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Aimhigher: achieving social justice?

Colin McCaig and Tamsin Bowers-Brown

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007

Introduction

This paper will aim to determine how successful Aimhigher is as a potential mechanism of social justice. It is concerned primarily with the aims and intentions of the programme and how it has developed over a six year period since the launch of Excellence Challenge in 2001. It is not intended as critique of widening participation policies and practices generally; there is an ample body of literature that questions the impact of widening participation and even the notion of barriers to higher education for some groups (see particularly Gorard et al: 2006). The authors of the current paper believe that, while there are caveats about the lack of comparable datasets or 'smoking gun' causal links between intervention and enrolment, such policies are generally successful in raising educational attainment and raising aspirations and awareness of HE among underrepresented groups. The authors draw on their own and others' research that support the notion that Aimhigher in particular makes a positive difference (Bowers-Brown et al 2006, CRE 2005, McCaig & Bowers-Brown 2007, Hatt et al, EKOS,2007). As such, this paper can be seen as 'friendly fire' rather than a full frontal attack on methodological or ideological grounds. However, we will conclude that Aimhigher fails to fulfil its potential to be a force for social justice, in part because of a fundamental weakness in the concept of Aimhigher, and in part because of structural weaknesses in the operation of Aimhigher partnerships.

Background

In recent decades there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of young people that progress to higher education and that has led to greater diversity of the student body. However, parity in participation by social class has not been achieved. The link between social class and educational achievement is not a new issue or indeed one that has only impacted on the policy agenda since New Labour came to power in 1997; Robbins (1963) spoke of tapping the 'pool of talent' which was not yet going into higher education particularly from the working class (Trowler,1998). Yet, recent figures (UCAS, 2007) indicate that students from lower socio-economic groups are still less likely to participate in higher education than those from more advantaged groups; in 2006, 67.9% of accepted full-time applicants were from national statistics socio-economic classification groups (NSSEC) 1-3 whereas those accepted applicants from groups 4-7 totalled just 32.1%. While approximately 22% of the working age population in the UK are from NSSEC group 2, and another fifth (18%) are from the long-term unemployed/never worked category (NSSEC 8), the other substantive categories were fairly evenly divided, each accounting for between eight and 13 per cent of the population. The overall picture allows us to assume that, while there would naturally be a larger proportion of NSSEC group 2 amongst HE applicants the actual difference in HE participation for groups 4-7 is far from proportionate. This is particularly relevant for young learners what aspire to higher education. The most recent Youth Cohort Study (2002) show that approximately a third (32%) of 16 year-olds from ‘routine’ employment backgrounds gained five good GCSEs, compared with three quarters (77%) of those from the higher professional groups (DfES: 2002).

Furthermore Reay et al (2005) argue convincingly that there has been a deepening of educational and social stratification. The Sutton Trust (2004) supports this stating that when students from lower socio-economic groups do participate in higher education there is a higher propensity for them to attend post-1992 institutions than those from the more affluent socio-economic groups. Students from lower socio-economic groups are disproportionately less likely to apply for places at elite universities even when suitably qualified (Sutton Trust, 2004)(1). There are also concerns about the very low numbers of students with disabilities, looked after children and certain ethnic minority groups that progress to higher education. These inequalities exist despite an extensive policy drive to increase and widen participation (the Government target is set at 50% by 2010, DfES, 2003).

Aimhigher: a mechanism for social justice or more of the same?

Aimhigher is a national programme run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) with support from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) formerly the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). It is designed to widen and to increase participation in higher education by students from under-represented groups who have the abilities and aspirations to benefit from it. The main target group is 13–19 year olds but other key groups include adults under 30. However, evidence from both national and regional research conducted by the authors and others into the impact of Aimhigher indicates that these WP activities are not always targeted at the most disadvantaged and thus fail to achieve social justice.

Aimhigher has the potential to be a mechanism of social justice because it offers the opportunity to challenge inequalities in access to higher education by raising aspirations and attainment among underrepresented groups. Indeed, Minister for Lifelong Learning Further and Higher Education Bill Rammell recently affirmed the Government's commitment to fair access and widening participation in higher education for 'reasons of social justice and economic need' (Hansard, 2006). However, because Aimhigher is funded, partially, to help achieve the government target of 50% of 18–30 year olds having experienced higher education by 2010 (DfES, 2003(2)), activities are not always directed at those who need the most support. This is heart of a conceptual dualism in the thinking behind Aimhigher and the new Labour government’s attitude towards widening participation: on the one hand it wants to increase participation by creating a set of meritocratic pathways for more people to access higher education (often vocational HE to meet the demands of the economy); on the other hand, it wishes to provide the opportunity for underrepresented groups and thus widen access to higher education per se. As a policy it serves two masters and, as is often the case, neither are fully satisfied. This paper will examine the impact of two aspects of government widening participation policy in order to theorise this failure to achieve social justice: Office for Fair Access (OFFA) guidance for HEIs wishing to charge additional fees of up to £3000 from 2006/07 and the HEFCE's own guidelines for targeting disadvantaged learners.

