Unequal opportunities, a universitry challenge

March 10, 2000

Universities, by and large, badly serve the poor and minorities. Alison Goddard visits one trying hard to remove barriers and another struggling to attract non-traditional students

Britain's universities are failing bright young students from poor backgrounds. One in three young people comes from a poor neighbourhood. Only one in eight young full-time undergraduates hails from such an area.

The poor are not over-represented at a single institution in the whole of the United Kingdom. Just one, the University of Paisley, took one in three of its young undergraduates from under-represented neighbourhoods in 1997-98, according to performance indicators produced by the funding councils last year. At the other end of the scale, the University of Bristol took 3.6 per cent of its students from this group.

Maggie Woodrow, head of the European Access Network at the University of Westminster, said: "It is not the proper function of higher education to perpetuate the class system. The purpose is to enable everyone who is capable of benefiting from higher education to achieve their full potential. Universities say they are not in favour of social engineering but that is exactly what they are doing - perpetuating the class system."

By definition, lack of money is the main obstacle to poor students who might otherwise enter university, Ms Woodrow added. Many children aged 16 must contribute to their household's income.

Moreover, Ms Woodrow said, there is an aversion to debt, particularly in low-income families who believe that it is not worth getting into debt just for an education.

"The reaction is that he or she cannot run up a debt before he or she has even got a job. When you say this to politicians, they point out that people who were averse to debt in the past now have mortgages. But if you want young people to go into higher education you have to meet them on their terms, to listen to them and to adapt," said Ms Woodrow.

While there is little universities can do to address such cases - Ms Woodrow looks to government to re-introduce maintenance grants for the poorest students - there are many other barriers that universities could lift. Aside from finance, there are three main barriers, according to Ms Woodrow:

Ignorance, exacerbated by marketing strategies that focus on the middle classes

Lack of aspirations and confidence: parents, schools and advisers convince young people that higher education is not for them

Lack of traditional entry qualifications, exacerbated by universities not considering non-traditional qualifications.

"Successful strategies for increasing participation by young people from lower socioeconomic groups can be found in institutions of all kinds, but they are relatively rare," concluded From Elitism to Inclusion, a Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals report written by Ms Woodrow some 18 months ago.

The THES visited institutions across Britain and spoke to young people from low socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities.

Real progress at Bradford

The University of Bradford is acknowledged as a leader in widening participation. Yet even so, it is underachieving in its stated mission of "confronting inequality: celebrating diversity". It boasts that 15 per cent of its young full-time students came from the poorest neighbourhoods in 1997-98. This compares well with a national figure of 13 per cent, based on a funding council analysis of the postcode of the family home and adjusted for the subject mix offered by the university.

However, there is no local figure with which to make a comparison. The university is doing well, but not quite as well in a local comparison of students who come from ethnic minorities. In the 1991 census, ethnic minorities formed 15 per cent of Bradford's population. The vast majority were of Asian origin, mostly from Pakistan. Bradford District Council estimates that ethnic minorities form 18 per cent of the population, and by 2011 will account for 26 per cent.

University figures show that in 1997-98, 17 per cent of first-year full-time undergraduates came from the ethnic minorities.

There is some evidence that the number of local students is rising. More first-years have local postcodes than earlier recruits: 17 per cent of full-time undergraduates starting in 1997-98 had local postcodes. The figure for second and third-years was 15 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

Nationwide, more students now attend a local university. This trend is likely to continue as the proportion of part-time students rises. Lifelong learners will increase the pool of local students.

Institutions in deprived areas would do well to look at how they might increase their local appeal.

The University of Bradford is seeking to raise awareness of higher education in the city.

Nadira Mirza, a former youth worker, is employed by the university to promote awareness of higher education among Bradford's Asian community.

She has links with many different community groups, including the Bangladeshi Youth Outreach, the Manningham Park Young Men's Centre and the Asian Women and Girls' Centre, also based in Manningham, scene of the Bradford riots five years ago.

"The statistics relating to educational participation and attainment in Bradford are telling, with underachievement endemic," Ms Mirza said. "To ensure a more inclusive society, the university needs to work in partnership with key providers and communities to ensure that aspirations, participation and attainment are raised."

Cabinet member Peter Mandelson said at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth last year that equality of opportunity was not enough: there needed to be equality of aspiration.

The university's strategy involves targeting children at schools that do not have outstanding academic records. For the past six years, the university has run a programme for children who have ability but no family background in higher education. It aims to encourage children to stay at school post-16 and to consider higher education as an option. The project involves eight local schools and eight higher education institutions, including the University of Huddersfield, the University of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan, Manchester Metropolitan, Sheffield Hallam and Trinity and All Saints College.

The project works through a four-year programme of graded activities and visits that raise awareness. Staff from the university meet the parents of teenagers in a neutral venue to outline application procedures and present financial arrangements. Current students who came from that community - both white working class and ethnic minority - are on hand to answer any questions.

Those potential students who then apply to the university have their applications flagged, to draw attention to the commitment they have made in the preceding four years.

The numbers applying to the University of Bradford have more than doubled in the past five years, from 54 to 118. At the same time, the number of registrations has gone from ten to 48.

Bradford also runs a junior university on Saturday afternoons throughout the year, which provides homework help for 13 to 17-year-olds, plus a two-week programme over the summer. It is aimed at those who have not been able to obtain the necessary skills at school or at home. Pupils hear of the junior university through local schools, community groups and word of mouth. More than 200 students registered last year.

