Thursday, July 20, 2006

University applications falling

It was reported today that fewer people are applying to university in this, the year in which university top-up fees take effect. And in 2004-2005 the proportion of full time undergraduates from state schools fell. So much for all that has been said on widening participation.

Since the 1960s there has been almost continuous expansion of the number of university places. But has that in itself really opened up university to more a broader range of social groups? Or has it, as many suspect but few seem willing to admit, merely turned university into an essential component of a middle class upbringing?

There are many good potential undergraduates who do not even consider university for one reason or another. What is the solution?

On one point that seems to be quite popular when figures like these come out, I'm not convinced that introducing quotas on the number of state and private school pupils taken is a good move. (And yes, I do have an obvious conflict of interest on this - don't we all?) I think quotas could actually hit a very different category of private school pupil from the stereotype that those who talk about them often invoke. Whilst many are from rich families, many others are either from middle income families who really scrimp and save to give their children a private education and others still come from less well off backgrounds and are only able to go because of scholarships and grants (forms of widening participation). And I think quotas will hit the latter far more than any stereotypical scion of generations of wealth. They will be able to use contacts and tricks to get round quotas. Does anyone else remember when Trevor Phillips claimed that introducing such quotas is likely to decrease the proportion of non-white students in top universities? * (Recently it was found that some top universities have less than thirty black students.) Any attempt to artificially "rebalance" one problem is likely to increase problems elsewhere.

Numerous initiatives have been made, whether directly through trying to foster aspirations or indirectly through attempts to improve schools, and yet we still see these declines. One common anecdote on the ground is that many people do not instinctively feel that university is for them, or that they would "fit in" there. This even exists within universities with many reported cases of students at the post 1992 universities stating that they would never even consider some of the more elite universities because of their perceptions. Do we need to tackle the basic image of universities to make real progress?

(* I've never been entirely happy with the way "the Russell Group" is used as a synonym for "the top/elite UK universities". Whilst there are clear overlaps, the Russell Group is primarily defined by levels of research and there are top universities outside it - indeed witness the regular confusion about its membership in the media. But then the Ivy League is really a sports tournament in the northeastern US states so maybe this one isn't worth fussing about...)

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