There is a large body of literature relating to the ways in which working class students are drawn into vocational higher education primarily to the benefit of employers, while middle class young people continue to dominate the more prestigious academic routes into HE (see for example, Parry: 2006). As with the Gorard critique, it is beyond the scope of this paper to rehearse the issues fully. Aimhigher interventions do cover both academic and vocational projects, for example by identifying talented young people regardless of their socio-economic status, working to develop vocational pathways into HE and developing Foundation degrees relevant to employment. Rather than take Aimhigher to task for favouring one type of student or type of HE over another, this paper focuses on the way in which Aimhigher funding is distributed through institutional partnerships. It concludes that the institutions' own missions and agendas, reflected through the prism of Aimhigher partnership Boards, often ensure that the meritocratic aim of increasing participation often outweighs the egalitarian aim of widening participation, to the detriment of social justice outcomes. This paper will begin by exploring issues around the distribution of Aimhigher funding, and then go on to look at the impact of partnerships and the way activities are targeted.

Aimhigher Funding

Aimhigher funding is distributed nationally and allocated in response to regional imbalances in young participation(3). In the academic year 2007/8, £77m was made available nationally to forty-five area and nine regional Aimhigher partnerships. Of this, approximately 40% was passed directly to schools through the DfES Standards Fund(4). Aimhigher funding passed to schools is intended to develop curriculum opportunities for young people from lower socio-economic groups so that all those with the necessary skill and ability consider progression to higher education. Schools are supported in this work through participation in Aimhigher partnerships and higher education outreach activity (HEFCE, 2007). Aimhigher regional and area funds are 'allocated by a formula that reflects measures of deprivation a combination of educational attainment and participation in HE and then ’smoothed’ to moderate large changes in funding levels' (Aimhigher guidance 2006).

Aimhigher claims to focus its activities 'on young people from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds, some minority ethnic groups and people with disabilities'(5). However, research has revealed some fundamental problems in the way that Aimhigher funding is distributed and therefore the way in which some activities have been targeted; for example the national evaluation of Aimhigher Survey Strand (carried out by the preent authors) found that groups who were the most under-represented in HE did not necessarily receive the corresponding amount of resources or activities to engage them. Aimhigher claims to focus its activities 'on young people from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds, some minority ethnic groups and people with disabilities'(6). The evaluation survey found that whilst young people from lower socio-economic groups and Black and Minority Ethnic groups were the main focus of Aimhigher activities for a number of institutions, the groups who were the most under-represented in HE did not necessarily receive the corresponding amount of resources or activities to engage them.

Perhaps this reflects a decision to use the limited Aimhigher budget in a way which targets more of those who are easiest to reach rather than spending more resources to reach fewer potential students in harder to reach groups. In addition to the 40% that goes directly to schools, Aimhigher funding is awarded to Area partnership Boards by HEFCE, and managed by Areas Steering Groups (ASG). Area partnership Boards are made up of all HEIs, FEC colleges and schools that receive Aimhigher funding in the Area. In August 2006 Aimhigher partnerships at area and regional levels became responsible for the allocation and distribution of funds to all partners, leaving them to decide which schools, colleges and HEIs or projects are most deserving of Aimhigher funding. HEFCE states:

Where new ‘school clusters’ or ‘school federations’ emerge, and wish to engage with Aimhigher area partnerships, then funding can be distributed to clusters of schools subject to the agreement of partners. In such an arrangement, one school might act as banker for the cluster (HEFCE: 2006)

This can lead to non-optimal social justice distributions because priorities can be affected by the make-up of school clusters or wider forms of partnership (as we shall explore in the next section). HEFCE is aware of the potential problem this can cause; although forty percent of Aimhigher funds go straight to schools from the DfES in the form of non-ringfenced grants(7), HEFCE states that its 'funding powers are limited to supporting higher education, and activities directly linked to HE progression'. The concern that the funds might spill over is apparent in the assertion that 'we need to ensure that these limits are not exceeded' (HEFCE: 2006).

