Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has asked higher education institutions to make a conscious effort to take in more underprivileged students into their student bodies. Last week, the Prime Minister gathered together university leaders at Downing Street to call for change in the low numbers of poorer students being taken in by universities at present.
Arguing that, while “huge progress” has already been made, Johnson says that there are still barriers blocking young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university. Much needs to be done if the prime minister is to succeed his ambitious task of doubling the number of students from low-income backgrounds going to university by the 2020.
Johnson cites three important changes that universities should adhere to in a manifesto he calls “fair access guidance”. Firstly, universities must pinpoint groups with low-admission figures – particularly Russell Group universities, a study of which found that only 6% of their intake of new students come from the most disadvantaged 20% of neighbourhoods in the UK.
[su_spoiler title=”The role of universities in social equality” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”Comment”]It is a step in the right direction to allow increased social mobility and a reduction of the wealth gap. There is still an alarming link between parent and child income, suggesting a fault in the system that does not allow more disadvantaged children to progress through the ranks of society.
Making universities enlist those who are not currently desired students will encourage a greater variety of people to benefit from education, as well as improving the aspirations of those who currently don’t fancy their chances of getting into university.
Certainly, university acceptance should be based on merit. However, many people do not have the advantages that can allow them to fulfil their potential, which begs the question: how much talent and intelligence is the UK losing by maintaining barriers for huge portions of people as they progress through their education?
An important consideration, though, is how these changes are going to affect the quantity of students that go to university, a number that is already increasing rapidly. The novelty and benefits of having a degree are at risk if it gets to a stage where everybody has one.
Universities do have a responsibilty in terms of combating elitism and improving access of underprivileged students to higher education, but they are not solely to blame.
According to Johnson, higher education institutions must also become smarter with spending by concentrating on areas that need funding the most and simultaneously targeting larger numbers of potential students, rather than simply “cherry-picking a few students with bursaries”. While he admits that the complex problem of participation rates cannot fall to universities alone to solve, institutions must put themselves out there and become accessible to all kinds of students by working together with other universities and building relationships with schools in disadvantaged areas. However, recruiting these students solves only one half of the problem; crucially, universities must endeavor to encourage students to stay on course and to want to proceed onto higher education.
Black and minority students in the UK are applying to university in increasing numbers, and yet, on average, black students are 50% more likely to drop out of university than their peers. Johnson deems this as being “unacceptable in a country that believes in aspiration and opportunity”.
Johnson also affirms that the fair access guidance also concentrates on students with specific learning difficulties and that higher education institutions must ensure that the experience of applying to and progressing through university attends to these students’ needs. He argues that this is not only important for the individuals involved, but for society; nobody should lose out on a place at their desired university.
Johnson claimed: “This new guidance will help our great universities rise to the challenge that the prime minister has set them”.