NPC/98/10/B: Widening Participation in Higher Education

by Jeremy Hoad

Widening participation in higher education: funding proposals
HEFCE Consultation 98/39
Summary of responses sought and submission from the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC)

53. We invite comments and discussion on our strategic objectives to widen participation in HE, and the funding proposals to deliver these objectives. In particular, we would like comment on:

a. The proposed principles and funding objectives underpinning our approach to widening participation in higher education.

The NPC fully supports the issues and principles outlined (11 14) and agree that widening participation in higher education is a basic area that demands attention. We propose that HEFCE ensure that the principle of widening participation extends to all students. The continuation of these principles into the postgraduate arena and the concurrent development of realistic objectives for widening participation at this level of study is important to provide a balanced approach.

We understand that HEFCE and other funding bodies are limited to supply side solutions (13a) and should acknowledge that different institutions have various strategies, targets and student profiles. However, this must not preclude the application of proactive equal access strategies for all HEIs and for all students. The importance of recruitment strategies (13b) cannot be understated, particularly in the field of postgraduate studies as increasing numbers of students see the progression to postgraduate study as a necessity for their academic or career aspirations.

We comment on the principles and funding objectives by reference to points (14) and (15).

Issues and Principles

14a. Access to achievement we should encourage institutions not only to increase the participation of students from under-represented groups but also to help such students succeed.

We agree that the dual nature of this proposal is important. The changing nature of participation in higher education is one of the key features of recent years. HEIs must adapt to this new environment and alter their understanding of access to higher education. HEFCE and other funding bodies must ensure that HEIs have policies and strategies in place to help students succeed. With increasing pressure being placed upon students due to funding changes and the move from grants to loans for undergraduate students the need for student support which acknowledges the radically different nature of students' experience of higher education is crucial. This is particularly important for postgraduate students. The increase in postgraduate courses particularly at Masters level has been dramatic in recent years. Postgraduate students have all the problems and pressures of undergraduate students. Yet they have no access to student loans and are more likely to have to cope with extra difficulties such as childcare, inappropriate or inflexible course timetables, difficult access to facilities outside undergraduate teaching time, pressure from employers and age-related problems. It is therefore important that student support services are maintained and developed to help all students to succeed and particularly those groups such as postgraduate students who do not fit the standard student profile.

We are particularly concerned that access to postgraduate study is maintained for all students who would benefit, whether as continuing students from undergraduate courses or as people returning to higher education. It is worrying that there has been a collapse in the number of applications from mature students at the same time as tuition fees have been introduced. Similarly we are worried that the increased financial burden placed upon undergraduate students will deter their progression to postgraduate level study, particularly with the extremely limited numbers of funded places available for postgraduate courses and the intense competition for these places. We would like to see HEFCE extend its understanding of widening participation to all students, regardless of the level of the course or the age or social profile of the applicants.

14b. Increased collaboration priority should be given to collaboration between HEIs and partners from other education sectors to improve progression routes to HE for under-represented groups.

We believe that cooperation and collaboration between HEIs and other groups can be a particularly good way to increase awareness of and access to higher education. We would like to see this principal extended to all levels within higher education. Improving "progression routes to higher education" should include progression routes through higher education. The advancement of students from undergraduate to postgraduate level study is hampered by many things, not least a perception that postgraduate study is only for a particular type of "academic" person. Academic performance is clearly an important element for postgraduate level study. However much more could be done to encourage students to either progress to postgraduate study or return to it later in life. Postgraduate courses are often far more specific than undergraduate work and can cater to the needs of the individual, employers and society in a different way.

14c. Recognising diversity we should avoid prescription in our funding and allow for differences in institutional approach, adopting different funding approaches to recognise the diversity of missions and strategies in the sector.

We agree with the flexibility of approach outlined here but believe that HEIs must not be allowed to avoid their commitment to widening participation by reference to their specific approach, mission or strategy. Although it is inevitable that student profiles at different institutions will reflect the biases and preconceptions of society it is important that all institutions do as much as they can to overcome these differences.

14d. Targeting certain groups emphasis should be placed on improving the representation of particular disadvantaged groups.

We acknowledge that certain groups women, students from ethnic minority backgrounds and mature students (11) are far better represented now than in the past but believe that continuing attention needs to be paid to all minority groups.

