We must maintain our two-pronged assault on social immobility

Sir Martin Harris, Offa's outgoing director, argues that widening participation and fair access remain key to the sector's progress

July 26, 2012



Credit: Dale Edwin Murray


When I was approached to become director of fair access in October 2004, shortly after retiring as vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, I had no idea of the tumultuous journey on which I was about to embark. I had strongly supported the introduction of the £3,000-a-year tuition fee regime and knew from direct experience that the proposals had been worked out in great detail and had the full support of the prime minister. There had, of course, been huge rows in Parliament during the passage of the bill, but it seemed as though the waters ahead were less choppy. How wrong I was.

The Office for Fair Access was put in place to ensure that poorer students of ability were not deterred from applying to university on financial grounds. This simple proposition aroused extraordinary hostility in some quarters, but in fact the Higher Education Act 2004 was so carefully crafted, and the sector so responsive, that widening participation continued apace and should be seen as one of Labour's successes. Universities did not turn anyone away on financial grounds and their freedom to set their own admissions policies was never in any way under threat, either from the legislation, which contains explicit protections, or from me as director. Indeed, upholding university autonomy has been a cornerstone of my career over several decades.

Initial press interest, based on the misapprehension that funding at 18-plus was the key factor in determining whether young people went into higher education and where, focused on league tables of bursary support. Unsurprisingly, when widening participation continued to thrive and when research by Offa showed that even large variations in bursaries had no impact on applications, interest in Offa's contribution to widening participation fairly soon waned.

There followed a short period of relative calm - but not for long. It soon became clear that "fair access" in its current sense - that is, the admission of young people of talent from less advantaged backgrounds to our most selective universities - was making proportionately little or no headway. Sir Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust demonstrated repeatedly that this was the case, and gradually most politicians - and all of the ministers for whom I have worked - came to see this as the key issue, affecting as it does upward social mobility to the most selective professions and positions.

So Offa's original purpose, of maintaining and enhancing widening participation in the face of the new fees regime, came to be forgotten: after all, celebrating success does not come easily in contemporary society. Fair access on the other hand, an issue that has bedevilled British (and especially English) higher education throughout my 50 years in the sector and indeed for much longer, was naively seen by some as being amenable to solution by an Offa sanctions regime imposed on certain universities in respect of those school-leavers they chose to admit: this was a "solution" both ill-conceived and quite specifically illegal.

Fair access to our most selective universities is a major challenge for society. Lord Mandelson, Stephen Byers and Nick Clegg, in addition to the present universities and science minister David Willetts, all recognise this. It has been an issue throughout all the fee regimes of my lifetime, including those wonderful days of the 1960s when there were no fees and very generous grants. Throughout this period, the participation of the least advantaged socio-economic groups in our most selective universities has remained disappointingly low.

I firmly believe that the problem will not be solved primarily at 18-plus, but only through coordination and collaboration across all education sectors to raise aspiration and attainment. Universities have a crucial role to play in this through the outreach work they do in schools and communities, specifically that which targets students early in their school careers and offers them sustained support and advice in the form of mentoring, masterclasses, summer schools and the like. This was the key recommendation in my Offa report What More Can Be Done to Widen Access to Highly Selective Universities? (2010) and it still stands.

However, universities and colleges are not the only players in this. Schools must play the primary role in ensuring that their students receive an appropriate, well-taught curriculum, independent advice, pastoral support and encouragement from early on, so that when they reach 18 they have the qualifications and the motivation to seek entry to selective universities if they are so minded.

Widening participation and fair access depend for their success on very different factors. The former needs a wide range of universities offering a wide range of courses, accessible in all our communities, while the latter depends on specific intervention by schools, universities and colleges. Both must remain central to our higher education system.

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