melanie Newman reports

April 3, 2008

The hundreds of millions of pounds spent on universities' widening participation activities each year would be better spent in schools, a vice-chancellor said this week.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Gordon Marshall, the University of Reading head, said that diverting the resources into improving school staying-on rates and A-level results among working-class children would be more effective in tackling inequality in higher education.

"Instead of sending universities modest sums of money and asking them to reverse class inequalities in education very late in the process, it might be better to spend that money earlier and in ways that might prevent these inequalities emerging in quite such extreme forms," he said.

Eliminating the "class effect" in schools would do more to widen participation in higher education than tinkering with universities' admissions policies, Professor Marshall added. "We know that a lot of working-class children exit the system with five GCSEs at 16," he said. "Nothing you do to the university admissions system will affect this. If you spent the funds further back, you would get more for your money."

English universities will receive £364 million in widening participation funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2008-09. The money is earmarked to support "under-represented groups or those who are at greatest risk of not completing their studies".

Each year, institutions also spend £20 million of their income from top-up tuition fees on efforts to reach people from groups that are under-represented at university.

The Government separately spent an average of £100 million a year on its Aimhigher access initiative in the four years from 2004-05 to 2007-08, according to a parliamentary answer published in February.

But both Universities UK, in its report on the future size and shape of the sector published last month, and the Higher Education Policy Institute have pointed out that the proportion of students leaving school with suitable university entry qualifications is static.

The percentage of 17-year-olds achieving two A levels rose from 25 per cent in 1994 to 34 per cent in 2002, but then growth stalled. Hepi reported that the number in 2006 "was barely different from 2002".

Hepi said: "It is differential school achievement that determines participation in higher education. Social class is not the issue here - the disparity of entry to higher education simply reflects differences in school achievement."

David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Higher Education, said: "Raising standards in schools should not require reallocating money from universities. It is heroic of a vice-chancellor to volunteer cuts in the higher education budget, but I suspect he won't have many supporters."

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "Universities are key partners in Aimhigher, which enables schools, colleges and universities to collaborate on the design and delivery of higher-education-related attainment and aspiration-raising activities. We have agreed to this fund until 2011."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

WHAT OTHER SECTOR LEADERS SAY ABOUT PARTICIPATION FUNDING

Malcolm Grant, provost, University College London, and head of the Russell Group

"I agree with Gordon (Marshall). If the UK wants more people from non-traditional backgrounds in universities, it has to focus on their formative education. The university stage is too late. I believe, though, that v-cs have very different views on this point: that universities can assist in supporting school education."

Bahram Bekhradnia, director, Higher Education Policy Institute

"It would be depressing to think - and I don't for a moment believe - that universities might be unwilling to continue their outreach activities if money were not provided specifically for this."

John Cater, vice-chancellor, Edge Hill University

"Schools may well benefit from additional resources, but this certainly does not constitute an argument for transferring resources from the very institutions - the universities - who may be best placed to work to raise aspirations among pupils."

John Craven, vice-chancellor, Portsmouth University

"Much of the widening participation money received by universities is in recognition of the greater support needs of students from less privileged backgrounds. The money is not itself the incentive - it recognises the costs of having a successful widening-participation policy."

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