Universities are focusing their outreach efforts on schools that are perceived to offer easy access to bright, poor students, meaning that pupils in isolated areas miss out.
That is according to former directors of the Aimhigher network of outreach programmes, who said in interviews that they believed that any spirit of collaboration between English institutions was swiftly extinguished after the initiative was scrapped in 2011.
Under Aimhigher, researchers from the University of the West of England write, institutions had been happy to share responsibility for widening participation and to focus their efforts on particular areas or disciplines, in the understanding that the overall pool of applicants would grow.
Now, according to the 10 interviewees, multiple universities are targeting schools that offer “easy gains” towards meeting targets set in their access agreements.
This means that not only are rural and coastal areas missing out, but that efforts to widen the pool of applicants have been set aside in favour of taking the biggest catch from that pool, the report says.
Neil Harrison, senior lecturer in education at UWE, said that universities were locked in a “bunfight” for the most attractive students.
“We have gone from a managed market to a free-for-all, and that is not to the benefit of young people,” Dr Harrison said. “Some schools are now being targeted by five, six or 10 universities because they are deemed to be where able but disadvantaged young people are to be found, whereas other schools in more remote areas or in deeply deprived areas are not getting that treatment at all.”
The creation of National Networks for Collaborative Outreach represents an attempt to re-establish the collaborative approach of Aimhigher, but Dr Harrison – who conducted the study with colleagues Richard Waller and Kathryn Last – said that it was unclear whether they had the budgets to be successful. Their funding expires at the end of 2015-16.
The directors did not pretend that Aimhigher itself had been without its shortcomings, with the accountability of money that was passed directly to schools being an area of particular concern.
“It was like [pouring] water on to sand,” one interviewee said.