Why should some get an easier ride than others?

December 1, 2006

Progress to higher education is still not determined solely by ability, and Bill Rammell refuses to stand for it.

It is socially and politically unacceptable that participation in higher education is still too determined (albeit indirectly) by class, family income and race. And economically it is definitely not in our national interest.

Having grown up in a council house, attended my local comprehensive school and been the first person in my family to go to university, I feel very strongly about this issue.

Yesterday, I addressed a widening participation symposium that brought together a group of educational experts to find ways to speed up progress in opening up higher education to all. Although we have a lot to be proud of, we are not moving forward quickly enough. We are absolutely justified in being impatient for a more inclusive system. In the 1990s, children whose parents were in the highest 20 per cent of the income bracket were about five times more likely to go to university than those whose parents were in the bottom 20 per cent. This clearly does not reflect ability.

There is a social class gap in attainment that grows at each stage of the education system. This is neither just nor fair, and we are determined to address it.

If we want to remain globally competitive, we must raise the skills of our workforce. Twelve million job vacancies are expected to open up between 2004 and 2014, 6 million of them in occupations most likely to employ graduates. Meeting this skills need will require transformation across our higher and further education systems. This will include growth in the number of foundation degrees, which are geared to employment and offer a mix of practical and academic learning over two years.

We will need more flexible tailored provision of all kinds that responds quickly and effectively to employers' needs. Further education colleges will play a vital role in this, giving all learners the opportunity to progress seamlessly to higher education. Such institutions already deliver 14 per cent of higher education in England. Many will also offer the new specialised diplomas that are another entry route to higher education. Our Further Education and Training Bill will help to achieve the transformation we seek across the sector.

Fifty years ago, higher education was reserved largely for the elite.

Thankfully, things have evolved. Since 1997, funding for higher education has risen by some £2 billion. Since the late 1990s, there have been some improvements in the social mix of undergraduates. Our current programmes to widen participation, such as Aimhigher, are beginning to have a positive effect, but we must move faster.

The introduction of education maintenance allowances has contributed to a significant rise in participation at 16, which we expect to feed through to higher education, and the new system of student financial support is fairer and more progressive than ever and gives greatest help to those from the poorest backgrounds.

Yesterday, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published its Widening Participation Review. Eighty-nine per cent of the universities surveyed viewed their own progress in the past four years as strong or very strong, and 92 per cent rated the commitment of senior managers strong or very strong. This is encouraging, but we need to reinforce that commitment and extend it within institutions. And, as the report highlights, there is more we can - and should - do.

As a result of our Aimhigher programme, more young people say they intend to participate in higher education. However, my department and Hefce recognise the need to focus Aimhigher more tightly to help promote social justice and tackle inequality among disadvantaged groups. I have asked Hefce to take immediate steps to achieve this and to report by April.

Our new booklet on widening participation, which was also published yesterday, sets out a range of other measures we will take, including the development of ten new partnerships between universities, colleges and schools to work with gifted and talented young people from deprived backgrounds, helping them to strive for entry to higher education with the most demanding entry requirements. This Government is committed to seeing that a university education is an opportunity that all those with ability and aptitude can seize.

It is very clear to me that although we are making progress, there is much more to do. This Labour Government remains fundamentally committed to increasing and widening participation in higher education. A degree is still the surest route to a comfortable, prosperous existence. I want that for many more people.

Bill Rammell is Minister for Higher Education.

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