It was 2008 when, as manager of the then Aimhigher partnership for central London, that I was told by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that there would be no more funding for the partnership as there were hardly any disadvantaged learners in the area.
Despite showing HEFCE that over 40 per cent of the children in central London were growing up in poverty and explaining this to the then Minister for Higher Education (who is now of course, the Vice Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire) they would not be moved. Over ten years and hundreds of millions pounds later we are still using a system to target widening access work that is both inaccurate and inefficient.
An imperfect definition
The POLAR measure which divides the country up into quintiles on the basis of HE participation forms the basis for two of the Office for Students (OfS) Key Performance Measures for access and participation and is the measure of disadvantage that the 200 plus providers who will be submitting access and participation plans over the next few months are supposed to use to target the learners they work with and support. However, as we have known for over a decade in London POLAR is at best a variable measure of disadvantage. As recent research by Durham University has shown, less than 20 per cent of those in POLAR areas are eligible for free school meals.
The defence of POLAR is both contradictory and confusing. The OfS argue that POLAR is not a measure of socio economic but educational disadvantage yet at the same time they align it with socio economic disadvantage measures in their guidance to institutions. The debate on POLAR is about more than targeting access work. It is fundamental to how effective it can be and capturing the impact. It is imperative that we move the discussion on from what the problem is to possible solutions.
Introducing the national widening access network
Our report “Polar Opposite: How the targeting of learners for widening access to higher education work could be improved” proposes a new approach to identifying disadvantage based around an individual income based measure of socio-economic disadvantage and the creation of a national widening access cohort. The cohort would be made up of children from families earning under an agreed income threshold which includes those in receipt of free school meals but also those working but on low incomes – over eight million people live in poverty in families where at least one person is in work.
This cohort would be the primary focus of widening access work and their progress into higher education tracked over time centrally using linked administrative data. This data on household income would be collected from pupils over year seven and verified over year eight to create the cohort ready for work from year nine onwards. The collection of this data, its verification and subsequent tracking could be done centrally to minimise the burden on higher education providers.
There would need to be work done to engage parents, carers and schools at year seven and eight as described below to ensure data is submitted but this could present an opportunity to introduce a new explicit parents/carers phase over the first two years of key stage three. We know the importance of parents/carers in influencing the decisions of learners from widening access background and investing concerted efforts in engaging them at this point could bring huge additional benefits from this approach.
Who are we serving?
Having a cohort based on an individual measure of disadvantage would not mean POLAR was redundant as it still could have a role in supporting the delivery of activities where demand exceeds capacity for example, and identifying particularly disadvantaged sub-groups within the cohort. The approach would need piloting and London would be a good place to start, given that at present because less than 5 per cent of London wards are in the lowest POLAR quintile, the majority of widening access work is not contributing to the present OfS access and participation key performance measures anyway.
Three years after funding for Aimhgher in central London was stopped, the programme itself was abolished ostensibly because of the lack of evidence of impact. Nearly tend years on from that decision there is still huge concern about how much of a difference widening access work makes. If we are ever going to establish definitively how valuable this work is, it is time to resolve who it is for.