Thursday, 16 July 2015

Fair access?

There’s a fascinating pair of stories on the BBC Education website today.

Firstly, university access, and the release by OFFA of details of access agreements for 2016-17. Access agreements are the documents which set out what resources English universities will commit, from their tuition fee income, to support access by students from socially under-represented groups to higher education. There’s lots of data in the report (pdf file), about which perhaps I’ll post another time, but for now what caught my eye was the spin in the reporting:
“Universities agree to take more disadvantaged students” (my emphasis). 
As if the reason for disproportionately low participation rates amongst some social groups was all to do with universities’ willingness to admit students and not to do with a myriad other factors.

And the second story: that the average cost of school-age private education in the UK (that is, the fourteen years from ages 5 to 18) is £286k and, if on a boarding basis, £468k. By my reckoning this makes £20k plus per year or, at the boarding rate, £33k per year. So, parents who send their children to private schools think that the investment is well worth it, and they spend a lot of money on it too.

There’s all sorts of trails to follow from this. One is about class sizes and contact hours: private schools do well in part because they have smaller class sizes – the pupils get more attention from their teachers, and hence do better. At a cost of £20k per year. Compare the pressure on contact hours for universities where fees are set at a maximum of £9k per year. I can do the maths, and it doesn’t surprise me that universities are feeling the pinch a little – although £9k per year feels a lot for a young adult to take on as their first financial obligation in life, it isn’t much compared to the amounts parents are willing to spend on their children’s behalf.

Another is about how to address widening participation. By and large universities admit on the basis of prior educational attainment. Better A-levels get you into a better university. If you want to increase participation from deprived social backgrounds, invest in the schooling – more teachers, better equipment. It’ll help get better outcomes for the children. More of whom can then get into university.
Just your average students
And if you want to think about raising their aspiration to go to university? Rather than beat up universities, I think a better place to start is asking why society enables some parents to buy their children a brighter future, and how does the dominance of certain social groups in our society persist. The Bullingdon Club of the 1980’s is ruling the country now, and I’d be astonished if the rulers of 30 years’ time weren’t about to enrol in Oxford and Cambridge, having come from the better private schools.

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