Research into various Aimhigher Areas shows that, as a result of the non-ring-fenced distribution of this funding, schools identify their own Aimhigher cohort relative to the performance of their own pupils rather than to the overall needs of the region (Bowers-Brown et al 2006, EKOS, 2007). In a school whose intake is drawn from a relatively affluent area very little of the money may be spent on the hardest-to-reach groups. Conversely, in other schools with a high proportion of underrepresented groups, the allocation may not be sufficient to provide the same level of help to the hardest-to-reach groups. The problem of variable cohort selection was highlighted by findings from the National Evaluation of Aimhigher Area Studies strand that found that:

Examples where Aimhigher schools in one borough were designating all students as Aimhigher students indicate that there is a serious issue of resources being ill targeted to an extent where those students that would most benefit from help cannot access a level of support likely to make a real difference (EKOS, 2007).

At Area level this can lead to a situation where colleges and HEIs find it impossible to measure the impact of activities provided by their feeder schools, and therefore difficult to identify a sensible cohort of their own. Researchers found that in one area a college was faced with groups of students coming in from different schools that had used different criteria to select their Aimhigher cohorts. This led to the college deciding to accept all the students as part of the Aimhigher cohort leading to problems developing a focused, coherent package of activities. (EKOS, 2007: p.60). In addition to these generic problems with the way that partnerships operate in practice, there were found to be two main specific areas of concern for cohort selection; one relates to BME status; the other to young people that have the opportunity to become the first generation of HE students in their families.

Targeting: the complexity of cohort selection- ethnicity

The most commonly targeted group among Aimhigher partnerships, perhaps not surprisingly, is those from BME populations. However, large differences exist in the level of participation, choice of course and choice of institution within the broad BME categories, and actual disadvantage is more apparent when BME groups are identified by ethnic origin rather than as a homogenous group. For example, at national level all the minority ethnic groups within the Black category and pupils of Mixed White and Black Caribbean heritage are consistently below the national average across all Key Stages, at GCSE and equivalent and Post-16(8), whereas Chinese, pupils of Mixed White and Asian heritage, Irish and Indian pupils consistently achieve above the national average across Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 (DfES, 2007).

Achievement levels usually cross-cut with the effects of class, for example, Connor et al (2003) state that minority ethnic groups with the highest 'A' level grades and also higher social class profiles based on type of previous educational establishment have the highest HE participation rates among minority ethnic groups (2003:28). It is therefore particular ethnic groups which face disadvantages rather than all BME groups, yet targeting does not always reflect this. Rothon (2007) argues that one thing is consistent – within each ethnic group, the lower the social class, the lower the proportion of students gaining five A*–C grades at GCSE. Despite this some Aimhigher partnerships target all BME groups in the Area, others specific underrepresented BME groups. This may reflect a lack of focus by partnerships on which groups should be targeted; research into the impact of targeting Aimhigher found that some Area Boards would continue to target all BME groups, including those that are actually overrepresented, because of their commitment to equality (McCaig and Bowers-Brown: 2007).

An associated problem is that in some areas this kind of decision is left to individual boroughs and even school based practitioners. Other research has also found that inefficient targeting can lead to non-optimal use of Aimhigher and other widening participation funding.

A simplistic adherence to target groups can overlook the multiple disadvantages that some individuals experience, and ignore the dynamic nature of access to learning. We, therefore, sought evidence in relation to different target groups, and also about the interaction between these categories such as class and disability, age and qualifications'. (Gorard et al 2006 )

One Aimhigher coordinator interviewed for a partnership evaluation explained the difficulties of targeting and that the methods used are not able to distinguish adequately between students:

I found we were getting Indian students in, Chinese students in, who were incredible achievers so this notion of ethnicity being a major criterion, it is just too blunt (CRE, 2006)

This issue is a particular problem where the group least likely to progress to higher education in a certain area are from white working class backgrounds:

One’s ethnicity has a considerable impact on the likelihood of entering higher education. Particular BME populations are much more likely to progress than their White counterparts. Analysis of Leicester City’s data, for example, demonstrated that the large Indian population in the city, with a strong culture of learning, helped increase the participation rates. However, this must not be allowed to camouflage the chronic under-representation of other groups, including the white population in the most deprived areas' (Kerrigan, M,2006).

