Magazine article Public Finance

Access All Areas?

Magazine article Public Finance

Access All Areas?

Article excerpt

Getting more working class and disadvantaged students into higher education is one of the government's top priorities. Ministers are committed to achieving a 50% participation rate for young adults wishing to go to university. But, as Universities Secretary John Denham admitted this week, more confidencebuilding' measures are needed to reassure the public that the higher education admission system is open and accountable'.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England on April 8, Denham announced major new powers to scrutinise universities' admissions procedures. Along with a range of other measures - including a new university mentoring scheme for school students - this is meant to beef up the drive to broaden higher education access.

But, despite spending almost £2bn on widening participation in England alone between 1997 and 2006, this particular target, set almost a decade ago, is proving a hard nut to crack A hefty slice of this funding has been spent on helping students to complete their courses, but to little apparent effect.

People from the lower socioeconomic groups skilled manual, semi-skilled and unskilled - are severely under-represented in higher education. Although half of the UK population are in one or other of these categories, fewer than a third of undergraduates are. In 1997/98, the first year this was consistently measured, the proportion was just 26%. Five years later, it was exactly the same.

In 2002/03, the proportion jumped to 29.2%. However, this rise might have been due to the introduction in that year of a new classification of socioeconomic groups. By 2005/06 - the most recent year for which data are currently available - the proportion had edged up to 29.8%. But the figures need to be treated with caution, since the social class of around one in four young full-time undergraduates is unknown.

Throughout this period, the government was pumping money into the sector to help widen participation. When Labour came to power in 1997, nothing was specifically spent on this apart from £22m for access funds to help students in financial hardship.

Two years later, Hefce allocated £20m funding to institutions for teaching 'to recognise the extra costs associated with recruiting and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds currently underrepresented in higher education'.

Soon after the government set the target for Eng- land, Scotland - with historically higher participation levels - announced it had already met the 50% target. Northern Ireland, too, is close to the 50% mark, with traditionally higher levels of working-class participation than the rest of the UK In Wales, targets have been more focused on increasing take-up from the most deprived areas.

By 2003/04, Hefce's £20m had shot up to £265m. The lion's share of this was for improving retention, that is, providing learning support for students from a nontraditional higher education background - such as white working-class males and Bangladeshi women to help them continue their courses. But almost ?50m was for widening access, to support outreach and recruitment activities by institutions to encourage young people to apply to university. There was funding, too, to enable disabled people to study.

In all, between 1997/98 and 2007/08, £2.9bn was spent on widening participation, access funds and the Aimhigher programme (and its predecessors). Aimhigher was set up to encourage under-represented learners to enter higher education, using sub-regional partnerships of universities, schools, further education colleges and work-based learning providers. Next year's funding for HE institutions and the next three years of money for Aimhigher will bring Labour's total spending on widening participation to almost £3.5bn. In Scotland, in 2007/08, funding for widening access and disabled students rose to over £12m; in Wales, it amounted to more than £6m.

But none of this seems to have done much to resolve the problem of high dropout rates. …

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