This morning I came across a University of Sussex News Item which explains that Sussex has made the shortlist, published today (Thursday 5 September), for Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2013. This piece reminded me of a discussion I had a while ago about the whole approach to widening participation in University education, an issue made all the more serious by the introduction of £9K a year tuition fees. In particular
The University has increased spending on widening participation activities to £8.1 million a year, with over half of this spent on the innovative First Generation Scholars scheme, which supports students who are from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to go to university.
Before commenting on this in any detail I should put my cards on the table. When I went to University in 1982 I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student was fairly comfortable.
Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly. There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.
To get back to the news item I mentioned earlier, I have always thought there is a tricky calculation to be made when it comes to designing programmes intended to encourage students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to come to university, whether that be to do with socio-economic considerations, gender, ethnicity, age or anything else. The question is whether pumping money into bursaries is actually effective. I can imagine that a large bursary, perhaps equivalent in money terms to the old maintenance grant, would genuinely influence the decision of a prospective student, but if the pot is shared out among very many people the resulting bursaries are fairly modest. How much does a bursary have to be to make a difference? Answers on a postcard.
The other side of the debate is what the balance should be between bursaries and outreach. In a subject like Physics one of the principal obstacles faced by pupils from the state sector is the dire shortage of physics teachers as well as the lack of laboratory facilities in schools. Here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex we have a very large (and growing) outreach programme which includes giving kids from local schools the chance to come into our building and do specially designed experiments in a laboratory set aside for the purpose. This kind of activity is intended to get those of school age thinking about doing Physics or Astronomy, which they might not otherwise do.
I don’t see bursaries and outreach as mutually exclusive approaches to the goal of widening participation. It’s more a question of the balance. How do we decide how to allocate resources? Is there research on the effectiveness of different programmes?
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