Targeting: the complexity of cohort selection- first generation students

Another common Aimhigher cohort entry requirement is the lack of parental experience of higher education, designed to pick up those that could be the first generation of their family to experience higher education. However, given the rapid and recent growth in numbers of people attending higher education, this can be a criteria that includes many relatively affluent young people whose parents entered the labour market before the growth in higher education enrolments after the Further and Higher Education Act, 1992. In fact research into practice on the ground found that such targeting criteria did not reach the most under-represented socio-economic groups:

Parental experience of HE does not act as a reliable proxy for social class largely because the expansion of HE in the early 1990's came too early to have drawn in the majority of those who are parents of Aimhigher beneficiaries in the early 21st century. In the parental questionnaire, only 35% of parents identified themselves as employed in manual occupations, with the remaining 65% coming from non-manual backgrounds. Despite meeting the specified criteria, only a third of beneficiaries came from the most under-represented groups (Hatt et al, 2007: 293).

One focus group of teachers found that ‘It is very difficult to target . . . there are those who are not targeted. We’ve tended to spread our net very, very wide. The small part that we would have identified in the first place has eventually become much wider than that’ (Hatt et al, 2007). Bowers-Brown et al (2006) also found that a lack of focus in targeting meant that activities had been ineffective; many open comment responses to the educational providers' surveys referred to a lack of clear targeting and inappropriateness as the main reason for the ineffectiveness of certain activities, for example:

Participants tend to be those who would come anyway… the usual suspects attend (Master classes).

Master classes are usually attended by gifted and talented pupils who would already have gone into higher education anyway.

Residential and non-residential schools do not reach the students for whom they are intended. Anyone who signs up probably already has the confidence and aspirations to go on to higher education. Our students find a day visit daunting enough. (Bowers-Brown et al: 2006).

The targeting of such broad groups and in particular those who already demonstrate the potential to progress means that those who are in most need of support do not necessarily get the corresponding resources.

Research into the strategic plans of Areas found that the targeting of groups varied by the degree of central control. In more devolved variants there is a far greater flexibility for schools to select which young people become the focus of activities. The EKOS researchers found that while specific groups are sometimes prioritised for additional activities, again ‘this does not happen consistently, particularly in areas where the profile of these groups is low, for example where absolute numbers in an Aimhigher area are small and separate activities would not enjoy sufficient scale to be cost effective (EKOS: 2007, p.57).

The authors’ own research into one Aimhigher area found that the non-ring-fenced nature of the funding devolved to schools meant that schools could experiment with different ways of using the funding:

The approach [at one school] differed from more traditional methods by targeting pupils as young as those in year 8 and introducing them to practitioners who would provide an insight into different vocations and thus provide information about careers they might not otherwise have considered. However, in practice it did not appear that the targeting of participants for the classes was happening in this manner. The classes were not provided just for those who would reach level 3 and fail to progress. Some of the year 10 pupils who attended the classes were already part of a gifted and talented cohort; these pupils had already decided at an earlier stage that they would pursue higher education (CRE: 2006)

Research for Aimhigher Greater Merseyside (McCaig & Bowers-Brown: 2007) also found examples of experimentation and autonomy for school staff that, while leading to positive outcomes for the young people concerned, unbalanced the nature of Aimhigher provision across the Area. The learning mentor at one Liverpool school used a spate of racist incidents to galvanise a group around the Tackling Racism project (subsequently funded by Aimhigher) for young people to help confront racism by raising cultural awareness of other groups and reduce racial conflict as a barrier to progression.

The programme, though not targeted at BME young people, demonstrates the value of Aimhigher funding being available to respond to developing needs and the value of Aimhigher-funded learning mentors. The development of such ad hoc programmes is clearly a valuable use of Aimhigher funding, both in the sense that funding is flexible enough for autonomous professionals to draw down and because the programme helped focus young people on educational attainment as an alternative to racial conflict. However, the downside of such funding streams is that interventions created locally cannot be measured against other interventions and may not draw their cohorts only from defined targeted groups. Moreover, in a similar situation in another city (or even elsewhere in the same city), a learning mentor may have already used the funding for a specific ad hoc need relating to (e.g.) disabled young people or asylum seekers. This is neither consistent nor comparable.

HEFCE has addressed many of these issues in the recent revision of the targeting guidelines (HEFCE, 2007). The need for more precision in targeting is heavily emphasised:

This work, to target Aimhigher and other programmes more precisely, is an important part of the next phase. We must integrate this activity with the work that is also taking place in schools and colleges, and ensure that it is targeted as closely as possible at those who can benefit most from this type of intervention. (Bill Rammell's Foreword to the HEFCE guidelines)

The core group for Aimhigher targeted activities are seen to be those from lower socio-economic groups (except for learners with disabilities). HEFCE goes as far to state that the success of the programme will be judged by these criteria:

Ultimately Aimhigher and other HE outreach activity will be judged on its success in narrowing the social class gap in achievement at all levels and, in particular, narrowing the social class gap in HE participation.

