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?
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.