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The grim calculus of access and participation

The costs of supporting students are on the increase, while the unit of resource continues to erode. Debbie McVitty thinks that what might have been a fresh impetus for access and participation will founder for lack of cash
This article is more than 1 year old

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

The new OfS equality of opportunity risk register does a really great job of driving home the sheer scale of the mountain that students who don’t have economic or social capital have to climb to succeed in higher education.

And a genuine hats off to John Blake and his team for structuring it in that way. A systematic breakdown of the bits of the student journey, cross-referenced with the differential experiences of the various students who undertake it, is going to be a much more effective way to generate an action plan than asking for a generalised narrative about access and participation for the various groups.

There’s also fairly solid regulatory coherence between the access/equality and the outcomes/quality work, whatever your reservations about the latter. And what an opportunity for universities to bring together all their various bits of activity – you can imagine the education researchers working on social construction of disability having a fruitful conversation with the widening participation practitioner creating outreach programmes and all of it coming together in a glorious renewal of energy and effort on access and inclusion.

And every day our collective understanding of the factors in play – the complexity of different kinds of disability, for example, or the way that racial prejudice and exclusion plays out in different contexts, or the consequences if some students get to take part in student societies and others don’t – is getting better and better.

Clearly not everything that affects students’ higher education experience and progress is within individual universities’ control. Students having access to a wide range of choices of course type or delivery mode (Risk 5) doesn’t seem like something any one institution could fix, for example – but thinking creatively about what’s on offer in the region and what opportunities there are for more fruitful coordination between providers could be an outcome (if that pesky market competition issue doesn’t kill that idea stone dead). Jim has already argued that any university not including “student maintenance loan not keeping pace with inflation” as a significant and imminent risk to equality of opportunity would be fooling both itself and OfS.

The costs they carry

But even as the sector anticipates continued growth in demand for higher education as the decade wears on, I keep coming back to something John Blake said at our recent Secret Life of Students event, which is that universities should not recruit students if they are not prepared to support them adequately (I paraphrase, but I think I’ve captured the spirit of the sentiment if not the exact wording). And I wonder how that conversation plays out in vice chancellors’ offices up and down the country.

It’s long been acknowledged that “WP students” carry an additional cost in student support – though that funding that was supposed to offset the additional costs for the universities has been cut over the last decade and what’s left of it has during and since the pandemic been flagged by DfE as the solution for universities to support students directly with cost of living issues. But more than that, though the POLAR differentials remain stark, the scale of student need – particularly since the pandemic – seems to transcend socio-economic background or WP category. Carrying the costs of supporting the anxious, or chasing down the disengaged, or installing the inclusive technology, is no longer a WP cost, it’s core cost.

The unit of resource – having been steadily eroded by inflation since the advent of £9k fees – not counting the modest £250 uplift in 2016 for 2017-18 – is currently in real terms around £6k. It is currently eroding at a much faster pace thanks to the spike in inflation – and even if inflation goes back down, which is by no means guaranteed – what has been lost is already gone, and the steady reduction in the purchasing power of the headline fee will continue throughout the decade. The spectre of Covid continues to loom large – universities are facing the need to upscale student support costs while their fixed income drains away in value.

Rocks and hard places

Some of those losses, for some institutions, can be offset by cross-subsidy from international student fees. But where that is insufficient, or the main cross-subsidy is towards maintaining expensive research infrastructure in the absence of full economic costing, or in the event of a change in policy on international students leading to a dip in demand, universities will have two choices.

One is to continue to widen participation, recruiting as many UK students as possible, hopefully generating some economies of scale, but also further increasing the diversity and scale of support needs. As the spend per student becomes less and less, realistically this may mean some portfolio rationalisation – but it’s also plausible that most will protect teaching and try to find the savings from student support and the “nice to have” extras like co-curricular opportunities – ie the very activities that can help to build the kinds of intangible capitals that the advantaged students already benefit from. It’s one thing to come up with targeted interventions to support less advantaged groups – and quite another to give preferential access to what most students would consider core services to those groups.

And while there is always a fascinating conversation to be had about how technology can help universities manage learning, teaching, and student support at scale – and UK universities are on the small side in international terms – the baseline tech and data infrastructure is not such that all are equipped to take advantage of those opportunities at the pace that might be required.

The other option is to decide to stop expanding, and self-impose a de facto number cap. That wouldn’t stop the need to reduce spending, but it would allow for a more controlled management of resources with a more traditional student body. And as UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant pointed out on the launch of UCAS’ Journey to a Million campaign, even where intentions are good, the middle classes will inevitably come out better in a more competitive environment, harming widening participation.

You can argue that more students should access cheaper alternatives to traditional HE, or that universities can’t possibly provide the same kind of wraparound support that was enjoyed when there were fewer students, or that parents and families of students should take more direct responsibility for younger students, even those living away from home.

None of these arguments solve the fundamental problem, which is that less advantaged students have a mountain to climb if they want to make a success of higher education. Universities have the knowledge, and the will to help them do that, and the Office for Students is ready to push them. The regulator can’t say it, so we will – for God’s sake, fund them to do it.

2 responses to “The grim calculus of access and participation

  1. Raising the spectre of risk in this way is just a market signal – for institutions to give up on their WP missions, and for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to give up on their university dreams and go do an apprenticeship instead. Leave universities to the middle classes seems to be the overriding message. Having eradicated access (Donelean speeches ad nauseum) now this govt want to eradicate participation support too….

    1. Indeed it does appear that’s what’s likely to happen, the middling middle classes will be overjoyed that those bright and aspiring, and more over more capable disadvantaged potential students that might beat their own, will effectively be excluded. That said a number of disadvantaged potential students I’ve talked with on school visit days have looked around the University and it’s tipped the balance in favour of going the apprenticeship route, who wants a huge debt and no saleable to employer useful skill set when you can earn and learn a needed skill set!

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