All entries for March 2012

March 23, 2012

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.

Why do we need Widening Participation? Part 2

The widening participation schemes run by Warwick are diverse, ranging from ‘University Taster Days’ in which Year 9 students visit the University and experience a day in the life of a student, to summer schools for Year 10 students. Another outreach initiative is the ‘Student Progression Team’, in which university students mentor local secondary school students. It is an indication of how seriously Warwick takes widening participation that this programme, like the ‘University Taster Days’ was previously funded by Aimhigher, one of Labour’s pet projects under Tony Blair’s scheme to encourage 50 per cent of all young adults to attend university. The fact that Warwick has several outreach projects–other initiatives include the ‘Access for All’, ‘Goal’ and ‘Pathways to Law’ programmes–does not necessarily make these projects ‘fragmentary.’ Rather, Warwick is a good example of how to reach a large number of school students through different means. Where the ‘Access for All’ project aims to raise the aspirations of students who might not have considered university, including young carers and looked-after students, the Goal programme targets Gifted and Talented students. The Pathways to Law project is aimed in particular at students who are looking to pursue a law career, while the focus of the Student Progression Team is on university student-led mentoring.

The projects do not, therefore, run the risk of overlapping; instead they reach out to as wide an audience as possible. Warwick’s widening participation initiatives are not inefficient and fragmentary; rather, such has been their success that the University will be part of the new ‘Dux’ Award scheme, in which the best Year 9 students from state schools across the country will be nominated to attend a day at a Russell Group university, including Warwick. The University has also just announced ‘The Big Deal 2012’, an Apprentice-style competition which will see Year 10 students on the ‘Goal’ compete in a business challenge. Not only do these programmes illustrate how seriously Warwick takes Widening Participation, but they are also brilliant opportunities for the students involved. Coming from a state school background myself, I would have been thrilled with the opportunity to spend some time as a Year 9 student at one of the country’s top universities. These projects offer genuine encouragement to school students who might not have previously thought at all about university; they praise academic achievement regardless of socio-economic background.

There are also numerous departmental-led initiatives across the University which focus on engaging students in a particular subject at university level, rather than in university study as a whole. The Physics department, for example, engages with nearly every school in the Coventry and Warwickshire region and has a dedicated Widening Participation fellow. In the French department, we have recently opened up links to new schools in Warwickshire and further afield, with the aim of encouraging students from all backgrounds to consider studying languages at university.

I have taken part in several Widening Participation schemes during my postgraduate career. One of my most recent experiences was illustrative of the range of programmes in which Warwick engages. As part of the Teach First Higher Education Access Programme for Schools (HEAPS), I delivered a seminar on Vichy audiovisual propaganda to a group of Year 12 students from London. These students had never come into contact with Warwick’s other outreach programmes, which are targeted quite rightly at local schools. Once again, this demonstrates how an institution can tailor its outreach programmes to avoid the ‘fragmentary’ label applied by Mr Gyimah.

Why do we need widening participation? Part 3

The experience itself was, quite simply, inspirational. Not only were these students engaged and alert, but they have also had a genuine influence on my research. One student pointed out that the positioning of a tricolore flag in one of the newsreel clips that I had shown was, in fact, deliberately behind Marshal Pétain. As the student suggested, this physically positioned the new regime ahead of the old Republic in the programme of ‘National Revolution.’ Although I had watched that clip several times, this was a take on the way in which Vichy demonstrated its superiority to the Republic that I had never previously considered. Each of the outreach sessions in which I have been involved have left me feeling inspired by the enthusiasm and interest shown by the students involved. Far from being counter-productive, widening participation initiatives open up a two-way channel between the future generations of students and universities. I have found outreach sessions a brilliant way of engaging with an audience beyond the academic ‘bubble’, while in turn students have provided me with a new outlook on my research.

These sessions allow students from all backgrounds to experience university teaching for the first time. They bring students into contact with a range of university-related people: undergraduates, postgraduates, academic and administrative staff. One can feel the enthusiasm of the visiting secondary school students as they enter and leave sessions–outreach really does provide an insight into life beyond the school classroom, and can have a real influence on the students’ decision making process.

My experience of outreach programmes is in stark contrast to Sam Gyimah’s own assessment. Outreach is very much a mutual process, and one which does not simply benefit the student, but also the institution. Without these activities, many students–especially in schools in the Coventry area–would simply never consider university. Instead, the mere contact between university and student opens up an entirely new future. Whether or not these students come to Warwick is not the point; the aim is to encourage study at any university. It is, therefore, important that institutions ensure that financial packages (like the Warwick Scholarship and Warwick Bursaries) are well advertised and instantly available for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The combination of inspiring students to go to university through outreach and financial support once students arrive in higher education will go a long way to ensuring that students from low participation areas seriously consider university education. These two ingredients are essential if universities are to represent wider society in the diversity of their population. While alumni should, of course, be encouraged to donate where possible to their old institutions, these donations should not–and cannot–replace the dual initiatives of outreach and institutional financial support.

March 2012

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