Widening participation to higher education is widely misunderstood and therefore often misdirected. Instead of devoting so much time and money to a participation problem we do not face, we should focus on the potential of learners at a younger age, and eliminate the pointless hierarchy of selection within HE itself.
Widening participation (WP) among under-represented socioeconomic groups is a long-term UK policy objective. The focus is usually on 18-year-old, full-time applicants. Relevant policy initiatives include bursaries and maintenance grants, free places in some home countries, outreach work, aspiration-raising, overhauls of admissions arrangements, FE in HE and HE in FE, a huge expansion of the system, removing caps on numbers, and contextualised admissions.
However, the whole field seems very confused about which groups are actually under-represented, and what the problems are that WP is intended to solve. The key confusion is the conflation of entry to HE in general, with access to highly-selective individual universities. Therefore, it is almost impossible to evaluate properly whether any policy initiatives are effective.
Access to HE in general
In England, around 33% to 38% of 18-year-olds enter HE each year. All analyses here are conducted using the National Pupil Database from 2006 to 2015, linked to the HESA undergraduate dataset for suitable years. Fewer than expected HE students from each age cohort are white, male, have lived in care or in poverty (FSM), or have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). But, these characteristics are not usually those addressed by WP activities. The sex imbalance on entry is largely ignored. All ethnic minorities have long been somewhat over-represented in HE, and yet many are still the target of WP. Students with profound learning challenges are, perhaps by definition, unlikely to attend HE, and are not addressed in standard WP approaches.
Of all students achieving the equivalent of at least two E grades at A-level, around 75% enter HE in the next two years. The figure for FSM students in the 2008 cohort was 80%, and for those living-in-care, it was 91%. Most other purported shortage indicators show the same. Looking at only those eligible to enter HE each year, those groups who are apparently under-represented, actually enter HE to at least the same extent as the overall figure. In fact, perhaps partly because of WP, qualified students from some disadvantaged groups are actually slightly over-represented. The entry figure was 98% for black origin students with Key Stage 5 (KS5) qualifications, but only 70% for white. Both white and male students continue to be under-represented, even in proportion to their prior attainment. And yet neither group is a specific focus for WP, while black and FSM students often are.
Where does the problem lie?
The problem lies not in admission to HE, or even in the stratification of qualifications at the prior KS5. The problem lies in the entry to KS5 itself and earlier. The education system grows increasingly selective, with different learners funnelled down different tracks. Only around 52% of the cohort have historically continued to formal KS5 education, but the rates are much lower for male, FSM, and SEND students, for example. Once in KS5, most students attain minimum qualifications, and most of these enter HE. But, those entering KS5 already have much better KS4 qualifications than those who do not continue to KS5. The stratification of entry to HE is the stratification of entry to KS5, which is the stratification of KS4 and earlier attainment at school. In logistic regression analyses, predicting whether a student from KS1 onwards will enter HE or not, their background characteristics are irrelevant if prior attainment is taken into account. We could balance the intakes further by simply dropping the requirement for minimum KS5 qualifications, but WP at this stage does not really have any further role in general access to HE.
The 48% not continuing to KS5 are the more disadvantaged and lowest attaining students in the country. Nothing done from thereon in terms of widening participation will make any difference to their chances of attending HE. In fact, some will leave formal education with below functional literacy and numeracy. It is important to remember in any concern for educational justice that nearly half of each cohort is effectively ignored by WP activities and that the focus of all that policy spending and effort is on the more-advantaged half of the cohort, already on a trajectory towards HE. Of course, it may be argued that the more successful students at KS4 deserve or merit their higher attainment, but this is not the approach used by traditional WP advocates when considering KS5 attainment for contextualised admissions. There is a huge inconsistency in policy here. If disadvantage affects attainment at KS5 then surely it equally affects attainment at KS4 and before. In which case, there is no justification for leaving the 48%, those not continuing to KS5, out of current WP arrangements.
Access to selective universities
The distinct issue of how those within HE are clustered by their background characteristics in especially selective universities is more serious. Each university takes students for each course with the highest prior attainment that they can get away with, while still filling their places. And, because of the correlation between advantage and average attainment, this fills such universities with more privileged students. Universities do so irrespective of the difficulty of the course. For all of their faults, KS2, GCSE and A-level examinations are engineered to be the same for whoever takes them. It is not meant to be harder to obtain a maths GCSE in Liverpool than in Bristol. In the same way, it is not clear that a student taking a degree in Law actually needs different prior qualifications to study Law in Manchester than in Sunderland.
Setting a national minimum threshold for entry to any course, and so eliminating selection between universities, would solve the stratification of intakes. The HE system does not need to be internally selective, and there is no net gain for the country. The main function of selection, whether intended to not, is to hinder access to only some universities within the system, and in doing so to emphasise their differences in student background.
Playing around with the KS5 qualifications needed for entry to HE, such as dropping the equivalent of a few A-level grades for under-represented groups, will not benefit overall entry to HE and may exacerbate existing problems. Most under-represented groups, including; males, summer-born, and those with severe or multiple SEND, are not even considered as WP candidates. WP does not seem to b about overcoming injustice as such. Selection does not operate as a gatekeeper to HE itself, as much as a way of sorting students into the most selective universities. This problem can be solved simply by eliminating this kind of selection and making HE more open access. It could be non-selective just as the national school system is, but not compulsory, unlike the school system. It would be a proper national system – and every HEI could be funded and supported to be as good as every other (just as schools and colleges should be).
The research underlying these comments was funded by ESRC (ES/N012046/1, ES/N01166X/1).