Why do we need Widening Participation? (Part 1)
Alumni donations cannot replace widening participation initiatives
In an article in The Sunday Times last week, the Conservative MP for East Surrey, Sam Gyimah, called for an increase in alumni donations to fund students who will attend university in the 2012-13 academic years and beyond. Mr Gyimah's central argument was that current outreach programmes on the part of universities are 'fragmented, overlapping and costly' and have 'failed to address [the issues faced by students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.]' His solution is simple: encourage alumni to contribute to an 'endowment fund' after they have finished paying off their student loan. At present, just 1% of alumni donate to their old institution, and Mr Gyimah argues that through contributing to this voluntary endowment fund, the best-paid graduates would provide financial support for generations to come.
Financial support is undoubtedly important for any prospective university student, regardless of their socio-economic background. In the new era of £9,000 tuition fees, it is conceivable that students from the lowest socio-economic groups and low participation neighbourhoods might be put off, as Mr Gyimah rightly points out, by the high cost of study.
Yet Mr Gyimah’s argument is flawed in two places. The first is the financial aspect to his argument–the need for alumni to ‘get [their] wallets out’ to pay for the next generations of students. Even if alumni were to substantially increase their donations ahead of September 2012–and a sea change in alumni attitude towards giving to their alma mater is unlikely to come about in such a short space of time–Mr Gyimah also neglects the financial packages already on the table ahead of the new intake’s arrival.
Let us take Warwick as an example. The University has recently agreed with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), the QUANGO charged with ensuring that universities admit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a substantial package for prospective students. According to the University's 'Fair Access Agreement' students from a household with an annual income of less than £25,001 will receive a fee waiver (under the banner of the 'Warwick National Scholarships') of £2,000 per year AND be eligible for a Warwick Bursary of some £2,500 per year. The Warwick Bursaries will be given as grants and will not, therefore, be paid back by students. Students from households with annual incomes of any amount less than £42,601 will receive a bursary of some form. To give an idea of how far this contribution will go, annual accommodation costs for the most expensive student hall, the new Bluebell residence, amount to £5,655. So the maximum Warwick Bursary would be just short of half of the Bluebell fees. Rent in Rootes Hall, by contrast, is just £3,354, the bulk of which would be paid by a Warwick Bursary.
Warwick plans, according to its Fair Access Agreement, to spend some £500,000 of its own funds on fee waivers, and hopes that around 15% of Home/EU students take up the offer. In the 2009/10 academic year, 1,880 state school students came to the University, with 400 students from the lowest socio-economic groups and 140 from the lowest participation backgrounds. The University aims, however, to increase these figures gradually in future years. In any case, the commitment shown through its bursaries and fee waivers indicates a genuine desire to increase the diversity of the student body.
The second issue with Mr Gyimah’s argument is his assertion that outreach programmes have effectively failed to recruit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that they are, in short, ‘fragmentary.’ Without widening participation initiatives, how does Mr Gyimah expect universities to recruit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds? Warwick’s outreach programmes currently engage with 32 schools across the Coventry and Warwickshire area, with plans to increase this number to 40 by the 2016-17 academic year.