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Aspiring to fair access

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EVERYONE seems to set great store in ensuring fair access to higher education, but how much progress is actually being made? Not nearly enough, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which was set up by the coalition government to monitor progress in these areas. In a report last October, the commission, which is chaired by former Labour minister Alan Milburn, noted that there was a strong correlation between someone's social class and their chances of going to university, and to the most selective universities in particular. Its report, called ‘University challenge: how higher education can advance social mobility’,1 found that, although progress had been made in widening participation in higher education, people in the most advantaged geographical areas were still three times as likely to participate as those in the most disadvantaged areas; it also found that there had been no improvement in participation at the most selective universities among the least advantaged young people since the mid-1990s, and that the most advantaged were seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the most disadvantaged.

The commission has just published a follow-up report focusing on the country's more selective universities, which suggests that, if anything, the social divide in higher education is getting wider. In particular, it reports that, in contrast to the progress made by the higher education sector generally over the past 10 years, the intake of the UK's most selective (Russell Group) universities has, overall, become less socially representative. ‘The proportion of students at these institutions from state schools and from disadvantaged backgrounds is lower than it was a decade ago,’ the commission says. ‘This is unacceptable and must change.’

In general terms, the lack of progress identified in the report reflects that highlighted last year in another report from Mr Milburn, which looked specifically at progress being made in improving access to the professions. Produced as a follow-up to an earlier report called ‘Unleashing aspiration’, which had bemoaned ‘elitism’ in the professions, this concluded that, at best, only limited progress was being made in ‘prising open the professions’ and that this was unlikely to change any time soon (VR, June 9, 2012, vol 170, p 578).

Neither the access to the professions reports nor the reports on higher education in general considered veterinary studies specifically, but it is interesting to reflect on the extent to which their messages might apply. Certainly, the veterinary profession has made efforts to widen participation in recent years, partly in response to Sir Alan Langlands' ‘Gateways to the professions’ report in 2005 (VR, February 4, 2006, vol 158, p 141). Initiatives have included research into factors affecting students' decisions on whether to study veterinary medicine (VR, June 30, 2007, vol 160, p 885), development of careers information aimed at 14- to 16-year-olds (www.walksoflife.org.uk) and the VetNet Lifelong Learning Network to help students on vocational courses to get into higher education. These, along with initiatives being undertaken by the veterinary schools, which became all the more important with the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012, were summarised in an article in Veterinary Record at the beginning of last year (January 7, 2012, vol 170, pp 9-12). However, such initiatives inevitably take time to show an effect and, for all the efforts being made, it would be hard to pretend that the current socioeconomic mix of the veterinary profession even remotely reflects that of society as a whole.

The veterinary schools are part of the university system and cannot function in isolation. The commission's ‘university challenge’ report identifies a number of factors that might work against efforts to widen access to higher education, some of which, it could be argued, might particularly apply to the veterinary course. One of them is concern among applicants about the debts that will be incurred as a result of higher tuition fees, which is likely to be greater among those from low-income families. Another is the Government's AAB policy on student numbers, which, the report points out, is less likely to benefit students from less advantaged backgrounds.

The commission acknowledges that improving access is not just a matter for universities and argues that ‘a genuine national effort’, which also involves schools, careers services and government, is needed. Nevertheless, it says that it is ‘deeply concerned’ about the lack of progress being made, and that the most selective universities need to be doing far more to ensure that they are recruiting from the widest possible pool of talent. It accepts that there is recognition of the ‘access challenge’ by universities, but says that this needs to be translated into actual outcomes.

Broadening access is not just a matter of being fair, although fairness is a worthy objective in its own right. As the commission points out, if the UK wants to see social progress and economic prosperity in an increasingly competitive global market, it should aim to ensure that all those who have the ability, aptitude and potential to benefit from a university education have a fair chance to do so.

1 www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-reviewer-s-report-on-higher-education. Accessed June 19, 2013

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