Voice of experience: we cannot afford to waste our untapped potential

We must protect widening-participation funding for the sake of the disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disillusioned, says Martin Bean

October 6, 2011

Credit: Rose Barton

The dominant theme on higher education at this year's political party conferences has been concern over widening participation and social mobility.

How, in this challenging new era, do we protect the vital work we are already doing and create better opportunities for the disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disillusioned?

I recently heard The Open University described as the "grandaddy" of widening participation into education. The title was gratifying, but being the grandaddy brings with it a responsibility to work with the rest of the higher education sector and the government to ensure that we do what is necessary to provide the best possible opportunities - and outcomes - for future generations.

In a world in which the graduate financial contribution is increasing and students' aversion to debt is likely to rise, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that all of those who wish to study are able to do so.

Our higher education sector is world-renowned, not only because of our world-class teaching and pioneering research but also because of our diversity: diversity both in terms of the range and breadth of institutions and, crucially, the make-up of the student body.

With this as our starting point, and with a shared ambition to retain and enhance our global standing, there are two urgent issues that we need to get to grips with.

First, in considering how our nation can respond to a stagnant economy, rising levels of unemployment and an increasingly competitive global environment, a key part of the answer must be tapping into the potential of the huge adult population over the age of 21.

We cannot rely on 18-year-olds to lift us out of the economic doldrums any more than we can afford to waste the potential resources of the rest of the population.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 29 million people in the British workforce today, but the UK compares unfavourably with its competitors in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's rankings for those who have achieved level three and level four qualifications.

Second, and most critically, if we are serious about widening participation, we must do more to avoid unintended consequences.

The Higher Education Policy Institute's recent analysis of the White Paper warns that social mobility "is likely to be an unintended victim" of its proposals, and that the new system being put in place will "reduce the funds available to those very universities that have been responsible for the recent advances in widening participation, at least relative to other universities, despite the fact that their teaching costs are higher".

Giving all prospective students a chance, fuelling social mobility and helping to make the UK a fairer country are at the heart of The Open University's mission.

I am proud that of our 264,000 students, 20 per cent of our newest recruits come from communities that are among the 25 per cent most disadvantaged (according to the national Index of Multiple Deprivation), 18,000 enter through tailored access programmes and 12,000 have registered disabilities.

This work is not unique to The Open University. Countless providers across the country do magnificent work to widen access. However, in an environment where the costs for graduates will rise, we must do all we can to protect participation among the poorest groups in society.

That is why we - along with thinktanks, charities and other universities - are so concerned about the vulnerability of the £368 million of targeted support for widening participation.

In July, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, stated in the Commons that this funding "is the equivalent of the pupil premium in schools". The Higher Education Funding Council for England is now consulting on how best to deliver the money in future, he said, "but we (the government) have made it clear that it is very important to reflect the additional costs that under-represented groups face". He is absolutely correct.

I also welcome the Labour opposition's commitment to the funding, and the attention it received in the report on access by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader. However, this autumn, a renewed commitment from policymakers and funders is imperative.

If we fail to protect this financial support and do not redouble our shared efforts to widen access to a path by which the UK's most disadvantaged can alter their life chances, we will have failed this and future generations.

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