This document makes particular mention of students from poor backgrounds and students with disabilities. We would like to see the proposals include other groups explicitly. Concentrating on economic indicators (either personal economic background or the funding implications for facilitating participation by disabled students) is understandable but the widening of participation needs to take account of other factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and age to be truly comprehensive.

We therefore also draw attention to the fact that the issues identified do not disappear at postgraduate level and frequently participation rates from under-represented groups are much lower at postgraduate level. For example, according to the most recently publicly available HESA figures, there is approximately a 2:1 male / female gender balance in full-time postgraduate research figures which, when analysed by ethnicities is as high as 4:1 for some groups.

Funding Objectives

We believe that the funding objectives, as far as they go, are a realistic and appropriate application of the issues and principles identified in (14).

15f. Support activity designed to retain students.

We would like to see HEIs develop strategies to retain students at postgraduate level also. In the area of postgraduate research there are specific problems that can occur which contribute to postgraduate students not continuing their studies such as poor supervision, lack of motivation, isolation, the absence of a clear programme of study and financial hardship particularly for self-funding, overseas and mature students. We propose that funding should support initiatives that address these issues which are specific to postgraduate level study and fundamental to facilitating wider participation in higher education at all levels.

b. The proposal to require institutions to provide performance targets and measures against which to monitor improvements in widening participation.

We accept the need for measurable targets and the arguments against sector-wide or national quantitative targets, at least in the short term, which would not be flexible enough to accommodate variations in the circumstances of individual HEIs. The proposal for performance indicators and strategic targets is therefore an acceptable compromise with the proviso that the intention is to aggregate this data to provide national benchmarks for HEIs. We believe that rather than avoiding quantitative targets entirely it is appropriate to develop proportional participation targets at a national level. It should then be the responsibility of HEIs to explain how and why their participation rates vary from these targets.

We would like to see more explanation as to what is meant by "under-represented groups" (20a) and how the Council determines the levels of representation below which a group is deemed to be under-represented.

We look forward to seeing the performance indicators and benchmarks that have been developed by the Performance Indicators Steering Group (21). One consideration here could be the proportion of students graduating from a HEI, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, who continue on to postgraduate study. We believe that postgraduate study should be open to all those who are capable of benefiting from it and institutions should include in their strategies policies for encouraging and facilitating this.

c. The proposal to introduce student-related additional payments in the teaching funding method for students from poor backgrounds and for students with disabilities.

We agree with this proposal but would like to see the additional payments provided to encourage students from all under-represented groups and minorities and not only "students from poor backgrounds and for students with disabilities".

We are concerned that the proposed method of measuring and monitoring disabled students the Disability Student Allowance (DSA) does not apply to postgraduate or part-time students (30). Although the government is considering the extension of the DSA to these groups the measure would currently be inadequate to assess the participation levels of students with disabilities at HEIs. We acknowledge that there is no other reliable source of such data but a further problem is suggested by this situation. Namely, the use of data from government allowances such as the DSA is subject to change dependent on the policies of the current government and so is potentially unreliable as a long-term measure. We believe that it would be more appropriate to require HEIs to gather information on the numbers of students with disabilities themselves and that this information be collated by the Council to determine its student-related additional payments for students with disabilities. It seems reasonable to assume that a HEI which is not capable of providing such information is not addressing this issue with sufficient clarity. This would itself be an indicator of the attitude of a HEI to widening participation for students with disabilities.

We would like to see clarification on the reasoning behind allocating funds only through the teaching funding method. It would seem sensible to also allocate additional funds to encourage the wider participation of students with disabilities through the capital and buildings budgets for HEIs. A major problem, particularly with older institutions or those which utilise older buildings, is the inappropriate physical environment for students with disabilities. Basic provision of ramps, lifts, induction loops and clear signposting and demarcation are all areas which demand attention and which are frequently expensive for HEIs to provide. We therefore propose that HEFCE consider other appropriate routes for funding to facilitate wider participation in higher education by students with disabilities, particularly through capital and buildings budgets.

d. The use of either social class or geodemographic data to measure students from poor backgrounds for funding purposes, as discussed in detail in Annex A.

