Wide of mark on participation

March 5, 2004

The HE bill must strengthen non-traditional routes into higher education, says Geoff Layer

Whatever finally happens with the government's higher education bill, it is in danger of missing an opportunity to secure a more socially inclusive higher education. Student finance has up to now been at the centre of the debate. It is an issue of fundamental importance and has to be resolved, but not at the expense of focusing on the emptiness of the proposals on widening participation.

Higher education has seen phenomenal change in the past 25 years. It is more inclusive than ever. But there is still a considerable amount of progress to be made, and the bill and associated work on admission routes simply miss the point.

They all conspire to persuade that by simply changing how universities approach their admissions policies and by discounting debt through bursaries we will see a brave new world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The difficulty the government has is that it has two major strands to its participation policy and the bill focuses on one aspect - the traditional route to and through higher education. The study of A levels at school leading to a three-year full-time degree dominates both the bill and Steven Schwartz's committee on admissions. However, one-third of our undergraduate students study part time and increasingly the government is asking higher education to play a major role with other providers, such as further education, to develop paths into higher education. These two key aspects of government policy are not part of the higher education bill debate simply because the focus to date is on the perceived gold standard of three-year degrees.

Widening participation practitioners know that the route to securing greater inclusivity is via further and adult education. We need to target communities and build routes into higher education and through higher education on which students can be supported and succeed. This is not about lowering standards: it is about meeting both the needs of the learner and those of the national and local economy. It is an approach based on considering what is required to achieve change. The bill, however, seeks to inform students of the type of person they need to be to engage with university and then to offer discount on the debt. This is flawed since it is based on the needs of universities rather than learners. We already know 90 per cent of young people from low socioeconomic groups with two A levels enter higher education. Presumably, the other 10 per cent are not the focus of this major political debate as many will enter higher education at a later date.

The agenda for real social inclusion must surely be the group pursuing other forms of education and securing greater participation and attainment levels by 16 to 19-year-olds in further education. There are many ways of doing this through the Aimhigher initiative, but they can succeed only if we recognise that partnerships need to build progression routes, curriculum change and different approaches to learning and teaching. The bill, the Office for Fair Access and Schwartz do not just ignore this, they plan a higher education diametrically opposed to such change.

If the bill is to seriously change participation, then it needs to look at the full range of higher education opportunities and use the legislation to require all universities to have access agreements and policies for part-time study, and to outline how students with vocational awards can progress into higher education.

This will happen only if the government seriously intends to fully widen participation rather than just move the current groups participating around the sector.

Geoff Layer is professor of lifelong learning and dean of the School of Lifelong Education and Development at the University of Bradford.

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