'The test of whether we are serious about access to higher education is our actions'

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The Independent Online

Just how serious are we about widening access to higher education? The question has to be asked, because there are signs of an ebbing of commitment to the grand social project from which Tony Blair and William Hague - neither of whom would be where they are without post-war university expansion - and millions of their fellow citizens have benefited.

Just how serious are we about widening access to higher education? The question has to be asked, because there are signs of an ebbing of commitment to the grand social project from which Tony Blair and William Hague - neither of whom would be where they are without post-war university expansion - and millions of their fellow citizens have benefited.

On the surface, the commitment is as firm as ever. The Prime Minister's rhetorical goal is 50 per cent participation - say, the equivalent of 20 or 30 more universities. Underneath the surface, the commitment is wobbly. The anti-access ideologies of "more means worse" may be rarely heard today, although the Head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, who would love to inspect universities as well as schools, has begun to use similar language.

But other less obviously ideological arguments are becoming more popular. One is that the supply of university and college places is already close to exceeding student demand. True, perhaps, if the financial burden on students continues to increase and the academic infrastructure continues to crumble. True, also, if the honours degree gold-standard is maintained and all other qualifications are treated as inferior.

A second argument is that the problem is not a dearth of places in higher education as such, but the unequal distribution of opportunities across the system. The thrust of access policies, therefore, should be to allow working-class and ethnic minority students to escape from their academic ghettos, the inner-city "new" universities, and to enter "proper" universities - such as Oxford.

In other words, a re-run, at the level of higher education, of the practice of admitting "scholarship boys" to grammar schools half a century or more ago. But the lessons of that failed experiment are clear. Only a tiny fraction of the very best of the socially disadvantaged would actually benefit, leaving the majority worse off than before (because their political claims would have been weakened and the institutions they attended further impoverished).

A third argument is that there is too much emphasis on access, anyway. Misplaced social guilt has encouraged academic mediocrity and undermined our best universities. As a result, Oxford and Imperial are slipping further and further behind Harvard and Berkeley. Britain's capacity to compete in the global knowledge economy has been compromised.

At least this argument is honest, even if it is unattractive and unconvincing. The most successful nations are those which strive to mobilise the talents of all their people - not just of a socially pre-selected minority. And, of course, issues of democratic entitlements and civic rights cannot be brushed aside in a free society.

The Americans concluded long ago that excellence and access are not a zero-sum game, a lesson many British policy-makers and university leaders have still to learn. Surely it is not a coincidence that the world's best universities and most accessible higher education system are both to be found in the same country - the United States. The Americans also reject another zero-sum game, between public and private funding, believing that the latter is nourished by the former, not a substitute for it. But that is another story.

Back to my original question - are we serious about access? If we are, two ideas have to be accepted. The first is value-added, the idea that students from socially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who get second-class degrees represent at least as great, and probably a greater, academic achievement as students from privileged backgrounds who get Firsts.

We must also reject the argument that value-added is an excuse for under-achievement. The outcomes of higher education cannot be reduced to degree results - because those results are culturally contaminated and because higher education is a lifelong process.

The second idea is that universities which add more value should receive matching resources. They should be paid for what they do. Teaching privileged, well-prepared students requires less investment than teaching less well-prepared students from deprived backgrounds. At present, it is the other way round. Not only do privileged universities receive superior funding; less privileged institutions are censoriously scrutinised for any signs of under-performance, such as student wastage.

The test of whether we are serious about access is not our aspirations - rhetoric is cheap - but our actions, our willingness to reform the structures, policies and mentalities that still ensure that "to him that hath shall be given..."

The writer is Vice-chancellor of Kingston University

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