15 February 2011
Policy Watch – Gaining access to university. We know one but by the end of next month we should know how much all universities intend to charge in tuition fees for 2012. All the signs are that it will be at the higher rather than the lower end. The Government may have reiterated Lord Browne’s view that universities could go for lower as well as higher fee levels but the old truism about price equalling quality seems just as likely to apply here as anywhere else. As Mike Baker put it in an interesting commentary on the issue recently, “no university wants to risk being perceived as secondrate by charging less.” Those that do set their fee level above the benchmark £6000 figure will have to agree to set aside a proportion of the income they receive from fees to help increase access for underrepresented groups. The mechanism being used is called an Access Agreement and further details on these were published last week. Access Agreements Access Agreements have been around since tuition fees were introduced in 2004 and have been considered an important mechanism in the Government’s widening participation agenda. It’s an agenda that has had a chequered history. Some have dubbed it social engineering and have argued that it’s not for Government to interfere in the admission arrangements of individual institutions. The foray by Simon Hughes into this area last month and Nick Clegg’s pronouncements the other day are evidence of this. Last week a group of Conservative backbenchers even tabled a motion saying that they “would view with concern any attempt to put political pressure on universities to differentiate between applicants on the basis of their school, family income, background or any other factor unrelated to their academic merit.” They are not alone. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of independent schools have equally expressed concern. The Government, however, has take the issue of social mobility very seriously and is concerned that not enough is being done to improve things. “The Government believes that progress over the past few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate, and that much more determined action now needs to be taken.” Current figures would support this. Certainly no leading university appears to have been penalised so far for failing to meet widening participation targets and as the Sutton Trust, leading experts in this field, pointed out in a Paper last December: “at the 25 most academically selective universities in England, only 2% of the student intake was made up of Free School Meal pupils compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils and just over a quarter of the intake from independent schools.” Their recommendation was that a large chunk of the fee income should be committed to specific widening participation activity. Carrot or stick? This latest guidance on Access Agreements comes with both a threat and a promise. The threat is of a big stick in the background; “if the sector as a whole appeared to be clustering their charges at the upper end of what is legally possible, and thereby increasing the pressure on public funds, we will have to reconsider what powers are available, including changes to legislation, to ensure that there is no differentiation in charges.” Treasury modelling had been based on average fees of £7,500, so if universities “cluster” at the high end, then Government could find itself strapped. Some people have suggested that rather like Project Merlin with the banks, if universities unilaterally raise fee levels, the Government may talk tough but not necessarily apply the big stick. Yet there are other sticks. For example, Access Agreements will be scrutinised by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) every year rather than every five years as currently and at the same time institutions will still have to provide Widening Participation Strategic Assessments (WSPA) for HEFCE.
As for the promise, this comes in the form of Government commitment to match fund, for the next three years at least, support packages available through the National Scholarship Programme. This Programme was set up towards the end of last year in the wake of the Browne Review as a way of ensuring that support was available for disadvantaged young people considering higher education. Those with an income below £25,000 are eligible and the package of benefits which will be distributed through individual universities includes discounts or waivers on fees as well as on accommodation. It could include a cash award in the form of a bursary but only up to £1,000. The Programme will be in place for 2012 and will be publicised on institutional websites as well as through UCAS. Concerns have been raised that the £50m the Government is putting in for the first year is far short of what might be needed although the expectation is that by the time this rises to £150m in 2014/15, the scheme will be able to support around 50,000 students. Further guidance on widening participation and Access Agreements generally is due from OFFA shortly and then individual universities will submit their Agreements by mid April. Informed Choices There have been other developments around university entry in recent weeks. For a start, the spectre of postqualification application (PQA) has reared its head again but more immediately, new information about the most suitable subject choices for entry to university has been published in a guidance Paper released a couple of weeks ago from the Russell Group and the Institute of Career Guidance. As David Willetts said in welcoming the guide, “improving information for prospective students is a priority for the Government and will form a key part of our plans for higher education.” Further details on this are due to be announced next month but for the moment this guide sheds useful light on an area that has caused concern in the past, namely: do selective universities look for certain combinations of subjects when considering applicants? Put another way, if you chose the ‘wrong’ combination of subjects at 16, are you restricting your chances of getting into a leading university? Not necessarily, according to this guide, “there is no set definition of a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ subject” yet there are what it calls ‘facilitating subjects;’ these are subjects that may open more doors. “By choosing facilitating subjects at advanced level, you will have a much wider range of options open to you at university.” These facilitating subjects are pretty much straightforward and include: Maths and Further Maths, English, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages. A large chunk of the guide is given over to listing the sorts of subjects generally expected for different degree courses. More often or not these are the various facilitating subjects but this has not often been very clear in the past and so many people may find it useful to see the listings clearly down on paper. The guide is not intended to take the place of individual prospectus or course requirements but with its ‘yoof’ friendly format of arrows, signals and boxes of warning signs, it is another step towards greater transparency in what can be quite a daunting process.
Steve Besley Head of Policy (UK and International) Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning It is also possible to follow some of the team with Steve Besley, Julie McCulloch and Louis Coiffait on Twitter, and to subscribe to our YouTube and Vimeo channels.
Policy Watches are intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted for decisions made on the basis of information given.
Access to HE Feb 2011