This means that groups that have traditionally been a target of Aimhigher activities should only be included if they cross-cut with socio-economic disadvantage. HEFCE argues that both minority ethnic groups and students whose parents do not have experience of higher education should not be specific target groups for general WP activity in their own right. Henceforth only among disabled and looked after young people does group identity outweigh socio-economic disadvantage and confer automatic target group status. However, HEFCE recognises that there will be problems that arise due to the complexity of defining a young person's social class and that 'the result will be no more than an approximation to the social composition of any group of learners' (HEFCE, 2007:18).

Many of the issues discussed so far come about as a result of how the Aimhigher partnerships work in practice, in particular the influence of the higher education institutions. HEIs often have a key influence in the partnership and this will vary by type of institution. The next section explores the impact of lobbying among partner HE institutions on Aimhigher priorities and behaviours.

Partnership lobbying: evidence from the National Educational Providers Surveys and OFFA Access Agreements

Partnerships at Area level are made up of all institutions that receive Aimhigher funding. In practice the priorities set by Area Steering Groups (ASGs) can be affected by a lobbying process among members with often very different and competing interests. Research carried out by the authors suggests that this can lead to distortions in terms of WP priority areas expressed by HEIs and colleges that often target the easiest to reach groups. For example, the progression rate to higher education amongst looked after children is extremely low, at only 6% at age 19 (DfES, 2006) yet our research found that just over a quarter (28%) of higher education institution respondents and only 10% of the further education college respondents stated that looked after children are a priority group for their Aimhigher activities (Bowers-Brown et al: 2006).

Social class was recognised by the majority of respondents as a priority group for the Aimhigher activities in which their institution was involved; 93% of HEIs and 79% of FECs indicated that people from lower social classes were a priority group for the Aimhigher activities in which their institution was involved. Despite this both regional and local evaluations highlighted discrepancies that show funding was not always directed in this manner and many students from wealthy families were benefiting from Aimhigher activities (often because either cohorts were insufficiently drawn, as demonstrated above, or through schools and colleges offering spare or unwanted places on activities). Anecdotally, the driver behind the revised HEFCE targeting guidelines was Minister of State Bill Rammell, MP, who had heard professional parents relate how their children had been on Aimhigher activities.

Along with social class, BME groups were accorded a high priority by both HEIs and FECs in the national evaluation for HEFCE (Bowers-Brown et al: 2006). Among higher education institutions 69% prioritised ethnic minority students even though many ethnic minority groups are, as we have seen, actually over-represented in higher education; this reflects the interests of individual HEIs and FECs and may not necessarily reflect actual need in the partnership area. Put simply, among HEIs it is easier for (e.g. older research) institutions that have no particular need to widen the social balance of their intake to target young people from first-generation, disabled young people or minority ethnic groups that are a higher profile, than it is to use funding to develop programmes for the really hard-to-reach groups such as looked after children or asylum seekers.

It is ultimately the decision of local partnerships to decide which projects and activities are pursued. As Hatt et al report, partnerships have had to construct methodologies for identifying and selecting appropriate participants for interventions (Hatt, Baxter & Tate 2007: p. 292). This seeps down to the individual partner level where institutions such as schools, colleges, work-based learning providers and higher education institutions have their own criteria for determining which students form its Aimhigher cohort (CRE: 2006). EKOS (2007) found that this was problematic when it came to measuring impact 'where schools have used different criteria from each other in selecting their Aimhigher cohort it becomes increasingly hard to measure or demonstrate the impacts of Aimhigher activities'. It also means that schools are not targeting as effectively as they could.

As well as the use of different criteria for WP cohorts there is also the differing definitions of what represents a lower socio-economic group is problematic both in respect of providing comparable data and accuracy. For example, Areas have variously used the Registrar General's, National Statistics Socio-economic (NS SEC) and the Market Research Society classification systems as well as the post-code or domicile of the potential HE applicant (for further detail see Archer, 2003, Gorard et al 2006).

