Let’s go fly a kite: Access and participation

Put £1bn into disadvantaged schools

Iain Mansfield – Contributing editor, Wonkhe

Even the biggest fans of access agreements admit it’s sometimes hard to see what’s been achieved with £1bn a year. At their best, they seem to make a modest difference; at their worst, they can legitimise class warfare and discrimination. And the national backdrop of flat or decreasing social mobility confirms that their overall impact has been limited.

The Office for Students has suggested that more evaluation is the answer. But given we know we know that the biggest driver of higher education destinations is school attainment, isn’t it time to be more radical? Access agreements legitimise two unhealthy myths: that universities are best placed to improve results in schools, and that higher education – sometimes a specific university – is the only good outcome for children at age 18.

The typical secondary school budget is about £5m a year. With a billion pounds, we could increase the annual budget of the 1000 most disadvantaged schools by 20%. Think what that million pounds could buy in terms of additional teachers, classrooms, facilities, careers advice, and more! Schools could spend it on what they wished: targeted teaching, support disabled students, offering additional subjects, broadening activities with employers or in the community – or yes, even collaboration with universities, if that was what they felt was most valuable. And instead of privileging higher education, they could prepare their pupils for satisfying, fulfilling outcomes which best suited that particular child, in line with the Government’s new commitment for school success measures that record whether a child went on to higher learning by either a vocational or academic route.

It’s very nice to pat ourselves on the back for our access activity. After all, there are plenty of heartwarming anecdotes. But if we really care about social mobility, isn’t it time to set aside our vanity, scrap the whole bureaucratic system and simply put the £1bn directly into disadvantaged schools?

Incentivising Access

Aaron Porter – Associate Director (Governance), Advance HE & Director Policy & Engagement, Hotcourses Group

Admissions should continue to be the preserve of autonomous higher education institutions, but the lack of progress that many of our most elite institutions have made on access, on changing their student profile and on student success is dispiriting.

If we want to see a step change in the proportion of working class students at our most elite institutions, it’s time to use financial incentives. The debate about variable fees tends to focus on what students pay. But how about variable fees with a twist – where the variability is for institutions and not students?

My proposal would mean that the amount paid (or more accurately the loan taken out) by students themselves would remain the same irrespective of their household income or background. However, the amount of money received by institutions would be altered depending on the profile of the students they recruit.

If a university over-recruits students from the wealthiest households against a benchmark of the HE population as a whole they will have to pay money into a central pot. The central pot would then be distributed to institutions who have over-recruited students from the poorest households. There would be a redistribution from universities who recruit wealthier students to those providers who recruit more disadvantaged students. There could also be other factors which would see a cross-subsidy between higher educations – under-represented groups by ethnicity, care leavers, disabled students etc.

The logic behind this is two-fold; on the whole, it is more costly for institutions to teach students who often have to overcome multiple disadvantages to succeed compared to their more affluent counterparts. In schools, it has been a hugely successful intervention to ensure students from poorer homes (through the Free School Meals measure) receive a Pupil Premium, and this is a version for higher education. Secondly, history suggests the most useful lever to alter university behaviour is a financial one. This uses the carrot and the stick.

Engage the right students

Dan Beynon – Head of Education, SMRS

In 2019, universities are missing social mobility and diversity targets and leaving themselves even more vulnerable to government policy makers. So we should focus on making some changes that would bring greater transparency to the undergraduate application process. It’s time to introduce a Post Qualification Application system (PQA) that will simplify the process for all undergraduate applicants and stop universities developing offer making strategies that damage attainment.

While preparations are made for the PQA system’s introduction, there would also be an immediate, sector-wide commitment to reversing the growth in the number of unconditional offers. For particular courses or personal circumstances, these offers remain entirely appropriate, but universities need to spend less time devising ways to deliver more unconditional offers and more time focusing on engaging with those students that are right for them and who will enjoy a successful experience at their institution. Potential students need to choose the university and course that is most suited to them and if they do that the positive impact on retention and attainment will be felt across the sector. That big decision should not be made on the basis of ill-considered unconditional offer making.

3 responses to “Let’s go fly a kite: Access and participation

  1. @Iain Mansfield – the schools budget is already £43 billion and students leave school with a wider social attainment gap than the one they entered with at age five. Presumably the £1 billion would target those with the biggest gaps. Perhaps universities might be tempted agree to hand over £1 billion in order to be relieved of the need to fund outreach but this is £1 billion of whose money exactly? Hard to see Research Councils or grant awarders like Wellcome Trust saying yes to this. So your proposal is essentially to funnel tuition fees paid by over 108,000 university students into schools.

    @AaronPorter – why stop at Universities? Why not fine every employer who hires someone from a background considered to be affluent. Or simply confiscate wealth of any kind (100% tax above median incomes) and transfer it to the state, which will know how to make better use of it. That way only people genuinely interested in learning will want to go to universities (there won’t be any future salary incentive). We will need fewer of them so fees can be abolished, and the cost saving can be transferred over to Iain’s schools budget. In a few years. we can get rid of affluence completely. Problem solved.

    @Dan Beynon – what evidence do you have that insisting that students wait until their A-levels are completed will actually improve access rather than retarding it? What if children in more affluent families were advantaged by the increase in uncertainty that a delay would cause. What if it is the case that (for example) predictions for ethnic minority groups or disabled students were less accurate than for other groups, as they might be if these groups are more prone to family or health disruptions that have an adverse effect on final grades.

  2. Hi @Bradbury Smith evidence from UCAS 2018 end of cycle report does point to the rise in UC offer making impacting negatively on attainment at A-level and perhaps even more significantly there seems to be a serious issue around predicted grade accuracy across the board so both would be to some degree avoided by a PQA system. I think we need a system that improves retention levels at all our Universities through more accurately matching an individual (and their needs) to a provider.

  3. @Dab Beynon. The reports you refer to acknowledge that students with lower grades (that include disproportionately more students from lower income quintiles) are more likely to under-shoot their grade predictions. The reasons for this include those stated in my response to your post. You raise the issue of unconditional offers but do not consider whether a) clearing is better or worse than UOs (UOs increase certainty for universities and applicants, lessenign reliance on clearing) and whether UOs are in fact the reason why students undershoot predictions. There has been no randomised control trial or equivalent to establish whether a causal effect exists. You allude to various other claims for the adverse effects of UOs (retention, completion, degree result, on-course satisfaction) that do not appear to have any underpinning evidence – fine for a light-hearted kite flying exercise but an issue if in fact you are serious about this as a policy option.

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