Research findings published this month by the Sutton Trust confirm what those of us who really care about widening participation have known for some time – students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to enter higher education if they can find the right course for them at a local institution.
Few will be surprised to learn from the report Knowing Where to Study? Fees, Bursaries and Fair Access that debt aversion is driving a growing proportion of prospective students to consider studying locally, with three quarters of them planning to live at home. This is consistent with a general trend over the past decade in which students in each new cohort have been studying closer to home – five miles a year, on average.
Should this worry us? Clearly, students who feel for whatever reason that their options are confined to the local area are at a disadvantage compared with those whose circumstances and grades allow them to search the sector for an appropriate course. The report’s conclusion that predominantly middle-class youngsters who have attended an independent school are much more likely to apply to a university outside their local area should, once again, surprise no one. Almost all these students benefit from having parents who have experienced a university education, and they have comparatively few financial worries.
Such a divide is inequitable and therefore undesirable. But if finance and related educational opportunities are the main reason for it, we can expect that demand for local higher education will continue to rise – particularly if institutions and policymakers are serious about attracting more students from working-class families, black and minority ethnic groups, and those who are first in their family to enter higher education. Obviously the best situation would be for all students of whatever background to think sector-wide when choosing a course. But perhaps we should accept that for a significant proportion of students, studying locally is always going to be the preferred option.
Much has been done in recent years to provide education closer to home in many parts of the country. Examples include the Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative or the recent formation of the University of Cumbria. But that is addressing the supply side of the access equation only. One of the biggest problems identified in the Sutton Trust report is that prospective students from the poorest backgrounds have the most difficulty getting to grips with the complex financial support systems that have emerged since the introduction of top-up fees. It does not help that bursaries are in many cases spread so thinly that they have little value, and are therefore unlikely to persuade many people who are debt-averse that entering higher education is not too much of a financial risk.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps the most important recommendation in the report is that schools should make pupils aware much earlier of the financial implications and long-term benefits of studying in higher education. This is already beginning to happen in collaboration with higher education institutions. Universities that work with schoolchildren are more likely to persuade the wary and the inexperienced that higher education is for them than institutions that just wait for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms to roll in. Engaging with children from primary age, and with their parents, gives universities and schools many more years to work through the issues – financial, educational, cultural and social. It also increases the chances of matching prospective students to the right courses, thus reducing the possibility that they will not complete.
The fact that this kind of work happens only locally and probably encourages more students to study at a local institution is by no means a bad thing. Some of the media coverage of the Sutton Trust report might be taken to imply that locally focused higher education equates to low quality and poor levels of attainment. But this is a misconception. “Stay local, go far” was the slogan for one institution’s recent drive to widen participation among first-to-go and black and minority ethnic families, and there is evidence that this is a realistic goal for many students. That is why it is so important to maintain diversity in our higher education system. We must continue to work towards providing enough support and choice for people who don’t want to have massive debt, don’t want to leave or move far away from home, but do want to progress beyond their family’s attainment levels towards the better life that having a degree can bring.