Guest Blog: A missed opportunity for widening access

20 Jun 2013

The IPPR report A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England, was an opportunity to outline an exciting vision for HE that would maximise the potential of universities and colleges to contribute to both the economy and society. It was an opportunity largely missed. This is particularly apparent where access and opportunity are concerned.  Bearing in mind that the report’s funder is reported to be a Labour peer, it might have been reasonable to expect that access would be central to the vision for higher education that IPPR sought to articulate.

There are good reasons why this vision should have been central to the report. The last government has not received the credit it deserves for driving an 80% increase in participation amongst those from the lowest participation neighbourhoods from 2004. It is therefore all the more disappointing that the report replicates the pattern of coalition policy articulated since 2010: it is heavy on rhetoric; it says all the right things about access and gives it a place alongside teaching and research in defining what higher education is about. But – and here’s the rub - it is light on real commitment. Of most concern, the report appears to advocate a cut in investment in outreach work rather than any increase.

The major barrier to widening access is the IPPR recommendation that student number controls should be held constant for younger students. It is hard, if not impossible, to widen access without increasing the number of those participating in higher education. The proposal to create an additional 20,000 ‘fee-only’ places priced at a fee of £5000 per annum is questionable,  not least because students  taking these places would then be expected do without maintenance grants.

There has been scant evidence that Further Education Colleges offering higher education courses at lower fees have proved more attractive to students under the 2012 funding regime. It is difficult to see why ‘fee-only’ places would be of interest to students from widening access backgrounds – and no explanation is offered as to why these students would be able to afford to study for a degree without a maintenance grant and loan. Emphasising the role of FE is important but re-branding some FE Colleges as polytechnics misunderstands the reasons why the binary divide was ended in 1992 and ignores the wide-range of courses available in universities today. It also assumes that potential students and their advisers will not view such institutions as a second class HE option. This is all a very long shot and not one on which a future government should focus if it is interested in widening opportunity.

The report's ‘Big Idea’ where access is concerned is the proposal to combine the present widening participation allocation (provided directly to universities and colleges) with funding from the National Scholarship Programme to create a new ‘student premium’. Modelled on the pupil premium it is suggested that this would provide universities and colleges with £1000 for every learner who entered from a widening access background. The merits of the policy are that it may be easier to identify the impact of the student premium than has been the case with the widening participation allocation, which has proved notoriously difficult.

The major problem is that the idea appears to cut investment in half. The report states that:

The student premium would initially cost the government around £230 million, but this would gradually increase to over £460 million as the number of disadvantaged students doubles. Once the policy has achieved this aim, the government would be spending the same amount of resources on the student premium as it currently spends on widening participation through the NSP and HEFCE allocation’.

It is bizarre to argue that over a period when student numbers are being held constant the numbers from widening access backgrounds will double. This looks at best like some pretty poor arithmetic. At worst it would be a backdoor way of cutting investment that will hit the universities which do all the ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to widening participation.

IPPR’s other key ‘access’ recommendation is to allow selective universities to admit unlimited numbers of students from access backgrounds to encourage greater use of contextual data. This is actually a sensible idea, but until there is an increase in the pool of candidates from poorer backgrounds who achieve even near what these universities will accept, it will have a marginal impact. Halving investment in outreach work is not the way to grow this pool.

Finally, the report outlines a number of different options for reducing tuition fees without nailing its colours to any one mast. This is politically expedient and sensible at this point in the electoral cycle but there are less than 100 weeks  until the next election. We need to use the time constructively to create and argue for a much better vision as to how opportunities to access higher education can be promoted than those that have been tabled so far.

Dr Graeme Atherton
Head, AccessHE
London Higher

Twitter: @AccessHE