University challenge

After all the hype, Dearing has finally delivered. Committee member Adrian Webb explains their key motivation: ensuring quality higher education for all
Click to follow
The Independent Online
On the Dearing Committee we were asked to set out the agenda for the size and shape of higher education for the next 20 years. Some of those who gave evidence argued for greater expansion, some for consolidation and even rationalisation of numbers. But it soon became clear that to concentrate solely on absolute numbers would not be enough. The many "disenfranchised" people to whom higher education remains a no-go area needed special attention.

This must be a priority for the new administration, not only because it would be fair and just to reduce inequities, but also because so many of the benefits of higher education rely on our ability to offer education to all members of our society without major restrictions on access and the consequent waste of talent.

The statistics are stark. Although progress has been made in some areas, notably as regards participation by women and certain ethnic minorities, the figures on participation by social class still show great inequalities. Higher education remains the prerogative of the middle and upper classes: the poorer the background, the poorer the opportunity. An 18-year-old from the most favourable social background (social class one) is nearly seven times more likely to enter higher education than a contemporary from social class five. Participation has risen dramatically in both groups in recent years as higher education has expanded, but the comparative inequities have remained.

In Dearing, this really hit home when the Higher Education Funding Council in England produced dramatic evidence of participation by geographical area. In 1992 there was a 16 per cent difference between the regions with the highest post-16 participation rate and those with the lowest. Young people with limited educational achievements and few skills are becoming less employable by the day, while graduates benefit from better pay and more stable careers compared even with those non-graduates who showed similar levels of ability at A-level. Universities, rather than the "university of life", are increasingly the arbiters of individual, and national, economic success.

Why does social background still matter so much, despite the massive expansion of higher education over recent years? The evidence shows that students come to higher education when they achieve good A-level grades and when they have a family background of educational achievement. This suggests that the problem lies at an early stage in the education system, rather than with the universities. However, higher education cannot escape scrutiny or criticism. Some higher education institutions attract more students from less advantaged backgrounds, with the "new" universities being collectively better than the "old".

Above all, higher education institutions must accept, not avoid, responsibility for improving matters. A problem which is deeply rooted at all levels of education is "owned" by everyone, and therefore by no one. Higher education must demonstrate much clearer ownership of the issue in the future, not just by examining and improving its own practices but also by systematically supporting schools and higher education colleges in a comprehensive attempt to reduce the waste of ability and the denial of opportunity that lie behind the bare figures. But, for higher education to make this wider- ranging contribution, the Government must own the problem, too. The way forward lies in acting at two different levels simultaneously: changing systems and processes throughout education, and providing incentives for best practice. Only the Government can offer the coherent strategy that is needed.

The system, it has to be said, does have a lot going for it. In recent years, the advent of a vocationally based post-16 qualification, the GNVQ, has provided many with new opportunities. Access courses and further education colleges provide a non-traditional route into higher education. But still the results are limited. In Dearing we sought examples of international practice to see whether we could learn lessons. In terms of widening participation, it was Northern Ireland, not Australia or the US, which was most interesting. Northern Ireland has fewer funded places than the rest of the UK, and far more students have to move away to study. Yet participation rates are well above the national average, with the success reflected across social classes. In 1994 a third of all university students from the province came from manual working-class backgrounds, compared with less than a quarter for the rest of the country. Many factors lie behind this, but the partnerships developed between higher and further education colleges are key. The recent Kennedy Report has also illustrated the importance of further education in widening participation. Lessons must be learnt about the potential of alliances, and the dangers of competition between higher and further education.

Many institutions throughout the UK have put in place innovative partnerships with schools and colleges, and non-A-level entry routes have won greater acceptance. Part-time study and mature student numbers are expanding. But these examples of good practice are by no means the sector standard. At best they are models on which to base a more coherent national strategy; impetus is required at national level to promote best practice throughout higher education.