Analysis of the widening participation behaviour and priorities of higher education institutions as reported to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) shows a wide disparity between the interests of pre-1992 research universities and post-92 universities that usually focus more on teaching (McCaig: 2006). Both types of institution are present in Area and Regional Aimhigher partnerships and any evidence of divergent priorities suggests non-optimal use of Aimhigher funding and the restriction of opportunities at local levels in an Area with an imbalance of institutional types. We know from the Aimhigher survey (Bowers-Brown et al, 2006) that pre-92 universities draw their intake predominantly from outside of the partnership Area and it is likely that such institutions use Aimhigher funding to supplement their WP work with outside partners, for example when providing residential summer schools for bright pupils from distant feeder schools and colleges. The survey showed that Post-1992 universities were involved to the largest degree with all groups of potential learners (with the exception of those in areas of rural deprivation and those in areas of urban deprivation where Pre-1992 universities reported most involvement with these groups). FECs’ involvement was most likely to be with people from lower social classes, those in areas of urban deprivation, and vocational work-related learners.

Access Agreements were submitted to OFFA by HEIs that wished to charge additional tuition fees (up to £3,000 pa) from 2006/07. Such agreements have two main purposes: firstly they outline what combination of bursaries and other financial support is offered to students to offset the increased fee; secondly, they outline their institutional widening participation or outreach activities and priorities. OFFA guidance notes state that:

Institutions are required to use some of the money raised through tuition fees to provide bursaries or other financial support for students from under-represented groups, or to fund outreach activities to encourage more applications from under-represented groups. An access agreement will provide the details of bursary support and outreach work. (OFFA, 2005)

The amount or proportion of additional fee income to be spent was not prescribed, but it was noted that: 'institutions whose record suggests that they have further to go in attracting a wider range of applications will be expected to be more ambitious in their access agreement' (OFFA, 2004).

Analysis of the outreach work carried out by a sample of HEIs(9), the groups engaged with, the level and focus of activities and the references to institutional relationships and partnerships alluded to in access agreements was carried out in 2006 (McCaig: 2006). The analysis allows us to compare institutional behaviour in real life Aimhigher partnerships with their declared priorities at the time of the national evaluation of Aimhigher (Bowers-Brown et al: 2006). It reveals that institutions use widening participation policies, including their Aimhigher partnership commitments, to reinforce their market positioning with regard to access to their institutions; to some extent at least, Aimhigher funding can be redirected to WP activities outside the Area from which funding comes. It also suggests that for any given target cohort the chances of receiving the same level of attention or benefit will vary between Areas, partly because of local priorities and partly because of the pre- and post-92 university mix. We can see this in the different ways that pre- and post-92 institutions engage with widening participation.

Different priorities by HEI type: target age groups

Engagement is used here in the sense of engagement with a target social group that is the subject of outreach or widening participation activity. Analysis of engagement with age groups in our sample of access agreements reveals that pre-1992 universities are more likely than post-1992 universities to cite primary school pupils aged 5-11 as a group they engage with. Secondary age pupils (11-16) are the focus of more of pre-1992 universities’ attention, but in this as in the other age categories, post-1992 universities are more likely to cite engagement with this age group in the document; overall pre-1992 universities engage with an average of 1.9 different age groups while post-1992 universities engage with an average of 3.1 age groups (Table I).

Table I: Age groups engaged by HEI type

Age groups

Pre-1992

Post-1992

Total

Primary 5-11

5

2

7

Secondary 11-16

7

10

17

Young People 16-19

3

9

12

Adults 20-30

0

3

3

Adults 31+

0

3

3

Mature students

4

4

8

Total

19

31

50

The Educational Providers survey for Aimhigher did not represent widely different findings by age group. Post-1992 universities focused slightly more strongly on the older age groups, and also reported more work with primary age children than the access agreements analysis suggests. Both types of HEI all had a significant focus on secondary school pupils. FECs were far more likely to focus on young people aged 16–19 than any of the HEIs. The focus on adults (20–30) was similar in all types of institution. Post-1992 universities were the least likely of all the institution types to have no focus on the 31+ age group (Bowers-Brown et al: 2006, Table 2.3.1).

Different priorities by HEI type: target social group

Access agreements from both HEI types cited four main target social groups highlighted in the guidance notes for OFFA as underrepresented groups in higher education: those from minority ethnic backgrounds, those from lowers social classes, those learners with disabilities and those from historically low participation neighbourhoods. Three of these groups are the subject of similar levels of engagement from each HEI type, but post-1992 universities were far more likely to be engaged with learners with disabilities. Beyond these four priority groups, post-1992 universities had far broader engagement with other target groups and represented 62% of all target priority group citations (see Table II).

