THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

March 8, 2012

The blazing row in Westminster over Les Ebdon's appointment as director of the Office for Fair Access has catapulted widening undergraduate participation to the centre of the higher education debate once again (EN-) but Debbie McVitty, senior research and policy officer (higher education) at the National Union of Students, believes the sector and the media should be focusing more on postgraduates.

"Right now it is clear that there is no consensus about what widening participation to postgraduate study even means, let alone what it would look like," writes Dr McVitty on the WonkHE blog, where she is academic editor.

Dr McVitty notes a dramatic rise in the discussion of postgraduate access, with a recent report by the 1994 Group, an inquiry by the Higher Education Commission, a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills roundtable event and an Open University conference all considering the issue.

But she believes that this is still not enough.

"In reality, widening participation to postgraduate study has been on the periphery of policy for some time," she writes. "At the most fundamental level we are unclear on whether we would like more postgraduate students, [or the current cohort] to be about the same size but more representative of society as a whole."

Consequently, Dr McVitty believes many of the rules surrounding WP must change. She also calls for consideration of whether the assumption that entering higher education is automatically a good thing applies to postgraduates: "Is the aim to get the most disadvantaged into postgraduate education or to minimise the barriers to entry for whoever happens to face them, even if that person is solidly middle class?"

She suggests the problem about postgraduate access is that the status of students changes when they are awarded degrees.

"When someone has come through an undergraduate degree, perhaps at a highly selective institution, the term 'disadvantaged' seems...misapplied. Working-class, sure. Disadvantaged, probably not," she writes. "We need a new set of rules, but...we need to agree on what the game is."

Meanwhile, Edith Hall, former chair in Classics and English at Royal Holloway, University of London, who attacked the institution's senior management after stepping down last year over plans to merge its Classics and history departments, has laid into her former employers again. Writing on The Edithorial blog about a recent national newspaper column by Paul Layzell, principal of Royal Holloway, she says: "If my reading of his bland prose is correct, he thinks that competition between universities is detrimental to the national good."

Referring to Professor Layzell's view that vice-chancellors in the sector could "do so much more", she adds: "So much more what? Even more assiduously turning our universities into 'for-profit education providers'? Doing...more deals with shady corporations and hiring even more professional managers to swell the overheads extracted from the labour of the people doing the teaching?"

In her resignation letter last year, Professor Hall said that Royal Holloway's senior management did not, "in my view, uphold the values definitive of a university".

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