Beyond this, and more fundamental, is the way we measure the success of higher education. Paradoxically, higher education has often been judged on its raw material rather than its product. Good A-level results are seen to mean a good university. To value unequivocally only that which higher education institutions add to their students' development and performance requires a long-overdue change of attitude and thinking which must be achieved without delay. This principle of "added value" should be built into the national Teaching Quality Assessments and the annual league tables. But these developments, however beneficial, will only reach out to individuals who are at least partly disposed to higher education. They will do little to solve the structural problems which stifle opportunity in those localities where only one in 15 of young people progresses to higher education.

We need to develop a genuine and realistic approach to targeting the most disadvantaged communities, an approach that must avoid the danger of merely "cherry-picking" the most able and motivated. In the valleys of South Wales, where my own university is located, unemployment is as high as 17 per cent, with young males being hit the hardest. Significant economic regeneration has followed devastating decline, but the economic green shoots cannot simply and directly replace traditional jobs. Economic dislocation remains a fact of life. In circumstances where no one in your family works, higher education may not be the most obvious route to a better life.

In the short term, creating better opportunities for adults is crucial. We must move beyond the easy parts of lifelong learning - professional development and masters' degrees for high flyers; what is needed is an inclusive and modern vision of liberal adult education which engages people of all circumstances, and from all backgrounds.

Modern universities may not be the ivory towers of popular myth, but they can still be remote when viewed from an under-privileged background. To enter further education, let alone higher education, is to intrude upon an alien world for many; "portal phobia" inhibits access. To counter it, higher education must move into the community, to where people are - the shopping centres and high streets, the village halls and churches. And, crucially, it must allow the community, the recipients, to set the agenda for the education they receive. We must also engage more broadly with the world of work to excite interest in study on the shop floor. The TUC as much as the CBI should be shaping our model of lifelong learning in an effort to make it an inclusive programme for widening opportunity.

To engage with adults - in the community and the workplace - is not just about expanding access for the excluded members of earlier generations. It is also about helping the school-age generation of today by transforming the attitudes and confidence of their parents. However, it is also essential to work directly with schools and colleges through compacts, homework clubs, intensive revision and "master classes". Universities must assist in, not stand aloof from, the struggle to improve education at younger ages. They can, for example, offer crucial role models to young people by sponsoring student tutoring schemes in local schools.

But, as with so much in Dearing, money has to be part of the equation. Developing a systematic approach to widening participation is a financial challenge to any university. Outreach, schools liaison, support for adult students, are all more expensive than working with traditional A-level students. And funding pressures push towards the most cost-effective way of delivering courses.

One initiative in Wales in further education involves modest financial incentives offered to institutions with students from specified, "difficult to recruit" postal districts. If diversity and equity are to be taken seriously, this limited example should be generalised to higher education and to the UK as a whole; and it should be supported by other incentives such as financial encouragements for schools and further education colleges.

On the other hand, a potentially worrying disincentive is that of increasing the personal cost of participation by charging students tuition fees as the Dearing Report suggests. Intuitively, it seems likely that fees will depress demand from low-income groups, although there is no solid evidence and indeed this has not been the experience in Australia. Faced with such uncertainty the best way forward would be to means-test the onset of fees to preserve free education for the lowest-income groups.

Of course, given low staying-on rates, a genuinely radical solution, albeit expensive, would be to fund maintenance grants for all low-income students post-16.

Higher education, more than ever, cannot thrive in isolation. The inequalities in its institutions reflect the wider inequalities of opportunity in society. Higher education institutions have much to offer in combating these inequities, and they will do so in diverse ways depending on their traditions, missions and geographical location.

But two features of the way forward are abundantly clear: higher education as a whole must take the widening of participation as a fundamental challenge, and the higher education contribution must be embedded in a wider approach to reducing social polarisation. The challenge is to achieve fundamental social change for the most disadvantaged groups and communities in our deeply divided society. Ultimately, real and lasting success will require reduced unemployment, renewed hope and belief in education as a means of personal bettermentn

Adrian Webb. The writer is vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan, and was a member of the Dearing Committee.