Table II: Underrepresented social group by HEI type

Groups

Pre-

92

Post-

92

Total

Minority ethnic groups

7

8

15

People from lower social classes

6

5

11

Learners with disabilities

3

7

10

Low participation neighbourhood

5

5

10

Those in areas of urban deprivation

1

4

5

Vocational work-related learners

1

3

4

Work-based learners

0

3

3

Asylum seekers/refugees

1

1

2

Parents/carers

0

1

1

Looked-after children

0

1

1

Total

24

38

62

The Aimhigher survey again reinforced some of the impressions given in the access agreements, however among pre-1992 universities agreements focused far more on the four official underrepresented groups (i.e. those cited by the OFFA guidance) than did their institutional Aimhigher responses which indicated significant engagement with (for example) parents and carers, those in areas of deprivation and looked-after children, groups that were not mentioned in OFFA agreements. The post-1992 groups’ Aimhigher survey responses were closer to the agreements, with a heavier emphasis on vocational and work-based learners and a broader overall range of engagement (Table III).

Table III: ‘Which are the priority groups for the Aimhigher activities in which your institution is involved?’

Priority groups

All HEIs

Pre-92

Post-92

n

%

n

%

n

%

People from lower social classes

104

93

35

97

42

100

Those in areas of urban deprivation

93

83

34

94

34

81

Vocational work-related learners

55

49

8

22

33

79

Minority ethnic groups

77

69

25

69

34

81

Parents/carers

64

57

22

61

28

67

Work-based learners

38

34

6

17

23

55

Other (please specify)*

15

13

6

17

5

12

Learners with disabilities

49

44

12

33

24

57

Those in areas of rural deprivation

45

40

18

50

14

33

Asylum seekers/refugees

14

13

4

11

7

17

Not in education, employment or training

16

14

5

14

9

21

Those in areas of coastal deprivation

34

30

11

31

13

31

Looked-after children

31

28

9

25

18

43

Source: Bowers-Brown et al (2006)

Different priorities by HEI type: activities

Analysis of the types of WP activity access agreements referred to reveals that there is little difference in their propensity to engage with some of the more common activities listed at the top of Table IV. For example, there was little or no difference between pre and post-1992 universities’ likelihood to offer subject specific projects, transition to HE support, staff development and training activities and master classes. However, as with the target priority groups, the analysis shows a wider range of activities offered by post-1992 universities, reflecting a broader conception of widening participation for these institutions. For example, while pre-1992 universities are more likely to offer taster events, mentoring and residential schools (all associated with individualised support for academic learners) post-1992 universities were more likely to offer pre-entry information advice and guidance (IAG), events for parents and carers, sector related HE taster events and promoting vocational routes to HE (more relevant to underrepresented groups, McCaig, Stevens and Bowers-Brown: 2006).

Post-1992 universities also engage in a range of activities that none of the sample pre-1992 universities are engaged in, for example, the mapping of apprenticeship routes to HE, collaborative curriculum development, mapping of vocational/non-traditional routes to HE and offering non-residential schools (which appeal more to local students). Widening participation for this group of institutions is about encouraging a wider uptake of HE in vocational areas and meeting the needs of employers; for pre-1992 universities it is about identifying, encouraging and selecting talented individuals suitable for high academic achievement.

Partnership and collaboration

Analysis of the access agreements also examined the partnership and collaborative working highlighted by institutions. Some of these, such as the local Aimhigher partnerships, are mandatory, but the number and nature of other partnerships cited again reveals key differences between pre and post-1992 universities. Pre-1992 universities engage in partnership activity with voluntary organisations such as the National Association of Gifted & Talented Youth (NAGTY) and the Sutton Trust, both of which are specifically interested in identifying talented, academically able students whatever their socioeconomic background. Post-1992 universities (though only marginally) engage more often with statutory organisations such as Connexions and (where they exist) Education Action Zones (EAZs) whose missions are to increase attainment, retention and progression amongst all pupils in selected disadvantaged areas. For both categories of HEI the largest area of partnership activity is with other HEIs, colleges and schools within their locale.

