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It’s hard to market a university and make it accessible to all

“There is no conflict between fair access and academic excellence. Nor should there be.” So said Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education in his latest report to parliament. But when it comes…

Market forces take their toll. Chris Radburn/PA Wire

“There is no conflict between fair access and academic excellence. Nor should there be.” So said Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education in his latest report to parliament.

But when it comes to bringing in new students, English universities are balancing two contradictory pressures. Under the new system allowing them to charge up to £9,000 per year in fees, they have to compete with other universities to attract fee-paying students. This is resulting in a focus on marketing, as institutions work to differentiate themselves in terms of status, rankings, and what returns students will get from a degree. Yet at the same time, they are expected to help promote social justice by recruiting more students from under-represented backgrounds.

This tension has been apparent in UK higher education policy for some time. The previous Labour government created the Office of Fair Access as a semi-independent body, charged with safeguarding fair access following the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2006.

Universities have to account for their efforts by submitting an annual Access Agreement to the office for approval. In these agreements they must specify how increased fees will support activities and incentives (such as bursaries) to widen participation for disadvantaged students and how they will measure progress. Permission to charge higher fees is conditional on approval of a this agreement.

Coalition government policies have intensified the pressure. Further cuts in public funding and the raising of the cap on student tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 passed responsibility for funding university study onto student “customers”.

Meanwhile, the government continues to urge universities to intensify their efforts. A 2011 white paper on higher education from the department of business and skills said:

The most disadvantaged young people are seven times less likely than the most advantaged to attend the most selective institutions. This is not good enough. Individuals with the highest academic potential should have a route into higher education, and the most selective institutions in particular.

Selecting or recruiting

This statement shows the government acknowledges the existence of a binary divide between “selecting” (pre-1992) and “recruiting” (post-1992) universities. The divide refers to institutions, mainly former polytechnics, awarded university status under the 1992 Higher Education Act.

In the current competitive environment, “selecting” institutions may take their pick of the highest achieving applicants, using statements about fair access to “soften” their image. In contrast, “recruiting” universities rely on these efforts to maintain student numbers. They need to keep students coming through the doors in order to make sure they receive their government grants.

The tensions between financial viability and equity may lead to distinctive responses from different types of university. Like all organisations, universities need to respond to external pressures. Management theories which attempt to explain organisations' strategic responses to these types of tensions, suggest that responses vary between acquiescence and defiance or manipulation, but that higher status organisations will be more resistant.

Lower income, lower status

We have analysed Access Agreements from 2012-13 and other public documents from eight universities in one region of England. The universities occupied widely differing positions in the UK university league tables.

Initially our analysis was based on the binary between “selecting” (old) and “recruiting” (new) universities. We expected older selecting universities to be less concerned about complying with directives about fair access due to their confidence in attracting high-fee students. And this did appear to be the case: selecting universities compared their relatively poor records of recruiting students from lower income backgrounds with other selecting or “old” institutions, rather than with whole sector.

We also anticipated that newer recruiting universities would highlight their records in recruiting students from lower socio-economic groups rather than mimic selecting institutions by asserting their academic status.

But the messages of these institutions were marked by an ambivalence, stemming from a fear that “success” in terms of widening participation might be linked with lower academic status. For example, these universities' tended to cite their positive rankings in league tables of employability as a signal of their ability to compete successfully with Russell Group universities.

Jobs over equity

This highlights the tension between equity and market positioning. In this context, students are recruited as much on the basis of reputation as on price. This means that recruiting universities endeavour to appeal to applicants’ future individual competitiveness in the jobs market, rather than promoting themselves on the basis of equity or inclusivity.

Because of this, our research calls into question the simple binary division between “recruiting” and “selecting” universities. The tendency for universities (however they are positioned) to produce similar responses in their access agreements to OFFA, is particularly relevant in a context where variables such as status and prestige are important. All universities are now seeking to charge the highest possible fee – both to maximise their income and to signal their status through charging a high price.

Universities have a legitimate interest in their own financial viability. However, their positions on access are overlapping, ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. The position for universities – operating as they do in a “quasi-market” – is clearly different from that of purely commercial organisations which are fully in the marketplace. In higher education, factors over and above price, such as organisational history and culture, also come into play.

Universities' responses are not easy to predict. Instutions seem likely to adapt and adjust their access policies, particularly in an uncertain policy climate in which priorities continue to shift – and as a national election looms.