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Report on Widening Participation in HE: No change means priority needs to increase

Cambridge University students: Spot the difference...

A new government report has shown a small drop in the % gap between HE students from poor social backgrounds, and those from more privileged backgrounds. This has been reported by the Times Higher Ed. as exposing access problems for the poorest students - implying (although not going so far as to actually declare) that this constitutes a failure in government policies aimed at increasing widening participation in HE.

This is a little bit unfair.  The gap, which was a difference of 19% in 2005/6 dropped to a meagre 18% in 2010/11 - which suggests an ever-so small increase in the inclusiveness of HE access.  Nothing to get too excited about though, particularly as the report shows a 1% reduction of widening participation in the UK's most selective HE institutions in that same period (from 25% to 24%).

The only significant change in figures is the rise in overall students accessing HE - from 265,210 in 2005/6 to 293,830 in 2010/11 (an increase of nearly 10%).

Overall then, this new report offers little new information from the same report last year - which should not really surprise anyone as these figures are still relating to data from before the tuition fees were so controversially increased from £3,290 to £9,000 in 2012.

There are two things which I find interesting though.

1)  There is no evidence of a hike in widening participation in HE between 2009/10 and 2010/11.  Throughout this year, the impending tuition fee increase had been widely publicised, and one might have expected many students from poorer or non-traditional backgrounds to want to take advantage of the lower fees before the increase came into effect.  Certainly we might deduce that the overall 10% increase in HE participation between 2005/6 and 2010/11 might have been influenced by the inevitable approach of tuition fee hikes - but if it was, then the financial motive was as strong for those from more privileged backgrounds as it was for those from poorer backgrounds.  If later figures demonstrate (as expected) that the fee increases have significantly increased the gap between the number of poorer or non-traditional students and more privileged students in HE, then it might be worth asking the question why this gap has been changed by the reality of increased financial barriers, but not by the threat of them?

2)  The ever-so-slight shifts in direction indicated by this report should not be forgotten when the figures for 2011/12 emerge.  There is already a drop in the diversity of student profiles for the elite Universities, and if this drop is increased in 2011/12 figures then we should not automatically assume that this is exclusively due to the tuition fee increase.  The danger is that the excuse of tuition fees will be used to explain away the increasingly narrow profile of students at elite Universities, and things like bursaries held up as the most logical and practical mechanisms such Universities can implement to increase diversity.  I am sure such mechanisms can help, but the figures in this report suggest that there is more to this narrowing diversity than merely financial barriers.  The danger is that the tuition fee issue means that there is a drop in the research which is exploring more holistically what other barriers there are to increasing diversity in HE participation.

If anything then, my hope is that this report will demonstrate that the concern for widening participation in HE is of ever-increasing importance.  It is inevitable that financial barriers will damage the widening participation agenda, and so far there does not seem to be any indication that policies or practices between 2005/6 and 2010/11 have had any effect on them.

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