Tough WP targets will need a consistent and single-minded focus

Never the most stable of terrain, the HE landscape is bracing itself for yet more seismic shifts with the imminent release of the government’s new green paper. The rumour mill is already rumbling away with speculation around the exact nature and extent of the Teaching Excellence Framework, the opening of the market to new providers, and even whether the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) will survive in anything like their current form.

Yet amidst the conjecture at least one solid fact has emerged: the government has committed to doubling participation rates for disadvantaged students from 2009 levels by 2020 – a clear, if challenging target, that Brightside – an organisation that was established in 2003 to support widening participation – endorses wholeheartedly.

This ambitious target is, in part, an expression of confidence in the progress that has been made in widening participation. While we are, alas, still a long way from a level playing field, the widening participation agenda has progressed significantly since Brightside was established 12 years ago. Today, children from the most advantaged backgrounds are 2.7 times more likely to apply to university than the most disadvantaged. This figure was 4.3 in 2004.

Despite the fears of a fall in applications when tuition fees were raised in 2012, participation of 18-year olds from the most disadvantaged communities has increased by 21% since then, and for the most selective universities the increase is even greater at 25%.

On the downside though, as part-time student numbers have fallen 48% since 2010-11: as this recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute indicates, this is cause of great concern for social mobility when part-time study provides some of the most accessible routes into higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

So two cheers then – one for the positive trends in the last few years, and the other for the 2020 target which will ensure a continuing long-term focus on widening participation.

But we should be under no illusions about the scale of the challenge if the 2020 target is to be met. According to HEFCE research, we will need participation rates to increase by two to three percentage points per year, whereas the trend to date has been an increase of one percentage point per year.

So, we should view the current debate about OFFA within this context of this challenging widening participation target. As a relative newcomer to the sector (I have now been at Brightside for nine months), I have been struck by the strength of – often contradictory – feelings about this modestly sized £1.5m regulator.

On the one hand, traditionalist sentiment criticises the supposed dumbing down of standards. On the other; radical voices lament its inability to bring sanctions against under-performing universities.

Let’s leave to one side the question of the effectiveness, let alone the desirability of a ‘big stick approach’ for now. Over the past ten years, the ’soft power’ wielded by OFFA through their monitoring of university access agreements has seen major improvements in access to higher education for disadvantaged and under-represented groups, with a 61% increase in participation of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds since 2005.

Just as importantly in my view, the existence and role of OFFA ensures that fair access remains high on the political and policymaking agenda.

Before coming to Brightside, I spent the previous six years working for a childcare campaigning organisation and a key recommendation over that period was for a body to hold local authorities and central government to account for their legal duty to provide sufficient childcare for working families. Every year, our research would show that around half of local authorities were not providing sufficient childcare for working families – and yet there was no viable means of redress for parents; no single focus from a body with statutory authority representing the user voice to ensure that this issue was seriously and consistently addressed.

So, frankly, it has been a pleasure to come into a sector where the government policy of ensuring fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is given force by a body with a single focused mission to promote and safeguard fair access.

If the access function was rolled up into a bigger organisation with a number of different priorities including say, the financial health of an organisation, it is inevitable that the focus on access would be diluted – to the detriment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and also making it less likely that the 2020 widening participation target will be hit.

Now is not the time to relax our focus on widening participation, not just because of the government target, but also because of the major challenges that remain. Today, only three per cent of disadvantaged young people enter highly selective universities, compared to 21 per cent of young people from the most advantaged backgrounds. The cataclysmic fall in part-time student numbers needs to be addressed urgently. Not to mention the ongoing problem of low progression in HEFCE’s ‘cold spot’ regions with few links to higher education, and of reaching marginalised groups like care-leavers and young carers not captured in crude measures like POLAR data.

Finally, fair access to higher education is only part of the bigger social mobility picture and will only be meaningful if all students not only have the same chance to get into university, but get a good degree and go on to graduate level employment or postgraduate study. Yet evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that disadvantage persists through university and into employment: the most advantaged students are not only less likely to drop out and more likely to get a higher degree classification, but privately educated graduates can also look forward to higher earnings than their peers with similar qualifications.

So, there’s a huge amount to be done in respect of access and progression if policy intention is to become reality. The test for the green paper is a simple one – that the new landscape improves the chances of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education, and then going onto succeed both in their studies and in their future careers.

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