Fear and anxiety in HE – what happens to widening participation and fair access in the new funding regime? Discussion over breakfast at HEPI Seminar at the House of Commons

Added by Sarahisles on 09 March 2011 11:56

Does widening participation still matter? Will the new funding arrangements for HE signal a retreat from the great advances made in recent years to open up HE to more people from more disadvantaged backgrounds?  And what about fair access – to some a distraction from the broader moral purpose of ensuring that HE benefits the many not the few; to others a key driver of social mobility – will  this become a too narrowly focused obsession of government policy? 

These and other issues at the heart of  the widening participation and fair access agenda were the subject of discussion at this month’s HEPI breakfast seminar where senior figures from HE came together  to listen to Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access and Professor Susan Price, Vice-Chancellor, Leeds Metropolitan University, discuss the challenges facing the sector in terms of maintaining the momentum for widening participation and fair access as HE enters a new era of tightly controlled public funding (and hence student numbers) and increased tuition fees.  

Widening participation had been the HE sector’s biggest success story - “a triumphant expansion”  said Sir Martin – but he was candid in his appraisal of the challenges which lie ahead. We just don’t know, for example, how and in what way the new fees regime will change student behaviour – will the new system of bursaries and national scholarships go some way towards ensuring that students who have the ability to benefit from HE aren’t put off doing so because they believe they can’t afford it?  And how do you weigh up the benefits of bursaries as opposed to student fee waivers? As Sir Martin made clear, for the Treasury the latter would clearly be the preferred option. In terms of  Fair Access  – which to some in the room yesterday had been allowed to hijack the broader widening participation mission - Sir Martin made clear that if we were to seriously address the fair access agenda, the sector’s efforts would need to be focused on students at a younger age - from 14 onwards (and perhaps even younger).

For Professor Susan  Price the stakes were now high – and she expressed her fears that the work of institutions such as Leeds Met  to widen participation amongst a broader cross section of the population (the 18-21 years olds and the mature students getting a much needed second chance to transform their lives through HE) was  undervalued and under greatest threat from the new funding/student financing regime - with those universities who have done most to deliver on widening participation now  under most pressure to set lower fees.  And she sounded the alarm that the desirability for a diversity in mission and purpose of the country’s HE institutions was in serious danger of being undermined by the desire to create a hierarchy within the system. Will the ultimate outcome be a splintered  HE sector which gradually erodes the moral purpose of higher education? That question hung in the air at this month’s  HEPI breakfast seminar.

To read a transcript of the opening talks from Professor Price and Sir Martin Harris and to find out more about the HEPI series of breakfast seminars at the House of Commons go to www.hepi.ac.uk

Sarah Isles is Director of Development at Higher Education Policy Institute.

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