What makes a student disadvantaged?

Oct 30, 2013 by

Is university access really wider in London? Graeme Atherton says it’s time to rethink the way we measure widening access

London is the driving force of higher education participation in England, and widening participation in particular – at least that’s what the latest Hefce report would have us believe. Participation in higher education has increased by more than 13% in London since 1998-99. And in the city’s low participation neighbourhoods, participation rates have almost doubled.

Good news if you’re a young person living in London who wants to go to university. Hefce’s research suggests your chances of doing so are far better than if you lived in any other area of the country. What it does not show however is ‘job done’ for widening access in the capital. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no one factor which accounts for why more young people in London have been going to university in the past 15 years. A major reason, however, are the relatively high levels of achievement at GCSE of London learners, in particular those from low income backgrounds. Another factor is the ethnic make-up of the city – London is home to more young people from Chinese and other Asian backgrounds than the rest of the UK and both these groups enjoy high rates of participation.

There are also more than 40 higher education institutions in the city, a number that is set to grow. Learners are more likely to take up higher education in their own region and this tendency is magnified for those from under-represented backgrounds. Finally, let’s not discount the impact and legacy of government investment in widening access in the 2000s. There were more than 10 Aim Higher partnerships and Lifelong Learning Networks in London, whose ethos lives on through organisations like Aimhigher London South, Linking London and, my own, AccessHE.

This educational ecosystem does not perform miracles, however. Hefce’s POLAR research method divides the country into small areas based on census area wards, before using a specially developed methodology that relies on entry data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and others, alongside population estimates derived from child benefit records. It then calculates rates of higher education participation and divides the country into five quintiles from low to high participation.

On the basis of this method, the number of learners from low participation areas in London is now calucated at 23%. Combined with an overall ‘level of participation’ rate of 48%, the effect has been to move virtually all London wards out of the lowest participation quintile, leaving only 3000 young people, or 3% of the young population, as ‘disadvantaged’ in 2011-12.

This gives the impression that we have miraculously solved the widening access challenge in London. But it is plainly absurd to suggest that only 3000 young Londoners in any one year come from a background that could be described as disadvantaged. To be fair, the Hefce report does include a measure of participation by household income. London is still way ahead of the country with 41% of those in low income areas going on to higher education.

On this measure, 47% of the 2011-12 cohort in London are disadvantaged. Given what we know about the London economy, this is a much more realistic figure. While London has the largest number of affluent people, it also has the largest number of poor people. But POLAR is still the dominant measure that Hefce uses to allocate its (soon to be diminishing) resources for widening participation and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) uses to shape what higher education institutions do and whom they target in their access agreements.

More than £100m is being invested by HEIs in London on outreach work to widen access and financial support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. The vast majority of this £100m is being spent in London. Taken literally, the Hefce reports suggests these funds should be spent on 3000 learners. Thankfully, this is not the case.

London universities are using a range of ways to ensure they can serve as many genuinely disadvantaged learners as possible. But they and OFFA risk becoming increasingly hemmed in by the way that POLAR analysis is being used. There is an urgent need to review how we define learners from disadvantaged backgrounds not just to enable HEIs to allocate their resources fairly and ethically but for the sake of access work more generally.

Many politicians are already sceptical about efforts to widen access. If we cannot define who these efforts are aimed at in a realistic way, then the risk is this scepticism will turn into outright opposition.

via What makes a student disadvantaged? | Higher Education Network | theguardian.com.

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