Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Learning the right university access lessons

Anyone listening to Today this morning might have imagined that the chances of poorer youngsters going to university had not improved as a result of the efforts by the Labour government and universities to improve access. Yet, here is what the report from the Office for Fair Access says:
....the likelihood of those from the lowest participation areas participating in HE has increased by 30 per cent over the last five years alone and by 50 per cent over the last 15 years. Importantly, the gap between the participation rates of the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged areas has been narrowing, both in proportional terms and percentage point terms, since the mid 2000s. This is the first time that this has happened since the mid-1990s, and most likely ever. This significant narrowing of the gap has not occurred at the expense of fewer young people from advantaged areas entering higher education. Young people in advantaged areas are 5 per cent more likely to enter higher education than five years ago, and 15 per cent more likely compared to the mid-1990s.
That is clearly good news. But where there is obviously still a big issue is in access to elite universities, where the social gap has remained largely unchanged. That is far more complex. As OFFA director Prof Martin Harris says, it needs a combination of earlier intervention, clearer bursaries, summer schools and the right subject advice by schools. The most successful interventions are sustained outreach by research-intensive universities with schools in disadvantaged areas. And in some cases, this means guaranteed access for successfully completing an outreach programme and gaining certain grades, making access easier. The report also concludes that without these programmes
It would therefore be fair to conclude that without these efforts we would have seen a decline in the both the absolute and relative participation rates of such students in the most selective third of institutions.
It is important that we draw all the lessons from this report if we are to improve access to elite universities and improve access further to higher education in general.


Tom Richmond said...

Clearly we have more people going to university than ever before, but doesn't Labour bear responsibility for some of the problems such as subject choice?

For example, Labour's introduction of the derided 'Core Science' GCSE (which is totally inadequate for studying science at A-level and university) has meant that only 85% of school pupils now sit individual science GCSEs.

Conor Ryan said...

Actually, Tom, the last few years has seen an uplift in students taking physics and chemistry, after years of falling back. The Core Science GCSE is not aimed at would-be scientists but at those who are unlikely to continue science to A level. Specialist science colleges - developed by Labour - are leading the way in reviving single sciences. Not everyone will go to university or study science-related subjects there - those who don't need some grounding in science; that's what the core science GCSE - which had substantial scientists' support when it was introduced for that reason - is about. At the same time, we also need more young people doing single sciences. The two are not incompatible.