Sue Edmonson runs Bradford's student tutoring scheme, in which students spend a couple of hours a week as classroom assistants in local schools. Some local students return to their old schools, becoming role models. But the new financial arrangements for students mean that they do not have the time to volunteer. "The number of students coming forward is down because students have to spend more time working," Ms Edmondson said.

Staff at Bradford also teach youngsters at the local Foyer - one of a nationwide network of centres that provide safe accommodation coupled with education and training opportunities to young people who would otherwise be homeless. No one has yet progressed from the Foyer to the university, but staff are hopeful.

But they concede that there would be difficulties with such progression. The student would have to raise enough funding to support him or herself through university, and would probably no longer be entitled to live at the Foyer. Any new accommodation would have to be year-round since there would be no parental home to return to during the holidays.

False hopes at Bristol

The problems of low expectation are widespread. The THES visited City of Bristol College to find out about its students. "There is a Sikh girl in the second year, and she is the brightest of the bunch. She is watching all her friends go to the University of the West of England and she has not applied - it's as though her family think she has had enough education for a girl," said Ralph Power, who teaches advanced GNVQs at the college.

Asked why she chose to take an advanced GNVQ instead of A levels, 17-year-old Sonia joked: "That's the thing: we've got to keep up the Asian reputation."

Many City of Bristol students take advanced GNVQs because they wish to concentrate on a single subject and prefer assessment by coursework to exams.

"With A levels, you can take it easy until exam time, and you can get lazy. With an advanced GNVQ, you haven't got that option," said 17-year-old Jayed, who is working towards an advanced GNVQ in business.

For those who want to progress into higher education, however, taking advanced GNVQs rather than A levels can be a hindrance.

Many of the students at City of Bristol College would like to study locally, particularly Asian women.Yet despite publicity over the relaxation of its access policy, the the University of Bristol can seem unwilling to take students with such qualifications.

"People are being given false hope. Students contact me with press cuttings saying 'look - the University of Bristol wants people like me'. But Bristol is only dropping one A-level grade for students from poorer schools," said Jane Wills, head of access at City of Bristol College. Her students feel their options are limited to the University of the West of England.

Bristol staff were keen to clarify their admission policy. The university makes its admissions staff aware that certain applicants come from schools with poor records at A level. It is then up to the admissions tutor to weigh the value of the applicants' predicted A-level grades against the background of the school's usual achievements, and adjust any offer accordingly.

David Evans, the pro vice-chancellor, denied that the university failed to consider applicants with advanced GNVQs. However, he conceded that the university failed to advertise the fact that it would consider alternative qualifications. Professor Evans said the university planned to rectify the situation.

"We found that we were missing out on a lot of talent. Traditionally, we have concentrated exclusively on A levels. We want to increase the number of students with non-traditional qualifications."

There are signs that widening participation is being taken more seriously.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently asked every institution to produce a widening participation strategy. It has set up a group, headed by Geoff Layer at the University of Bradford, to coordinate its efforts in this area. The CVCP established an advisory service for institutions earlier this year.

There is still a long way to go. According to the Department for Education and Employment, just 9 per cent of young people from semi-skilled and unskilled backgrounds enrolled in higher education in 1997, despite 19 per cent living in such households.

Young students from junior managerial and skilled backgrounds accounted for 29 per cent of entrants but 51 per cent of the total population. Meanwhile students from the uppermost socioeconomic groups were hugely over-represented. Those from professional and associated backgrounds formed 62 per cent of entrants compared with 39 per cent of the total population.

Next week: mature students who miss out


Born and raised in Bradford, 29-year-old Kauser speaks with a broad Yorkshire accent. Her voice conceals the reality of her life: at the age of 13, her family sent her to Pakistan to marry.

"It was very cruel, but I had no choice," she said.

When Kauser returned to Bradford with her husband three years later, her friends had completed their education. "I had missed my schooling and that was it. As the years go by, I miss it more."

Crowded into a neighbour's living room, which also serves as the kitchen and workroom of the cramped back-to-back house, Kauser chats with other women in a mixture of English and Urdu.

Two of the mothers in the room, brought up in Pakistan, have little education and no English, making it very difficult to monitor their children's progress at school. Yet they appreciate the value of education and send their children to the University of Bradford's junior university.

The project aims to raise the aspirations of children such as 13-year-old Afdoe, who has been coming voluntarily to the Saturday afternoon sessions for two years. "It is good: it helps you surf the net and do some typing and some research. You can just come in and do it," he said.

His friend Binjameen added: "It helps give you perspective on what it will be like when you are older."

Last summer the boys took part in a programme of events, including visits to the West Yorkshire police force, the local hospital's pharmacy department and the local newspaper. Outdoor activities such as cricket and caving were also included.

The junior university is free, paid for through university funding of its centre for continuing education. Yet the students' families struggle financially to send them. "I pay the bus fare of 50 pence each for three children. If the parents are unemployed, they should have help with paying," said one mother, also called Kauser.

Kauser attends sewing classes at the nearby Asian Women and Girls Centre -- many women from her community earn money by sewing as outworkers -- and has just passed her driving test. "I stopped learning for three years when the written test was introduced," she said.

Now Kauser is looking to education providers for assistance so that she can help her four children with their schoolwork. "I think parents should have some help to help their children with their homework. Just the basics; for example, multiplying or dividing in maths. I don't know how to do it."

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