References to Aimhigher in agreements

Access agreements were also analysed for references to Aimhigher, which can be a legitimate conduit for additional tuition fee income and also a key partnership institutions might be expected to mention. Post-1992 universities were more likely to highlight the role Aimhigher plays in their institutional WP; they tended to mention Aimhigher earlier in the document and in the context of larger sections of the document (in one case with its own headed paragraph). In access agreements produced by pre-1992 universities mentions of Aimhigher were fewer, more marginal to the WP case and more likely to be restricted to references to Aimhigher partnerships (which institutions are obliged to be members of).(10)

Table IV: References to Aimhigher in access agreements

Type of reference to Aimhigher

Pre-1992

Post-1992

Total

Upfront with big section

1

6

7

Dedicated Aimhigher section/paragraph

 

1

1

Few mentions, marginal to the document

3

 

3

In relation to fees/bursaries

1

1

2

In relation to outreach activity

2

4

6

In relation to partnership activity

3

1

4

As a funding stream

1

1

2

The Aimhigher survey asked institutions about the impact on partnership and collaborative activity. A third of respondents reported deeper and broader collaboration with other institutions, schools and agencies over a five year period. Pre-1992 universities reported more involvement with other HEIs as a result of Aimhigher, while post-1992 universities reported more collaboration with FE colleges schools and voluntary sector organisations (Table V).

Table V: ‘Which of the following best describes the growth of partnership working that you have experienced as a result of Aimhigher?’

Institution is now more involved with:

Pre-92

Post-92

All

n

%

n

%

n

%

Schools

27

90

35

85

86

85

Other agencies (e.g. LEAs/ Connexions)

23

77

33

81

78

77

Colleges

17

57

32

78

70

69

HEIs

21

70

26

63

69

68

Employers/learning providers

12

40

25

61

50

50

Voluntary sector organisations

9

30

11

27

29

29

(Bowers-Brown et al: 2006: Table 2.2.1a)

Conclusion

Different concepts of widening participation are clearly exhibited by different types of schools, colleges and HEIs and this can clearly have an effect on priorities set by Aimhigher partnerships which can lead to variable expenditure on different underrepresented groups by partnership Area. In addition this paper has identified practical and operational difficulties that can be more easily overcome, and that have already been identified by the new HEFCE targeting guidelines. Lazy targeting of high profile and relatively easy-to-reach classes of 'underrepresented' groups (at whatever level it occurs, from the school to the university to the Area Steering Group) is often at the expense of properly identified pockets of real need. Institutions' own missions and agendas, outlined in both OFFA Access Agreements, in responses to the Educational Providers Survey, and the priorities expressed by Area Boards usually favour the meritocratic aim of increasing participation in areas required by the economy rather than the needs of individuals. As a result the egalitarian aim of widening participation is often observed more in the breach and this acts to the detriment of social justice.

Aimhigher suffers from confusion at the heart of government widening participation policy: it is expected to both deliver increased participation and widen access to higher education. Yet the pre-92 universities engage only to the extent of widening participation by offering a limited number of places to the academically gifted while post-92s, though engaging in valuable developmental work on vocational pathways into HE and innovative curricula, merely provide more educated workers for the labour market. Given this set of circumstances it is perhaps unsurprising that Aimhigher fails to live up to its social justice potential.

Contact details/discussion
Dr Colin McCaig
Centre for Education and Inclusion Research (CEIR)
Sheffield Hallam University
c.mccaig@shu.ac.uk 

Tamsin Bowers-Brown
Centre for Research and Evaluation (CRE)
Sheffield Hallam University
t.bowers-brown@shu.ac.uk 

Notes

1. Sutton, Trust (2004) ‘3,000 state school students each year missing from our top universities’, [ http:/www.suttontrust.com/news.asp#linkone    ] 

2. Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 2003. The Future of Higher Education. HMSO.

3. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2005/05_03/05_03.pdf

4. All funding devolved to schools is “non-ring fenced” in line with the government’s strategy “A New Relationship with Schools.

5. http://www.aimhigher.ac.uk/sites/aimhigher/about_us/about_aimhigher.cfm

6. http://www.aimhigher.ac.uk/sites/aimhigher/about_us/about_aimhigher.cfm

7. Aimhigher funding to schools as decided by the Area Steering Group is distributed by the DfES through local authorities to schools, in the form of a separate non ring-fenced grant.

8. The results for these groups have generally improved since 2005 across each Key Stage, resulting in some cases in a narrowing of the attainment gap in many subjects. For example, the gap between each of these groups and the average for all pupils has narrowed at GCSE since 2005.

9. The sample consisted on ten access agreements from each of the pre-92 and post-92 institution types, representing about 25% of each sector. Agreements were weighted by size of provision and region.

10. 123 of the 130 English HEIs receive Aimhigher funding and any HEI (or other institution) that receives Aimhigher funding is a member of a regional Aimhigher partnership.

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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 16 January 2008