Go Higher: Social class must be no barrier to success

The shortage of less well off people in higher education is a national scandal, says Tony Higgins

A FEW weeks ago I presented the awards at the first Gloucestershire Neighbourhood College prize day. UCAS sponsors the prizes for the project which brings learning to underprivileged areas in Gloucestershire. The local further education college, Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology, in effect takes learning into the rundown housing areas of the county.

All those at the prizegiving had obtained their first qualifications. When leaving school for reasons of social and financial disadvantage, they had simply not been able to achieve them. One of the prize winners was unfortunately not able to be present. She had now got a job and could not take the time off. This was in fact the first job she had ever had and resulted directly from her obtaining her first qualification.

Some time ago I visited the Ford motor company in Dagenham to look at its employee development and assistance programme under which Ford gives a certain amount of money to each employee to use if they choose to learn. I met one man there who had no formal education since leaving school until he decided to learn to swim. He felt a real sense of achievement when he could swim a couple of lengths. He then thought he would perhaps like to learn how to play chess and found his mind stimulated by that particular activity. He then thought he would like to do a GCSE or two and, having passed those, he went on to do an A-level. He has now graduated from the Open University and is a highly respected shop steward.

These are two examples of widening participation and demonstrate that there is talent in all of us, whatever our financial and personal circumstances. This talent needs to be found and developed.

That is one reason why UCAS has introduced a forecasting and planning service. We know, from the huge amounts of data which we now hold on applicants, who is applying, for what subjects and who gets in, including data on age, gender, ethnic origin, educational background and social class.

One of the most important pieces of data which we hold is the postcode of every applicant. Our experience shows that the postcode acts as a good proxy for social class. We can therefore look at the social mix of those applying and those who succeed in getting places.

The forecasting and planning service can help universities and colleges to target their marketing to those living in under-privileged areas. This is not to say, as some critics would have it, that higher education institutions are in the future going to select students by postcode. Very far from it. Universities and colleges will continue to select students as before, through various criteria which are a mixture of academic merit, the ability to demonstrate the skills necessary for the course and potential to succeed. There is no question of social engineering here, so that students from disadvantaged areas are admitted at the expense of any other students. It is more a question of trying to get these potential students to understand the benefits of going to university or college and then getting them to apply.

Clearly, one of the major benefits of going on to university or college is that successful graduates usually achieve well-paid jobs and can therefore provide well for themselves and their families.

We all have talent and skills which need to be drawn from us and that includes those who are among the less well off. It is a national scandal that those from the lower socio-economic groups are still woefully under- represented in higher education.

We need to be able to get to those who are under-privileged much earlier than the 17/18-year-old timeframe of UCAS applicants. We need to begin to influence people, perhaps as early as primary school age, about the value of higher education.

UCAS can now provide the necessary data for the universities and colleges to put into effect their, and the Government's, wish to widen participation in higher education.

Tony Higgins is chief executive of UCAS, (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), Rosehill, New Barn Lane, Cheltenham, Glos GL52 3LZ. Website:http://www.ucas.ac.uk

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