Of the two alternatives indicators based on social class and geodemographic techniques we feel strongly that the use of social class indicators sourced from information from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is extremely limited and is unreliable as it is defined by applicants themselves. Furthermore, such data is only applicable to undergraduate full-time students and so excludes many of the groups who should be assessed for comparative purposes to achieve the aim of widening participation, for example part-time students.

A further problem is that information from the UCAS only applies to undergraduate students. We would expect that to achieve the aims of widening participation in higher education the Council intends to extend the collation of data on students from poorer backgrounds to postgraduates. We are concerned that this is not highlighted as a specific problem with the UCAS data and that the recruitment strategies identified (25) seem to apply almost exclusively to undergraduate students.

We are not in a position to suggest alternatives to the methods suggested.

e. The proposal to continue to give priority to widening participation and diploma-level provision in the allocation of additional student numbers.

The decision to give priority to widening participation at diploma level, while facilitating initial access, obscures the enormous inequities in existence at postgraduate level. The NPC considers that it is not possible for HEFCE to make an informed decision about access priorities until the extent of these inequities have been fully examined and understood. We therefore suggest that attention is paid to the processes and strategies concerned with access to postgraduate level study and the means by which participation could be widened.

f. The purpose and nature of special funding and suggestions for priorities for future special funding programmes.

We support the continuation of the projects currently being funded which are aimed at building partnerships to improve progression routes to HE for under-represented groups and to disseminate and embed good practice. We note, however, that these projects seem to be targeted at current or potential undergraduate students only. We therefore suggest that priorities for future special funding should be the gathering of robust data for postgraduate study and the assessment, funding and implementation of strategies to widen participation at the postgraduate level.

g. Our funding proposals for widening participation, and in particular the balance between mainstream and special funding.

We accept that in order to "allow institutions to act straight away on their present successful practices" (40) the balance of funds should be more towards mainstream rather than special funding. We note, however, that the funding proposals are limited in their applicability and, consequently, in their success by the application of mainstream funds in the form of student-related additional funds to students from poorer backgrounds and students with disabilities. Furthermore, the latter group would currently exclude all part-time or postgraduate students. We are pleased to see that the balance of funding proposed is open to review and that this is the initial funding balance only. We believe that for longer term benefits to accrue more investment needs to be directed towards the special funding. We believe this because special funding can be targeted better (36) and has greater potential to alter practice for the future.

h. The proposal to link institutions' participation strategies to funding.

We agree wholeheartedly with the proposal to restrict the additional student numbers and proposed payments to those institutions who "have an institutional participation strategy, and can show that they are implementing it" (46). We feel that this is a practical way to ensure that HEIs not only have strategies for widening participation but are seen to be implementing them. We also agree with the further intention to require institutions to "review their strategies and publish outcomes of the review" (44). It is important that HEIs make public their commitment to widening participation and the methods by which they attempt to do this. We would like to see this information disseminated as widely as possible and for HEIs to be required to engage in a consultative process with appropriate groups outside higher education in order to improve their strategies and ensure they are appropriate to the needs of the wider community.

i. The nature of participation strategies and the proposed guidance in Annex B.

We agree with the proposal to produce generic guidance and not compare strategies for funding on a competitive basis.

The ownership of strategies by institutions (47) and the "light touch" mentioned (48) are particularly welcome as they will encourage the development of strategies for widening participation which are appropriate to HEI's specific circumstances and goals. Nevertheless, accepting that the areas specified are used as examples in (Annex B, 1a) we believe that an explicit reference to equal opportunities strategies should be made as well as "teaching and learning, and staff development".

j. The proposals for monitoring the implementation of participation strategies, as outlined in Annex B.

The suggestions for monitoring the implementation of participation strategies (Annex B, 2a,b,c) seem to be comprehensive enough to ensure that the assessment is appropriate to the needs of the Council.

k. The proposed timetable for linking participation strategies to funding.

We accept the Council's proposals regarding the timetable for the allocation of additional funding. However, we are concerned that the initial student-related funds in 1999-2000 are to be assigned on a quantitative basis (51). Although it is important that widening participation in higher education is given a high priority and policies to ensure its development and application implemented as soon as possible this conflicts with the reasoning that quantitative data are both limited and unreliable as indicators.