By Derfel Owen
A very good post by the Economist’s Blighty blog reinforced my view that HE policy makers do not understand students and their motivations. And here’s why:
As someone who was brought up in working class surroundings and was the first in my family to move permanently out of Wales, let alone go to University, I get frustrated when (albeit well meaning) journalists, HE representatives etc. speak as though student fees are the only factor that will inform the decisions of people like me about whether to go to university.
They’re not. And that’s why I’m disappointed by the University of Oxford’s decision to charge the maximum 9k in fees. The clarity and progressiveness of their proposals should be commended, especially when other ‘elite’ institutions have not provided any further information about their plans to counter disadvantaged students fears about debt.
What disappoints me is that these initiatives will ultimately reward students who would have found their way to Oxford anyway. Not findings ways to raise the aspirations of those who would not and by doing so; making routes in to the University more open.
Resources need to be committed to this. This is not another polemic about the demise of AimHigher. I don’t know enough about that organisation, other than it seems to have fallen foul of what happens to so many HE initiatives; the failure to produce clearly defined indicators and measures of its own success and impact.
In opposition, David Willetts worked with the admirable Steve Edwards to set up Bestcourse4me. Edwards is admirable because he is committed to the goal of getting more people from deprived backgrounds into higher education, and so ploughs piles of his own money to research and create a resource that would help them do so.
His research identified their aspirations – moving up in life, getting a good job, being able to take care of their family and security – and sought ways of showing them how HE can do these things.
He worked out what was holding them back – poor advice, negativity from their peer community, perceived elitism of universities, lack of qualifications and fear of debt (I didn’t say it has no impact) – and sought ways of providing reassurance.
The bestcourse4me site is by no means perfect or comprehensive. But the way the developers got from A to B is worth noting.
I would prefer if we stopped this national obsession with counting the number of poor kids getting into Oxbridge as the measure of widening participation. If HE really is going to improve its record then money needs to poured into initiatives that will take HE out into deprived communities. Not relying on patronising “you too could be like us” outreach schemes, but actually delivering HE courses in these communities. Making it relevant and part of normal life.
It will take two or three generations to break down these barriers. Telling someone from a disadvantaged background, who has already confounded expectations, worked extremely hard and broken through seemingly impossible barriers, that they can now have a discount on their debt is a nice reward, but it won’t help the classmates that they have left behind.