The tragedy of widening participation

Imagine a social problem which is widely documented. Imagine that policy-makers, having noted its existence and broadly decided that it’s a bad thing, set out to address it by spending vast sums of money on a range of solutions. Imagine also that after a given period of time – let’s say 10 years – evidence emerged to suggest that the problem was just as big as it was when it first prompted policy-makers to delve into the public coffers. What would the appropriate response be?

There’s no prize for getting the answer right. You’d hope that the response would at least involve a significant element of reflection, of attempting to discern why despite significant investment there had been little change. You’d also expect a pretty thorough investigation into the impact of specific policies to find out whether there were individual successes (and failures) that had been masked by the general lack of progress. You’d be disappointed – to put it mildly – if none of this happened and the policy pronouncement was basically more of the same.

Looking at the attempt to widen access to our most selective universities over the last decade it’s difficult to feel anything other than disappointment. The preceding two paragraphs serve as a crude characterisation of the approach to ensuring that our best universities are more socially representative. The great tragedy is that it’s not nearly as crude a characterisation as it should be. On almost any metric access to the most selective universities remains heavily skewed in favour of the socially advantaged and there really is no evidence that the gap has narrowed over the last 10 years. This is despite significant financial investment and a range of policy initiatives.

To give an example, in 2014-15 the Russell Group of leading research universities will spend a staggering £216.3 million on widening participation, £36 million of which will be specifically spent on outreach work. This figure is not particularly exceptional in the context of recent university (and government) spending in this area. Whether this represents value for money is a fair question. You don’t have to be particularly cynical to suggest that it doesn’t. We know that in 2010-11 1,540 students were admitted to Russell Group universities who had previously been on free school meals (this works out at an average of about 64 per university). Assuming that the number next year is pretty similar – and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise – the Russell Group will be spending about £140,000 or £24,000 (depending on whether you use the entire widening participation budget or just the outreach figure) for each free school meal student that it accepts. When considering whether that represents a good return on investment it is worth bearing in mind that for about £70,000 you can put a child through Westminster School for their entire secondary education (I am definitely not suggesting this as an alternative).

No doubt the Russell Group would want to point to the broader impact of their widening participation work. The trouble is there isn’t any substantial impact for them to be able to point to because almost nothing has been done to evaluate the impact of their spending. As others have pointed out, most work carried out by universities in pursuit of fair access is not subject to any form of robust evaluation. Even the notoriously pliant OFFA has identified a need for more evidence about what works in improving access. Putting aside the obvious irony of institutions renowned for their research excellence failing to properly evaluate their work, this lack of evidence has depressingly obvious consequences. Universities continue to invest money in things that probably don’t work (e.g. bursaries and scholarships) and have no solid evidence on which to base future spending decisions. This week the government announced that it would be partnering with the Russell Group to provide visits to universities for Year 9 students from schools with low rates of university participation. Beyond ministerial intuition the sole basis for thinking that this will be effective seems to be that last year 97% of participants agreed that the experience was ‘useful’. There also seems to be no plan to properly evaluate the impact of the scheme going forward.

A lack of evidence about what works is not the only thing missing from the widening participation discourse. There is also a frustrating lack of clarity about the underlying causes of the problem. Most of the commentary – and indeed most policy – tends to focus on either aspiration or attainment. In other words, the focus is usually on either making sure students from disadvantaged backgrounds want to go to top universities or on ensuring that they get the grades that are required to do so. Until recently far too much emphasis was put on the former. So-called poverty of aspiration was often identified as being the primary barrier to improving access, with the rather patronising consequence that the participation gap was frequently explained as being a result of the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds just didn’t want to go to top universities. Fortunately this seems to be changing. The wealth of evidence demonstrating the correlation between attainment and social background has led to recognition that grades are the real barrier to fair access.

Whilst this shift is to be welcomed there are still considerable problems with this self-imposed dichotomy between aspiration and attainment, not least of which is the fact that they are closely related. Boosting attainment typically boosts aspiration. Similarly, provided they are given the right opportunities and support (this is a significant caveat) those with high aspirations tend to do well academically. Even those who profess to appreciate the respective role of attainment and aspiration often fail to use this understanding constructively. Universities have been known to use the attainment problem as an excuse for not admitting more disadvantaged pupils – the subtext being that it’s not their problem if schools don’t produce enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the right results. This ignores the possibility that universities themselves can play an important role in helping boost attainment in schools, especially if they are willing to genuinely collaborate with them (rather than ‘partner’ with schools, which in university speak-basically means approaching schools with a set menu of opportunities designed by the universities themselves).

The other problem with the separation of attainment and aspiration is that universities end up with a rather misguided impression of what aspiration actually is. In contrast to attainment, which is acknowledged as something that requires sustained long-term intervention (and therefore not universities problem), aspiration is seen as something which can be transformed overnight. From this perspective all we need is to ship kids off on a summer school or parachute them into a Russell Group university for a day and their aspirations will rise accordingly. The reality is that aspirations are shaped and cultivated over a much longer period of time. Aspiration isn’t like a tetanus jab – one quick shot in the arm won’t keep you ticking over for the next 10 years. Genuinely raising aspirations requires students to be in an environment with high aspirations for more than just a few hours.

All of which brings us to a criminally neglected element of this debate: the role of schools. Schools are the primary drivers of change in the education system.  No long-term change is going to take place in our education system that doesn’t heavily involve them. But despite the fact that universities all claim to be working with schools, too much of the widening participation agenda unwittingly presents them as part of the problem. Like the trappings of poverty they are seen as something that students need to be liberated from if they are to attend a top university. As long as universities view schools simply as the route to working directly with students rather than as the key to improving both aspirations and attainment their achievements in widening access are likely to be limited. Instead of investing all their energy and resources in developing summer schools and placement schemes with complex eligibility requirements universities should approach schools individually and find out what support they need. Interventions like this that are small-scale, heavily personalised and sustainable (i.e. the benefits are retained once the university withdraws direct support) are the best way of promoting fair access in the long term.

A widening participation agenda that has at its forefront a dual commitment to evaluating its impact and to working closely with schools has a far greater chance of succeeding where the current one has so clearly and painfully failed.

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One Response to The tragedy of widening participation

  1. martinlwf1 says:

    bang on

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