Imagine it’s the year 2020, and you are a young disadvantaged person. If the government’s green paper vision has become a reality, progressing to and through university will be a much less daunting experience for you than it would have been in 2015.
You’ll have chosen the right course for your career. And thanks to better information and guidance provided by the education and business departments, you’ll have studied the right post-16 subjects to get on to it.
You’ll have selected a university that will give you the right sort of teaching and support you need, thanks to the metrics included in the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef), which carefully measures the progression of disadvantaged students like you.
And when you arrive at university, you won’t stand out in the wrong way, because the fact that there are twice as many disadvantaged students as there were in 2009 means that theperception that higher education isn’t for people from low-income backgrounds has been banished for good.
Now, in 2015, the vision in the green paper is one that my organisation, the Brightside charity, supports. The target to double the number of disadvantaged students by 2020 is particularly welcome, as it provides a specific measure of success against which the government and universities can be held to account.
Alongside these areas, other proposals such as “name-blind” Ucas applications to counter racial bias and the establishment of a social mobility advisory group chaired by Universities UK mean that the document has a far stronger focus on social mobility than might have been expected.
The challenge now is to maintain that focus throughout the consultation stage. Although a green paper is more about plotting the direction of travel than presenting a fully-formed map, reading it in detail reveals potential bumps in the road.
The 2020 target is challenging, even with the strong foundation of the work done by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) in the past few years, which has seen participation of 18-year olds from the most disadvantaged communities increase by 21 per cent since 2012, and an even greater increase of 25 per cent at the most selective institutions. Nonetheless, the target will not be met if current trends continue.
According to research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), doubling the number of disadvantaged students will require participation rates for this group to increase by two to three percentage points per year, whereas the trend to date has been an increase of one percentage point per year.
This is where merging Hefce and Offa into an Office for Students (OfS) becomes potentially problematic. True, the green paper proposes that the director for fair access will have strengthened powers. And although it’s reassuring that the OfS’s remit is to champion the interests of students, without an independent organisation dedicated solely to widening participation, the fear is that this agenda could be diluted within a body dealing with other concerns such as funding.
The proposed model to fund the OfS through subscriptions from universities also raises the possibility of a conflict of interests between the institutions funding it and the students it is supposed to serve.
Much more detail is needed in relation to how this will work. The release of Ucas data will be a great advantage, as will the focus on specific groups, such as disadvantaged white males. But widening participation students are a complex group not always captured in such broad demographic data – young carers, care-leavers and young people estranged from their parents all risk being passed over.
One specific action would be for Ucas to collect more on groups such as young carers in greater detail, which can then be shared with universities to enhance their outreach and student support.
Also notable is the fact that there is no mention of – let alone a coherent strategy to tackle – the calamitous fall in part-time students since 2012. As a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) pointed out, the current loans system puts part-time study out of reach of many disadvantaged students who could benefit from more flexible higher education, and not addressing this issue seriously damages universities’ ability to drive social mobility for all – not just 18-year-olds starting full-time courses.
The government’s latest overhaul of student finance system also contradicts the green paper’s commitment to social mobility for first-time full-time students too. When maintenance grants are replaced by loans, many disadvantaged students will graduate with even higher debt.
It’s something of a paradox that the universities rated highly in the Tef – in part because of their track record of supporting disadvantaged students – will be able to add to that financial burden by raising their fees in line with inflation.
The wider risk is that the widening participation agenda will be obscured as the consultation process begins and universities are likely to be focused on the proposed regulatory changes and other aspects of the Tef. If the 2020 targets and the green paper vision are to be met, then widening participation must remain at the forefront of the government’s agenda.
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