In his spending review, Chancellor George Osborne announced cuts to the universities budget, targeted mainly at funding used to encourage students from under-represented groups to apply for university.
Despite getting off reasonably lightly compared to the rest of Whitehall, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been told to cut 6% from its budget. Since spending for science and university research is protected by a ringfence, this means money for student support and national scholarships for undergraduates will be hit.
The department and its funding councils will also need to “reprioritise” the university teaching budget and some universities are already warning that this could mean further cuts to widening participation spending - funding for universities to encourage enrolments from a more diverse range of students.
This may not be the end of the world for universities, as the benefits of this kind of spending are yet to be proven.
Academics, commentators and politicians have all expressed concern that certain sub-groups of the eligible population are under-represented in university admissions. These include individuals with disabilities, from state schools, living in poverty or certain regions, some ethnic minority groups and older students. Widening participation is a process of trying to correct this under-representation by encouraging applications from disadvantaged students, and by discouraging universities from selecting more advantaged students.
But research shows we currently have no idea whether these widening participation policies and initiatives are effective, or even whether they are needed.
There is no evidence that widening participation funding has led to changes in the student intake to higher education. In fact, the available figures show little change over time in the proportion of students from each of the relevant sub-groups above.
There has been no rigorous evaluation of any large-scale widening participation programme. Most purported evaluations rely solely on self-reports from students on their likelihood of applying. Some widening participation activities may have led to excellent results, but we have no idea which these are. This is shocking given that so much effort and money has been spent on these programmes, particularly since the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 in 2012.
The patterns of under-representation in higher education are not as clear as most commentators portray. Women, ethnic minorities and disabled students, for example, are actually somewhat over-represented. White males are the most obviously under-represented but they have been largely overlooked by those seeking to widen participation - at least until very recently.
Of course, there are differences between various ethnic groups and disability categories but this leads to the next problem. So much of the relevant data is missing that tracking changes or differences in small sub-groups is nearly impossible. The second largest ethnic origin classification for undergraduates in England is “not known” (including missing, refused and invalid). This group is larger than all ethnic minority groups combined. The largest occupational classification is also “unknown”, and both missing groups are growing in size over time.
Start with schools
The imbalance at university level reflects inequalities that exist from the earliest stages of education.
If we continue to select on the basis of prior qualifications then we will also be selecting on the basis of variables that would be illegal if used explicitly – such as age, sex, disability, ethnicity and social class.
Alternatively, if we reject the validity of the prior qualifications because they are already stratified, then the logical alternative is open access for all who want it – and widening participation programmes are not needed.
Given these unresolved (and even unaddressed) concerns, and if cuts have to be made in education spending, taking money from widening participation is one of the least harmful options. More important is the news that the pupil premium, which provides for under-privileged students cash directly to schools, is to be protected. If schools continue to receive this extra funding, we can tackle inequality much earlier, which could have a knock-on effect at the university level.
Meanwhile, some of the money that is left for widening participation would be well spent on evaluating what really works.