Access to university is the hot topic. With the obvious changes to the way higher education is paid for and changes in the level of tuition fees, along with the ending of Aimhigher and the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), universities will be working harder than ever to ensure that students from under-represented groups have the opportunity to progress in to higher education. Recent UCAS application figures show that there has been a smaller decrease in the application rate for 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England than from the most advantaged areas. There is therefore no evidence so far in current application trends to suggest that students from these areas are being disproportionately deterred from applying to university. This is encouraging news as far as widening participation measures go, and indicates that young people can see that going to university remains a good, long-term investment.
Today Universities UK, Guild HE and the NUS are hosting a conference attended by over 100 delegates from a wide range of universities and student unions to explore the most effective ways to monitor and measure the value and impact of university outreach and widening access activities.
Higher education institutions charging more than £6,000 a year from 2012 have submitted access agreements to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), setting out their planned expenditure on access activities. We now know that English universities and colleges plan to boost their spending on access measures to £602 million a year by 2015-16.
The chart below illustrates where the majority of the OFFA expenditure will be focused in academic years 2011-12, 2012-13 and three years later in 2015-16.
Where the money is being targeted is clear – however, what is less certain is how succesful these activities will be in increasing universities’ intake of under-represented groups.
Fee waivers, bursaries and scholarships
As we can see from the OFFA chart, student financial support is the biggest spending commitment. An analysis of the access agreements for 2012/13 shows that, across the board, this will be targeted mainly on those with a family income of under £16,000.
It has been argued that the impact of offering financial support remains ambiguous. For example a study conducted by OFFA in 2010 found that bursary levels had no impact on the choice of university among students from low-income backgrounds. An internal study by Exeter University, on the other hand, indicated that 82% of those in receipt of a bursary considered it crucial in enabling them to continue with their studies. It is also possible that perceptions on the value of bursaries and fee waivers may change for students facing higher tuition fee levels.
Attainment raising programmes
Outreach also features heavily in the OFFA expenditure into higher education. This is an important area of activity for universities to ensure that anyone who has the ability and potential to succeed at university, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to attend.
An example of such activity is Queen Mary, University of London, which delivers a 6 week outreach project targeted a local school in Tower Hamlets. Each week focusing on different aspects of university life:
- Introduction to university life
- Democracy and representation
- On campus introduction
This is just one example of a range of aspiration and attainment activities that were presented. What remains clear from today, however, is that measuring the impact of this wide range of these initiatives is a challenging task. Work has begun and we have seen that some institutions are already quite advanced, but it does vary.
The emphasis is now very much about enhancing techniques for tracking, monitoring and evaluation. Universities are committed to this but cannot do this in isolation. The underlying message emerging from today was that if we are to achieve a step change in progress, universities, schools, colleges, students’ unions, employers and others will all need to work in partnership to deliver on access.