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Student choices: Check yourself before you wreck yourself

The Office for Students (OfS) hosted an event to discuss ‘Fairer access and participation’ in central London earlier this week. Although only a half day event, it was ‘sold out’ and attracted a considerable amount of interest across the UK. Things are changing as the steamroller starts to roll.

Twitter comments come under #fairerfutures. Video of the meeting was streamed live and is still available on YouTube at ‘Insight event: fairer access and participation’ with clips at the OfS www site.

The agenda had three main themes that covered aspects of contextual admissions, the BAME attainment gap and local students. It seems some major issues emerged in discussion and the policy environment is somewhat fluid. For university administrations, this would seem to be a
nightmare and stability is needed. This must not however be the status quo, but rather a step up to a fair and well defined system that eliminate the effects of disadvantage on students’ success.

What did we learn?

The discussion surrounding BAME students revealed a very sad situation. The fact that Universities UK with the NUS felt it had to release a report the following day ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment at UK Universities: #Closingthegap’ speaks volumes in itself. That our universities seem unable to accommodate everyone equally is astounding. Financial stresses, not feeling welcome or comfortable combine to affect progress; even when prior attainment is controlled for.

We also learned that there are many more ‘local’ students that commute from home to university than most people imagine. However, my experience teaching in a Russell Group university was always in the context of numerous local students. It seems that there is still a long way to go for them, Universities UK and the OfS.

Plugging the gap in access to university.

The main point of the meeting from an OfS perspective was to announce their policy on contextual admissions to universities. Chris Millward, the Director for Fair Access and Participation deployed the slogan “Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not” to promote the OfS policy on ‘Contextual admissions: Promoting fairness and rethinking merit’ released the same day. The idea that students will receive lower offers from major universities that take account of their background is a steam roller that has started to roll. It will not be stopped as easily as the practice of universities making unconditional offers to gain an edge in the ‘market place’. No doubt there will be a bad reaction from the privileged who gain advantage by paying for it.

Defining who is disadvantaged and who is not.

This was a cloud hanging over the meeting. The issue was addressed from both ends of a very wide spectrum. However,
each were effective in making the case to look again at the methodology for determining how to define disadvantage. Firstly, Vikki Bolivar of the Durham University Evidence Centre for Education (DECE) approached it with scientific data that effectively demolished the idea that the address a student comes from defines the degree of disadvantage. Called POLAR (Participation of Local Areas), this effectively uses postcodes to assign students to one of five geographical area classifications where participation is low (Quintile 1) to high (Quintile 4). However, when making comparisons to the numbers of students registered for free school meals, the relationship breaks down and POLAR seems to be a crude and ineffective measure. From a university perspective it is simple and sets convenient geographical targets for them. However, we learned that UCAS is more in favour of a measure called the multiple equality measure. This covers a range of disadvantages in a combined measure that includes those on free school meals. But this is seen as a proxy for family income and that approach also has problems. The fact that the government is now tightly restricting those eligible for free school meals means that its effectiveness as a measure will be diluted from now on (Discussed by TEFS . ‘The Social Mobility Commission gets out of first gear and gets mobile.’). No doubt the debate will continue behind the contextual admissions steamroller as it moves slowly on.

Secondly, the approach from the other end of the spectrum was a personal plea made by the redoubtable NUS president, Shakira Martin. She will be greatly missed when she soon ends her full term in office. Under the banner of ‘local and commuting students’ she waded into the Realpolitik view of student disadvantage. From the perspective of her experience, she highlighted travel, caring responsibilities, access to university activities, finance, part-time jobs.
Nothing was left untouched as she spoke out for all disadvantaged students irrespective of race. She reminds us that it is the individual at the sharp end of the system that has to survive. In the panel discussion she raised the philosophical issue of the difference between ‘free will’ and ‘choice’ with “We don’t have choices because choices have already been made; there are options based on those choices”.  Her simple advice to disadvantaged students struggling with making difficult choices is in the short clip above “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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