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What can we learn from past higher education policy?

As predictions of an oncoming recession are voiced during a current cost of living crisis, Kat Emms asks what lessons learnt from past HE policy could help us navigate the storm.
This article is more than 1 year old

Kat Emms is Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation.

Policy memory is short. But as the cost of living crisis continues to impact students – particularly those from widening participation backgrounds, and predictions of a recession that may see unemployment concerns peak interest in higher education now more than ever we should be looking to learn from historic policy initiatives.

The Edge Foundation’s Learning from the Past policy base includes several historic initiatives, including access to higher education (AHE) courses and the short-lived National Scholarship Programme. The former was more successful than the other – but what exactly can we learn by looking at the policy success and failings of the past?

Access to HE Courses

Access courses have existed in England and Wales for nearly 50 years, but it was in 1978 that the then-Labour government expanded the existing provision with new Access Higher Education (AHE) Diplomas. These courses targeted mature students – primarily learners from BAME backgrounds, with known disabilities or low household incomes. The hope was that they would facilitate entry into occupations like teaching, nursing, youth and social work among those lacking Level 3 qualifications.

The original AHE diplomas were unique because they differed from earlier access courses by handing responsibility to local authorities. Further Education colleges could deliver locally-devised, flexible learning developed ad-hoc in response to place-based needs. Courses were also grounded in the assumption that extending educational opportunities and nurturing lifelong learning would alleviate the disaffection and social unrest prevalent across England during the late 1970s. In this respect, access courses were a key policy not just for education but for tackling racism and structural disadvantage.

By the 1980s, however, the landscape was changing. The Conservative ideology of equality of opportunity was more dominant but was met with the inescapable reality that the number of young people attending university was dropping. Access courses became a ‘third way’ – opposed to the traditional sixth form or vocational route – for students to access higher education. They gradually shifted away from their initial community development model, becoming synonymous with ‘pre-degree’ courses for all learners.

Today, AHE courses continue to counter structural disadvantages in adult education, but they can be expensive, hard to access for those with caring responsibilities or part-time jobs and rely on HE providers offering support to non-traditional students.

While the AHE route is no longer officially tied to its original place-based approach, data from 2020 shows that 79 per cent of access students stayed in their local areas to pursue higher education (Access HE, 2022). The access course remains linked to its original legacy – supporting local economies and encouraging lifelong learning.

With both of these ambitions in vogue again, perhaps it’s time to reflect on what access courses were initially designed to do and how they continue to support under-represented groups entering higher education today.

The National Scholarship Programme

A perceived problem is that higher fees deter university applicants, especially those from under-represented groups and lower-income households. Launched in 2012 – the same year as the tripling of tuition fees – the National Scholarship Programme (NSP) aimed to encourage those from under-represented groups to study for a degree by allocating funding support to those most in need.

The idea was simple enough: the government would distribute NSP funds to higher education providers. In turn, HE providers would allocate support to students, primarily from households with incomes under £25,000.

However, the policy was primarily devised as a concession to the government’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, who had promised to scrap tuition fees in their manifesto. As such, the policy was rushed, and within a year, there were doubts about its effectiveness. At a high level, it had poor brand recognition, and despite being called a ‘scholarship’, it allocated support based on socio-economic criteria, not academic achievement. And it wasn’t technically a ‘national programme’ since criteria varied widely between institutions across the country.

By 2015, the NSP was wound down. It supported around 90,000 students. There was little consideration of the existing profile and likely quantity of students from households with incomes under £25,000. This meant HE providers using the NSP scheme had to spread money more thinly than providers of similar size and a more affluent student body.

This disparity meant the NSP forced providers with higher proportions of eligible students to introduce ‘rationing’. They achieved this by creating additional criteria applicants had to satisfy to receive funding. Unfortunately, these new criteria made the NSP inconsistent, hard for applicants, and gave the impression it was unfair. For example, two students enrolled at the same university could receive different NSP benefits.

The biggest issue was that around half the NSP funding was distributed through fee waivers, which meant it provided no real-world financial help to needy students. It benefitted government balance sheets, but it didn’t support the intended beneficiaries: students.

While the policy was short-lived, these insights and unintended consequences are incredibly valuable as we consider future funding support to increase participation in HE in underrepresented groups – particularly as the cost of living crisis looms over students who, as a group, are still yet to receive any meaningful assistance from the state.

Pushing forward while looking back

Our country’s shortness of institutional memory is a big problem, but it is manageable. Whether considering the current political and socioeconomic landscape or simply understanding the pitfalls of policy design, policymakers can learn much from the past. Widening participation to HE for disadvantaged students is crucial in the coming months, but so is ensuring that they are successful once enrolled. Access courses and the NSP attempted to overcome some of the barriers some under-represented groups face in entering HE, primarily a lack of ‘traditional’ educational qualifications and lack of finance for tuition. To an extent, both programmes offered some success in supporting some of those who would not have otherwise been able to follow the university path. However, we must learn lessons from both policies. Ensuring real-world financial support is targeted in places where the need is most to ensure it targets the students that are in greatest need and they are able to benefit from courses and upfront financial assistance while they are studying.

You can read all of Edge’s Learning from the Past series here.


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