How to widen access to universities to include more people from disadvantaged backgrounds is one of those wicked problems that besets highers education systems the world over. The new interim report on this subject from Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access is both interesting and strikingly familiar. It is part of a wider picture that is well documented in the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s 2013 review of efforts to widen participation in the Netherlands, US, Australia, South Africa, Norway and Ireland.
Two things in the new Scottish report particularly resonate – the idea that students’ grades at the end of secondary school are not a predictor of how they will perform at university, and the idea that students from “challenging circumstances” need to have their aspirations raised to want to go there at all.
The first idea is probably more controversial but also more accurate. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who enter university often achieve lower grades at the end of school, but overtake their more advantaged, higher-grade peers as they progress through university. The report provides examples of this from the universities of Bristol, St Andrews and Harvard. It could just as easily have cited research from Australia, where the phenomenon has been known for some time – these two studies from Monash University in Melbourne from 2005 and 2007 show similar findings.
Because disadvantaged students “catch up” in this way, the Commission on Widening Access is considering proposing an admissions policy that would admit them to Scottish universities with lower grades than everyone else. This happens in Australia, for instance, with students from certain secondary schools being given “bonus points” that lift their grades to higher levels to make them more competitive in their university applications.
Yet there are a few issues Scotland should consider before rushing into anything. Universities, particularly the more elite, tend to cherry pick, taking students from disadvantaged backgrounds who look most like the rest of their student population. The universities see them as the low-hanging fruit, the ones most likely to be successful. They are not from the bottom 10% on socioeconomic measures.
Disadvantaged students’ ability to catch up also seems to be discipline-specific. Both Australian studies found that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds hold their own in the social sciences and humanities but perform less well in other discipline areas. A study at the University of Stirling in the late 1990s showed a similar result. This might be related to the lack of relevant resources in the schools these students attended: if they don’t have very good science facilities or specialist teachers of science or maths, for example, the students may find it harder to catch up with those who attended better-resourced schools.
The Australian studies also found that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds are to do well at university, they need appropriately supportive transition programmes and environments. This is not simply about targeted support for students who are different from the norm. Studies in the US have found that universities with more diverse student populations exhibit higher overall levels of academic achievement – provided they use curricula, assessment and teaching methods that value and draw on the range of backgrounds.
The aspiration question
This brings us to second claim from the Scottish report: disadvantaged students need their aspirations raised towards university, including more prestigious institutions and courses. The report supports its claim with evidence of the number of programmes focused on aspiration-raising. Yet in itself, this proves nothing. We don’t yet have the data in Scotland to support the claim, at least not on a large scale. In fact, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation research cited in the report suggests that aspirations in deprived communities are alive and well, though they vary between communities and need support to be realised.
The same caution has been expressed in Australia. There is now significant evidence that around 70% of school students from disadvantaged Australian communities aspire to university – far greater than their 15% representation. It’s not that they don’t want to be there. It’s that they can’t get in, even with Australia’s “uncapped” system of government-funded student places, which provides funding to its universities to enrol as many students as they want.
Very little of making it to university is about having access to the right information. This is often readily available in cleverly designed and interactive Facebook pages, apps and the like. Australian research in rural Queensland and metropolitan Geelong pointed to two more important “navigational” issues. The first is knowing the various ways of moving from where you are to where you want to go. It’s like having a map of the London underground rather than being at the mercy of a tour guide who provides information snippets without a sense of the whole.
The second issue is about being able to draw on experience to help navigate to your desired destination – for example, having someone who can tell you that “stop” on one route to your preferred university does not mean “stop” on others; and how to turn a no into a yes.
If the vision to level the playing field for children from deprived communities is to be realised, the Commission on Widening Access will need to take into account these subtleties regarding achievement and aspiration.