Open Eye: Education should be a right, not a privilege

Yvonne Cook looks at how The Open University is helping lead the way in widening participation

Education policies come and go, but in one area there has long been a remarkable degree of political consensus – widening participation. Although the total proportion of the UK population going into higher education has risen over the past 30 years, your chances of going to university are still much lower if you come from a poorer background than if you come from a better-off family.

There has been no shortage of initiatives to increase the numbers of university students coming from lower socio-economic groups. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) gives more than £350m a year to higher education institutions to support widening participation. And since 2004 Government has supported Aimhigher, a programme designed to raise the aspirations of young people through activities such as university taster sessions and summer schools.

When universities minister David Willetts announced last year that Aimhigher was to close in 2011, there was concern in the sector over Government’s commitment to widen participation. Nevertheless Willetts said in his announcement he looked forward to much faster progress. In their subsequent grant letter to HEFCE Willetts and Vince Cable said: “Social mobility, fair access and widening participation should be a key strategic objective” and called for “a new and improved approach to outreach”.

So far, so good. But with the shift towards students bearing more of the cost of their education, and university fees set to more than treble next year under the new funding regime, there are concerns that initiatives to widen participation may suffer a serious setback.

Dr Liz Marr is director of the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum (CIC) which has responsibility for a number of widening participation initiatives at The Open University. She has little doubt that the prospect of incurring a large debt will discourage the type of student targeted by widening participation initiatives.

“There are many reasons why our education system is not giving everyone a fair chance to go to university, but among the barriers is finance: people from low socio-economic groups find it difficult to access the necessary funds, not just for fees, but other costs such as living expenses. Another barrier is perceptual – basically, people from these groups making the assumption that ‘university is not for the likes of me’,” she says.

Research suggests that people from low socio-economic groups are among the most debt-adverse, she adds. “If you are already debt-averse and worrying about whether university is ‘for the likes of me’, why would you want to incur £27,000 worth of debt for a degree?”

In theory, low earners should not be deterred by having to take out loans to pay university fees, because they won’t need to pay anything back until they start earning more than £21,000 a year. But, says Dr Marr, the perceptual barrier remains. “Even though in reality they may never pay the loan back, the way it’s being perceived is that being a student means being left with horrendous amounts of debt.”

Higher fees are not the only thing worrying advocates of widening participation. Universities across the country are cutting back on part-time provision and access-type courses because they feel they can no longer afford them. Routes into higher education delivered by further education colleges are suffering in the same way. There is also concern that HEFCE’s annual widening participation allocation is only confirmed until 2011/12.

The Open University – whose founding mission is to increase access to higher education – is currently looking for ways to try and make sure widening participation survives and, hopefully, thrives. One initiative it is likely to expand is OpenPlus, which began life in 2007 as the ‘2plus2’ scheme to increase the numbers of physics and chemistry graduates. Students without the qualifications for a university place in these subjects can join the OU and after two years’ preparatory study, transfer to one of a number of partner universities (currently there are 14 in England and Wales) to complete their degree with regular full-time study for a further two years.

The first students to graduate from OpenPlus this year have performed extremely well and feedback from their partner universities has been good, according to OpenPlus manager Sarah Brown, who believes the initiative “has more than proved the concept”. At partner Lancaster University Dr Ian Saunders, who has been project officer for the scheme there since it began, agrees.

“We have been able to say to people with no qualifications, you can apply through us to The Open University, you can do certain courses and if you do well enough, you can get into one of the best physics departments in the country. We have admitted into Lancaster some very able students via OpenPlus, and we have significantly widened our variety of student backgrounds.

“The very high academic performance of almost all our OpenPlus entrants has reassured some colleagues who felt that this group would lower our average academic standards and pull us down in league tables.”

OpenPlus plans to expand its range of subjects and partners, and in the longer term, according to Dr Marr, the OU could create a similar model for all subject areas. Another OU initiative called Openings – short, low-cost access courses designed to build up skills and confidence before students transfer to regular undergraduate courses – is also being used by some students without the right qualifications to access traditional university, and this is a part of the OU’s role that could be expanded, says Dr Marr.

“What the OU is doing is providing opportunities not just for people to come and get a qualification with the OU, but to take other routes as well. With the different things that are currently in place to encourage widening participation now becoming less viable, I would like to see the OU doing more with other universities to further widen access.”

For those lacking formal qualifications we need an alternative, recognised by the entire higher education sector, she says. “I would like us follow the example of New Zealand and develop something like their Certificate of University Preparation. This would be similar to students having done one of our Openings courses, but it would be recognised as a sector-wide solution, not just a route into the OU. It would include the skills and competencies needed for higher education, and a introduction to a particular subject, and it would also help people develop confidence in their abilities and encourage them to take that step and commit to a loan.”

Unless we get widening participation right, our educational system will continue to deny poorer children a fair chance in life, says Dr Marr. “Many of the social problems we face today can be attributed to educational underachievement. Access to education is so important because it is transformative, it gives people the opportunity to change their lives.”

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