Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A discussion of higher education access (part 2)

In my earlier post, I described the setting of the seminar on access, along with who the presenters were. Here I'll summarize what they had to say (each was given 15 minutes), and reactions from the audience.

Before getting into the discussion, one of the interesting things to note about these seminars is that Members of Parliament actually participate in them. This is in contrast to the United States, where it would be quite unusual to see a member of the House, or even more so, a Senator, attending a policy seminar of this type. I described earlier another of the HEPI seminars, where I had a chance to chat with Baronness Margaret Sharp of Guildford, a member of the House of Lords. One of the members of the House of Commons acts as the host for the seminar, but this is not just in name only. In this seminar, the host MP, Evan Harris, actively participated in the Q&A session with the panel, as did Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP from Harrogate and Knaresborough (and chair of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, of which Harris is also a member).

The seminar was opened by Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access (more information about and links to each of these organizations can be found in the previous post). He gave a brief overview of the re-introduction of tuition fees in the UK as mandated in the Higher Education Act of 2004, along with the scheme of government-funded, means-tested grants and bursaries (aka institutionally-funded grants) introduced in consort. In his view, there is no evidence that students are being priced out of attending college, because the combination of government grants, institutional bursaries, and government loans guarantee that the neediest students will have the resources necessary to attend university.

Harris addressed the question that has been raised regarding why there are so few working class students in the most selective British universities. He reiterated that finances have little or nothing to do with it, but that the decisions students make are related academic and social issues, including the schooling they receive in primary and secondary school.

The second speaker was, Malcolm Grant, president of University College London, and chairman of the Russell Group. He too addressed the problem of the participation gap in British higher education, stating that "the primary barrier to widening participation is the failure of 360,000 16 year-olds annually to achieve satisfactory grades on their GCSEs, particularly in maths and English."* Grant explained that the achievement gap at university entry (between working and upper class students) was a legacy of gaps as far back as pre-school, citing research by Feinstein.**

Grant echoed Harris's earlier words, indicating that the issue of "fair access" is more one of preparation and the admissions process, than an isue of financial barriers. He noted that the selective universities (including UCL) rely on more than just performance on the A level exams, indicating that "we're interested in assessing merit, potential, and the ability to thrive in a highly competitive environment." This sounds very much like the language used to describe holistic admissions processes in the U.S.

He recognized that it is not enough for the universities to sit back and blame the primary and secondary schooling systems for poor preparation of working class students. He provided examples of university programs at King's College London and the University of Leeds that provide outreach to underserved populations of students, including building more bridges to the further education colleges and secondary schools. These are similar to the outrach programs many U.S. colleges have implemented.

The third speaker was Michael Driscoll, vice chancellor (equivalent of president) of Middlesex University, an institution much down the prestige pecking order in England. He opened by providing some parameters on the participation gap in the country, noting that of the 3,500 secondary schools in England, 200 of them provide half of the entrants to Cambridge and Oxford, and 100 of them provide one-third of the entrants. Having stated this, however, he said that the country should not bother to focus on these two institutions (and by implication, other elite universities as well), as there simply are not enough admissions slots in these institutions to have any substantive impact on closing the participation gap. His comment sounded very much like comments I and others have made in the States, that we're not going to close the participation gap between rich and poor there by focusing on getting more poor students into the top 30 institutions in the country - there simply are not enough seats to address the scope of the problem as it exists today.

Driscoll also described a HEPI research report documenting that the teaching and other instruction in the less-prestigious universities in England is superior to that of the more research-intensive and elite institutions. He also described how the more elite universities have higher bursaries, indicating that the institutions that enroll most of the working class students have insufficient resources to support them financially:

  • Cambridge and Oxford: £3,000
  • Russell Group: £1,700
  • Million+ (an organization of the less prestigious universities): £700

Following the presentations by the three speakers, the audience was invited to ask questions. The format they use for the Q&A session is interesting; they take three questions from the audience, and then ask the speakers to briefly respond. This tends to speed things up a bit, and discourages the audience members from making long-winded statements disguised as questions. It also encourages brevity of responses from the speakers.

Many of the questions, including one from our MP host, Evan Harris, questioned the assumption of Harris and Grant that there were no financial barriers to a university education in England. Harris questioned whether students and parents really understand the bursary scheme, and have enough information to be able to make accurate decisions about what a university education will cost. Students don't know for sure what their bursary will be from the university they attend until after they are accepted and decide to enroll there. While some universities have good information on their websites that would allow a student to estimate the bursary they would receive, in not all cases is this possible.

One key difference from the U.S. is in the national grants, which are for maintenance, or living costs (income contingent loans are available for tuition fees). Eligibility here in England is based on the income of the parents, in contrast to the 100+ question FAFSA form that is required in the U.S. So as long as you know your parents income, you'll know if you'll be eligible for a full (£2,835) or partial maintenance grant. In addition, universities that charge the maximum tuition fee allowed, £3,145 this year, must provide a bursary of at least £310 to students eligible for the full maintenance grant - thus ensuring that the combination of maintenance grant and bursary equals the tuition fees. Next year's maximum grant will be £2,906, with an income cutoff of £18,360 (average income in the country is about £25,000). I'll be describing the financial aid system in more detail in a future post.

Another important issue brought up by members of the audience was part-time and adult students, many of whom are not eligible for financial aid, or at least as much financial aid, as full-time, traditional-aged dependent students.

In the end, it was a spirited give-and-take both between the speakers, as well as the members of the audience. And as I mentioned above, I was impressed with the participation of the MPs that were there.

*GCSEs are the national subject area tests English students taken during year 11 (the equivalent of the sophomore year of high school in the U.S.) of schooling. Students take them in the subjects that they are thinking of studying at university, or in further education, or related to those subjects (which can include a vocational area). For example, a student who is planning on studying engineering would likely take the maths and physics GCSEs. And by the way, "maths" is what they call it here, with the "s". The GCSEs are the precursor to the A levels, examinations taken by students in further (post-age 16) education that are used in the university admissions process. I'll be writing more about GCSEs and A levels in a later post.

** Feinstein, L., Robertson, D., & Symons, J. (1999). Pre-school education and attainment in the National Child Development Study and British Cohort Study. Education Economics, 7(3), 209-34.


  1. The discussion sounds like an interesting one and does shadow discussions that have been going on in the U.S. for years. I am curious if anyone mentioned the Coleman Report (1966) and the findings that school differences were not as salient in attainment than family effects. This would seem to be a natural argument especially in a stratified class system.

    Also, do you see the UK system moving from a grant based to a loan based system of support as the U.S. did in the 1980s?

    I know your on sabbatical but you never stop teaching:)


  2. There's been very little mention of research, or for that matter, policy issues, in other countries in these seminars. They are very UK-centric.

    The truth is that the UK is both a grant- and loan-based system at present (as I said, I'll be posting more about their financing scheme down the road). But given the economic constraints the country will be facing, if it is to continue to widen participation, it is likely that loans will have to become more prominent.

  3. enjoyed catching up and sharing your experiences via the blog. We'll be back online again soon.
    Bill and Marilyn