Martin Harris: Bursaries are useful but not the key to access

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When higher fees were introduced for full-time undergraduate students, there was widespread concern that this would deter students from poorer backgrounds from applying for places in higher education, and even, in certain quarters, that some institutions might actively seek to skew their admissions policies in favour of students from better-off families.

To seek to allay these anxieties, the same 2004 Act that raised the fees limit to £3,000 a year established the Office of Fair Access (Offa). Our remit, among other things, was to ensure that each university, through a formal access agreement approved by Offa's director, supplemented the Government's own scheme of grants and loans by using part of their new resources to create bursaries for students from poorer families or other under-represented groups.

In reality, of course, it was always illusory to imagine that universities would turn away, on financial grounds, students whom they would otherwise select on merit. Much more important, it now seems clear that the combination of the Government's own scheme of grants and loans, more generous to poorer students than for many years, and the array of bursaries offered by universities and colleges, has ensured that applicants are not being deterred from higher education for financial reasons. Application rates remain buoyant, and the chances of young people from the least well-off families entering higher education are edging up, albeit very slowly.

And yet the key problem remains, intractably, at the heart of the debate: children and young people from the most deprived groups continue to be highly under-represented in higher education. Much talent continues to be lost and opportunities for upward social mobility stunted. While higher fees have certainly not made matters worse, and have permitted vital additional investment in our universities and colleges, it cannot plausibly be claimed that the population of undergraduates is representative of the array of ability found, for example, among seven-year-olds.

It is at this point that I wish to try to move the debate forward. In my judgement, vital though grants, loans and bursaries are in assisting those who currently become undergraduates, we will not move closer to a socially inclusive cohort entering higher education simply by providing more of the same. What evidence we have is that the precise quantum of support available at 18 seems to have rather little influence both on whether a young person goes on to higher education and, if they do, which institutions they apply to.

The fact is that the choice of whether, and where, to enter higher education is motivated by a multiplicity of factors, of which financial support is but one, and, within the range of financial support we have seen in the UK, not the most significant.

It is my contention therefore that we should change the focus of the debate from what happens at 18, important though this will always be, and ask why it is that children of the same ability from different social backgrounds have such different chances of entering higher education in general, and highly selective universities in particular.

Clearly the answers lie deep in the structure of our society and our educational system, but let me offer a few rather obvious thoughts. The biggest single group lost (at least initially) to higher education are those who leave formal education at 16 – or, in reality, earlier in many cases. No amount of outreach aimed at the 16 to 19 group will help these people because they are no longer there to be reached.

Then there is the fact that many attitudes towards higher education form and harden in 11-16 schools, attended now by nearly all those we are trying to attract. Much policy and outreach, for understandable reasons, is aimed at the 16-19 age group, yet for many this is far too late.

Educational Maintenance Allowances are most welcome, but advice, guidance and pastoral support even earlier – for example, about choices at 14 – are absolutely vital if horizons are to be broadened and young people motivated. This need for regular, consistent and up-to-date information at 14 and earlier is increasingly being recognised and is already translating into support that tracks children throughout their school years.

To my mind, such support, particularly support for those at 11-16 schools, will do more to encourage widening participation than anything further that can be done at age 18. It is time to move on.

Sir Martin Harris is the director of the Office for Fair Access