For our latest debate we moved further down the education pipeline, to higher education. We wanted to look at why the pace of progress in widening access across our universities has felt so slow.
We were inspired by a pamphlet published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) entitled The Comprehensive University. In place of our current system of selective university admissions, the pamphlet argued for mechanisms that would distribute applicants with different levels of prior attainment more evenly across the higher education system, in the same spirit as comprehensive schooling. To assess the case for such a move we were joined by: HEPI Director, Nick Hillman; leading expert on issues of HE access Professor Anna Vignoles of Cambridge University; Paul Jump of Times Higher Education, the sister publication to the TES, our media partner for the debate series; and Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas.
The ensuing discussion drew out four main responses to the challenge of achieving fair access: comprehensivisation, but also expansion, quotas, and better valuing further education. None offer easy solutions, and all ultimately require us to first answer the more fundamental question of what we believe HE is for – is it just about the pursuit of the life of the mind, or an engine for productivity and/or social mobility?
Expansion of the system in and of itself can support greater diversity. The expansion we have seen in the UK since the 1950s (from 3% of young people progressing to university to just under 50% today) has resulted in a more diverse student body, albeit more so in terms of gender than for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and some BME groups.
Nick Hillman is one commentator to support further expansion, to 70%, even 80%, of the school leaver population – replacing Blair’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ with ‘expansion, expansion, expansion’. But there are risks – of credential inflation, poor returns (certainly in terms of future earnings), and of the enduring stratification of students across the system. Not all, including Claire Fox, would support the more vocational orientation that greater expansion would entail for universities.
If we reject further expansion, then to diversify access within our current system we would need to use quotas or contextualised admissions far more actively and aggressively than we do at present. This would mean admitting fewer individuals from the groups that are currently over-represented in HE, including women and those from more advantaged backgrounds. The immediate risk would be students gaming the system. This approach also assumes that as a society we are content with a highly stratified system of higher education, which contextualised admissions would simply reinforce.
So, is comprehensivisation the answer – less hierarchy, less selection, more local provision, and more diverse student intakes across the sector? Other countries manage perfectly well with such a system. The Netherlands is one example. As Paul Jump outlined, in France (setting aside the Grandes Écoles) universities only use selection for over-subscribed courses, while Switzerland combines a comprehensive model with relatively high esteem in the international university rankings. The downside is higher dropout rates than we have been used to in the UK. The other downside is that we may be about 800 years too late…
There was some scepticism that the UK higher education system could break out of the mould set back around 1096 and 1209 with the founding of Oxford and Cambridge universities. The features of selectivity and the ‘boarding school model’, to use Hillman’s shorthand, of studying away from home are now heavily ingrained. So it may be a catch-22 situation: we can’t have a (fully) comprehensive system without first removing the hierarchy. A quick glance at the effects of our school admissions system hints at what could happen to the housing market if we didn’t achieve the latter. So, no easy answers. Even the much-treasured Open University didn’t escape unscathed – accused, on its 50th birthday of all days, of letting the rest of the sector off the hook in terms of facilitating part-time and mature access.
Regardless of how our higher education system chooses (or is told) to raise its game on fair access, our panellists were agreed on the need to better value the sector that serves ‘the other 50%’ – further education. Albeit, as well as valuing FE in its own right, this was with the contrasting, parallel motivations of, on the one hand, preserving what some perceive to be HE’s unique remit, and, on the other, providing alternative routes to university. On this, the labour market may force our hand: already, some apprenticeships offer higher earnings potential (and esteem) than some degrees. Can further and vocational provision avoid its own fair access problem in the process?
You can watch or listen back to the debate on comprehensive universities here.