If you are involved in Scottish higher education, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. Over the summer Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, was reported to be "quietly distancing himself" from the target of 50 per cent participation in higher education by 2010. The Government had already toned down expectations with talk of "working towards" the target. The percentage of 17- to 30-year-olds entering higher education in England has been resolutely stuck at 42 or 43 per cent for the past five years. Five years ago, Scotland reached 50 per cent, counting under-21s only.
The latest English statistics produced some furrowed brows at the Department for Education and Skills. A very large amount of public money has been invested to raise the educational aspirations of school pupils, to encourage more to apply for university. More than 400,000 16- to 19-year-olds receive Educational Maintenance Allowances each year. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is investing heavily in Lifelong Learning Networks to build clearer pathways from further to higher education. Bill Rammell, Minister for Higher Education, has now asked HEFCE to review its widening participation expenditure and report back this autumn.
In the interests of social justice, the concerns are well-founded. It isn't simply that progress to the 50 per cent target is faltering, but essentially no progress has been made to reduce the social class divide. Young people in the most advantaged 20 per cent of areas are five or six times more likely to go to university than those living in the least advantaged 20 per cent, and there is no evidence that the gap has reduced since the early Nineties. The middle classes have been the principal beneficiaries of the expansion of higher education.
The Government's 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, spelt out its action plan under four headings: attainment, aspiration, applications and admissions. The new money for universities all went into access. Now this strategy looks as if it is stagnating, and so minds are turning back again to schools. After all, unless they can turn out more young people with at least two A-levels - another trend that is distinctly flat at the moment - how can we expect student numbers in universities to increase?
But the gaps in the debate are striking. It is as if the premise is that universities can do nothing to make themselves more accessible: more students are needed who will fit what higher education is prepared to offer, and in the way it offers it. And "students" means "young students". Neither of these makes sense to anyone engaged with The Open University. We have made a virtue of adapting our provision to the lifestyles and needs of our students. The OU has been built on the premise that higher education is something that people can call on throughout their life. What is marginal for most universities is mainstream for the OU. A comprehensive widening participation policy, promoting social cohesion and strengthening the UK's competitive position, would demand a much more open, flexible and responsive higher education system.
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