Report: How to assure fair participation in higher education?

reportWPHigher education systems across the world are undergoing substantial expansion, even if the starting point is in many cases substantially different. However, the general expansion trends puts focus on assuring that this widening participation also reaches under-represented groups. How to assure that widening participation also means fair participation?

HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council in England, has commissioned a new report that examines six national case studies that detail effective approaches to widening participation strategy and practices. The main goal was to identify “what works”, what are some of the identified good practices. The case studies focus on impact and effectiveness through multiple levels – from system level policies of widening participation to institutional level interventions.

Based on the six cases in Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and the United States of America (USA) the report examined some common systemic factors that influence access and progression. General educational system structure is also linked to progression to higher education. As expected, system stratification in many cases is linked to the socio-economic conditions of the particular area, and one can identify a concentration of high performing schools in more advantaged areas. Furthermore the report indicates that social class is the key determinant of both success in education and access to higher education. This class division is also seen amongst those who do go to higher education in cases where there is a more stratified higher education system. Students from higher socio-economic background tend to attend highly selective institutions with more research oriented profile, whereas those from lower socio-economic background tend to attend institutions with less prestige and more vocational/professional profile. The report suggests that focus on alternative pathways (for instance, accreditation of prior learning, options to progress to HE from vocational education, etc) can facilitate more diverse student participation.

The report identified that widening participation and assuring participation by under-represented groups has been a policy aim in all of the six countries. However, these policies are most effective when synergies are created between governments, various agencies and institutions with good communication. Furthermore, funding incentives to recruit diverse students is suggested as an effective policy instrument in the report.

Tuition fees is a topic that in the context of UK is a highly debated issue. The report also discusses to what extent the introduction of tuition fees has discouraged certain parts of the population to attend higher education. The report suggests that: “income-contingent loans pose little impediment to the participation of low income students and can in fact play a major role in facilitating both greater access to and success in HE by enabling students to reduce their up front costs and defer repayments until after they graduate“. This of course sounds reasonable if the alternative is up-front tuition payment. However, earlier research has suggested that higher levels of costs and debt do in fact have a negative effect on students from lower income families choosing to take higher education.

So, what works? The report suggests that institutional interventions work when there is: “state level funding available for outreach and access activities, a strong policy imperative and a robust evidence base about what works, together with a relative degree of institutional freedom regarding whom to target, when to target and with what type of activity“. This is again linked to the close alignment of policy aims and incentives, with sufficient institutional autonomy.

An issue that is highlighted in particular is that while there is great focus on access to HE, there is considerably less focus on retention, dropout rates and progression to employment in the policy debates of the national case studies. One can ponder whether this issue should gain more attention when the aim is to have a more fair educational system. It is not enough to merely get the students to higher education, it is also necessary to assure they complete. In a system with tuition fees, non-completion might be the worst financial burden for students from low socio-economic background. Not only do you still accumulate a considerable debt, you also will not receive the benefits of a completed degree.

The report concludes with specific suggestions for the UK context to assure widening participation. Download the whole report here.