The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What’s wrong with the debate about widening participation and fair access?

By Rob Cuthbert

The invaluable Higher Education Policy Institute breakfast seminar series at the House of Commons continued on 27 February 2019 with speakers Chris Millward of the Office for Students, Alan Rusbridger (Oxford) and NUS President Shakira Martin asking the question: ‘Widening participation and fair access: is it time to reset the debate?’. The answer: yes it is, but the seminar didn’t.

This seminar could have happened at any time in the last 20 years, and probably did: obsession with Oxbridge admissions, with a nod to the severe but lesser difficulties of the (rest of the) Russell Group; a lament about social mobility being at a standstill; a deficit model of disadvantaged applicants still being used to excuse lack of progress; and a plea for greater use of contextualised admissions. There was a hint of menace in Millward’s reference to the much greater and more nuanced regulatory powers available to the OfS, reinforced as Rusbridger referred to Oxford’s changes – such as they were – being driven only by greater transparency and the fear of closer regulation. Shakira Martin gave an excellent tub-thumping speech but didn’t go beyond a general exhortation to dismantle the system and build a new one.

There were positive steps. Millward, having noted – with a tinge of regret? – that OfS powers did not extend to admissions, was good on reconstruing ‘merit’ as ability to benefit, rather than level of prior qualifications, citing Princeton’s recent example in tripling its proportion of student intake from disadvantaged backgrounds from 7% to 21%. He also properly emphasised the need for a package of support pre- and post-application: “getting in and getting on”, to which later comments added “getting out” – ie not letting employers escape their share of responsibility. But he pointed out that on present trends fair access would take 50 years to be realised, and Martin asked how many people would suffer in the meantime.

We are doing no more than inching in the right direction. The elephant in the room was the higher education ‘market’, taken for granted so much that it had become invisible as part of the problem. The whole debate was implicitly framed in a market environment. The last Labour government, the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and now the Conservative government developed a tripartisan agreement that HE should be treated as a market, in the profoundly mistaken belief that marketisation is the best way to ensure accountability and, as HE ministers always say, ‘to drive up standards’. This is a no-win game for universities, because government thinks that having more students getting better degrees is evidence not of rising standards but of grade inflation. And it’s a no-lose game for government: the marketisation policy survives despite the evidence that the HE market allowed in some for-profit operators who induce students with loans to transfer large sums of public money to them, in return for educational programmes of dubious quality.

In present circumstances the widening participation debate starts with the taken-for-granted assumption that universities and colleges are atomistic individual players in competition. However, institutions should not be allowed to do what, perhaps in desperation, they might think best in the competitive market – unconditional offers, closing unpopular science or language courses, or whatever. Government knows better and wants them to do things differently, even as it nods through the collateral damage of a policy-driven catastrophic fall in the numbers of mature and part-time students, and contemplates with equanimity the closure of entire universities – not the ‘top’ universities attended by ministers and civil servants, obviously, just the ones most likely to be serving disadvantaged communities. In addition, government knows better than students what is in students’ best interests, so the policy obsession is with admissions to Oxbridge and the Russell Group, to which of course all students would apply if only they knew what was best for them.

Hence the WP debate continues to be treated as a matter of institution-by-institution target-setting, public embarrassment, regulation, and occasional punishment of the deviants (only the lower-status deviants, obviously), in a way which implicitly and strongly reinforces higher education’s reputational hierarchy. We have travelled a long way from David Watson’s wise celebration of the UK’s ‘controlled reputational range’ and his reminder that ‘a rising tide floats all boats’ in widening participation.

Diagnoses are plentiful, but where might we find a solution? The first step is to remember that there is more to a widening participation philosophy than self-styled ‘top’ universities’ could dream of. Government could and should do much more to celebrate and reward the ‘other’ HE institutions – those which go on providing good or excellent HE for the great majority of students (over 80% of students do not attend Russell Group universities), but which may not appear in the top 20 of any university league table. And if that is too much to ask, then widening participation initiatives, at least, should raise their heads above institutional level. WP practitioners know that collaboration is the key to success.

Aimhigher, a national WP initiative based on collaboration, was killed in 2010 by the then new HE Minister David Willetts, having already been marked for execution by the outgoing Labour government. This was because, as HEPI’s Nick Hillman, Willetts’ special adviser, has said, there was not enough evidence (from the Treasury’s point of view) to save it rather than others from the axe. In subsequent years the collaboration was slowly reconstructed, as far as it could be, by WP stalwarts swimming against the rising tide of market forces in the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. The £50million annual cost of Aimhigher is by now outstripped by a much larger sum being spent much less efficiently on bursaries and predominantly institution-focused outreach activities. Rusbridger reminded us that Oxford’s £14million spend over 2009-2016 had benefited just 126 students, characterised by one seminar participant as spending ‘to keep things exactly as they are’.

How can we reset the debate on widening participation and fair access? We will not do it by encouraging another surge in the market tide. OfS’s widely-admired Chris Millward is doing his best to square the circle, with guidance issued on 28 February 2019 for institutions on their access and participation plans, but the overall programme is inevitably still enslaved by the ambitions and fears of excessively market-conscious institutions. We need to expand ringfenced funding and empower the people who spend it, for fair access initiatives which benefit institutions beyond their own – or, importantly, bring benefits to others but not at all to their own institution. (Yes, Russell Group, that means you.) Initiatives must be rooted in the institutions but promote higher education in general, and should rely for their success on improved participation from truly disadvantaged groups – not those often wrongly flagged as disadvantaged by POLAR data. We need to support more institution-based activity which is not institution-focused. We need to help potential students find courses and institutions which are best for them, not courses in the ‘best’ institutions which their qualifications allow them to consider. Contextualised admissions make good sense in terms of reconstruing merit and ability to succeed, but institutions need to discover that for themselves, and discover how they need to change to accommodate different kinds of merit. Regulation will not change minds in the way that the experience and contribution of a more diverse student body will.

Just as we should be professional, but not mistake academics for a profession, be businesslike, but not mistake the university for a business, we should compete for students, but not mistake higher education for a market. Government and the Office for Students should encourage institutions to collaborate for fair access, and not mistake collaboration for a cabal. The OfS could then focus its attention on any ‘top’ university that is so insecure or selfish about its standing that it fails to collaborate in such collectively-funded fair access initiatives. Most institutions, allowed to be true to the values that motivate most of their staff and students, will do more for fair access than the Office for Students could ever impose.

SRHE Fellow Rob Cuthbert is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management and a former Deputy VC. He chaired Aimhigher South West, which had an integrated  region-wide programme of WP activity involving all of the South West’s 13 HEIs, 40 FE colleges, state secondary schools, regional agencies and the TUC. He edits SRHE News and the SRHE Blog and is interim chair of the SRHE Publications Committee