Politicians and commentators often talk about wanting to expand higher education. This is sometimes couched in terms of social mobility (although Vik Loveday makes a good case that mobility implies ‘escaping’ working class and should be avoided as a term), sometimes because education is seen as a social benefit, and sometimes in terms of neo-liberal productive economy. But generally, people think it’s a good idea to try and get more people, and particularly more people from currently under-represented groups, into higher education.
But contrary to this many of the same people are actively constructing a system that works against such an inclusive approach to higher education. I worked on a European project called Changing Pedagogic Landscape recently, which examined the impact of quality assurance, curriculum and funding on innovation in higher ed in Europe. One of the messages that came out from that was how the context universities work in often run counter to the rhetoric for innovation or inclusion.
The Green paper also demonstrates this schism, asking for an expansion in student numbers, and then setting in place measures that will punish those who try to realise this. The problem is that the current higher education system operates on a presumption of exclusion. You keep out those who won’t pass, and cherish those who you think will. The characteristics of a system of exclusion in HE are:
- An almost complete focus on the ‘traditional’ student” 18-22 years old, studying full time, on campus, away from home. The Green paper suffers from this so much that it is embarrassing. Part-time, distance, mature students – these hardly get a mention.
- Metrics that focus on retention – many of the newer groups you want to reach may not complete a full degree. That may be because only studying one or two modules is what they want to do, and realises their aim. Or it may be that you have a higher drop out rate from these groups. The TEF/Green paper is going to make course completion one of the factors that indicates quality. This will actively deter universities from bringing in students who have a lower chance of completion.
- Inflexible funding models – funding is related to completion, and does not differentiate for different types of study
- Prohibitive costs – if entering higher education means taking on debts of £20-£50K then the people this has a disproportionately negative impact on the groups you might want to include, since they have less familiarity with higher education, are more debt sensitive and less sure they will complete.
What this creates is a system that encourages exclusion – if we really want a more inclusive higher education system then governments have to address all of these characteristics, otherwise it remains empty rhetoric.