David Baker: Universities are failing low-income students

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Vice-chancellors will doubtless give a thumbs-up to the Government's new First to Go initiative, which aims to encourage more young people with no family experience of university to consider higher education. It is a welcome move, and it is to be hoped that the campaign's message on the benefits of higher education will get through to the third of England's 16- to 17-year-olds who would be the first in their family to go to university if they were to apply for a place.

The fact that such an initiative is needed at all is a timely reminder of how most universities have failed to overcome the educational, cultural, social and financial barriers that make higher education an unattractive or unconsidered option for so many. The sector still has a long way to go in persuading people from low-income backgrounds that university education is for them.

How can this be, when so much time and money has been spent on efforts to widen participation over the past decade? A clue lies in research conducted by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills before it launched the First to Go campaign on 3 January. A poll of grandparents, parents, and young people found that 73 per cent believed the biggest long-term benefit of going to university was the ability to get a better job, while 63 per cent agreed that a university education offered a chance to earn more money.

If so many believe that education can lead to a better future, it seems strange that more people from low income families are not trying to win a place at university. The research findings and their implications are familiar to me as a first-generation graduate from a working-class family, and as principal of a university college and chair of GuildHE, the body representing 30 medium-sized universities, university colleges and small specialist institutions.

The key questions for most people who are the target of the First to Go campaign are how much debt they are likely to amass by the time they graduate and whether the subsequent benefits will outweigh their losses. They are risk-averse and need to know that higher education is offering them great value for money. People who can least afford to get into debt need to know that they will get high quality teaching and support to maximise their chances of gaining a degree, and that their career prospects will be much better than they would have been had they not entered higher education.

The question of whether these prospective students will get value for money will become even more significant over the next few years, particularly if universities are allowed to increase top-up fees. These issues highlight the importance of maintaining a diverse sector and recognising the key role played by GuildHE institutions in reaching out to students from non-traditional backgrounds. I am talking about places like Harper Adams University College in Shropshire which runs taster days for prospective students from disadvantaged areas, Bishop Grosseteste University College in Lincoln that offers finance workshops, and Buckinghamshire New University which runs a buddying scheme where students support one another via text messages.

Whatever the rhetoric of the pre-1992 universities about improving the student experience, I question whether they are really geared to supporting people for whom going to university is not the norm; and preparing them for life after graduation. The elitist culture and strong research focus in these institutions can prove an intimidating barrier to entry for such students. I also wonder whether the environment of the typical pre-1992 university is supportive enough and is really offering them value for money.

Middle-class students can cope in a traditional university environment because of preparation and support from home and school. But students with no family history of going to university may struggle without the extra help that a smaller teaching-led institution can provide, and without mentoring and encouragement from higher education that should begin at school. For instance my own institution, University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, gives awards to such school pupils to acknowledge their achievements and encourage them to consider higher education. It also runs mentoring schemes and summer schools.

How many universities have a long history of being truly committed to providing such support and reaching out to the students who need it? There is a model here in GuildHE institutions, which I believe offer the best value for money to those who can least afford to risk their financial future.

The writer is principal of University College Plymouth St Mark & St John (Marjon) and Chair of GuildHE