Two countries united by a common access problem

James Turner considers access issues State-side

I had some respite from the London cold last week, when I was invited to speak at a British Council event at the University of California, Los Angeles, on widening access to university.

It was a fascinating session and underlined that – while our weather may be quite different – our two countries are facing similar issues when it comes to educational inequalities.

Even in setting the scene, the contextual factors at play are strikingly resonant – low levels of social mobility compared to many other developed nations; increasing inequality leading to a widening gap between rich and poor; and marked segregation in the school system, which makes the pre-college playing field anything but level.

The debates on either side of the Atlantic have been brought further into line because many in the US now see class and income, rather than ethnicity, as the defining obstacle to wider university access.  It is poverty more than colour that dictates chances of progression.

And both countries face the conundrum that, between them, they have the majority of the top-ranked universities in the world, but opportunities to study at these institutions are far from equitably spread, with those from better-off homes dominating admissions.

As in the UK, one of the major reasons underlying this trend in America is the lower levels of achievement of poorer students, allied to issues around aspirations and the quality of advice and support they receive.  Such is the complexity and breadth of the US higher education scene, that college counselling is critical – but, as here, it is often worst where it is needed most, in those communities with little experience of further study and no networks on which to draw.   This is exacerbated by the fact that school resources depend on parental income, with school districts funded through local taxation.

One difference though – at least for the time being – was that affordability and credit constraints have played a much larger part in the US picture.

While debt aversion has always been a factor in the debate, research from OFFA a couple of years ago showed that bursaries did not make a difference to English students’ decision making.  In other words, it wasn’t the cash that mattered, which is why the Trust has long-argued for more investment in outreach work in schools.  Whether this holds true under the new fees regime, of course, remains to be seen.

Participation rates in the US are higher than here, markedly so in fact, but the need for college graduates remains strong – in fact, the US government forecasts a demand, particularly in STEM areas, that is not being met by current supply. That should give heart to those in the UK pushing for more high quality higher education opportunities.

The final session of the conference looked at new digital platforms – including the possibility that College education could be made free, or at much lower cost, through the web.  Bandwith, content and hardware have converged, meaning that now could be the time that this type of provision really takes off.

If that happens, and the currency of the courses remains high, then the opportunity to share in the bounty of university could extend well beyond those who physically enter the lecture halls of our great universities.

So there were reasons for optimism – but it was an overall sobering prognosis, despite the LA sunshine. Such is the arms race of social mobility – and the understandable willingness of affluent parents to spend money to give their children a competitive advantage – that closing the university access gap seems like a very high mountain to climb indeed.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try —  and our work over the last fifteen years has shown that progress can be made. Every great journey starts in the foothills.