UK told to look to India for a lesson in access

May 15, 2008

The vice-chancellor of one of the UK's leading widening access universities has said that lessons can be learnt from the expansion under way in Indian higher education.

Caroline Gipps of the University of Wolverhampton was among a delegation of vice-chancellors on a two-day trip to India in April. She described what was happening there as the largest widening participation scheme anywhere.

"We may well have lessons to learn from India's approach, because they have the biggest widening access programme in the world," she said.

"They are doing this without talking about it very much because they are anxious not to lose their reputation for quality, but I suspect there may be some very interesting things going on there that we could find out about.

"For example, Jawaharal Nehru University (in Delhi) has for many years given extra grade points in its admission system to students from poor backgrounds.

"That positive discrimination has been quite overt, and this is something that the Russell Group and ministers here are grappling with at the moment."

One of the Indian Government's access initiatives is a quota system that reserves about half of all places at public universities for students from poor backgrounds.

"When (Indian universities) bring students in from 'backward castes', as they call them, they will have a whole semester of preparation work," Professor Gipps said.

"We all do extra work with our students when they come in, but the Indians give them a whole semester.

"I don't think we need to do anything quite as extreme, but it's always helpful to look at others who are perhaps a bit different, but from whom one can learn things."

Rick Trainor, the chairman of Universities UK, was also on the trip. He said: "Each side has something to learn from the other. There has been a great deal of success in British higher education in broadening access, and now India is attempting a very substantial social broadening of higher education."

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