October 2011


  • Stuck on U
    Don’t leave it to universities to woo young people. Schools and colleges can take their own steps to help their students make it through the doors of HE, despite rising fees and shrinking numbers of places, says Graeme Atherton. More
  • Held to account
    A project which began as a way to offer primary schools support with business management has evolved far beyond that. Kerry Brimfield describes the journey that has culminated in a secondary and multi-primary academy partnership. More
  • Guvnors
    As schools become more autonomous, the role of the governing body is assuming even greater significance. Emma Knights examines the skills and other attributes a governing body needs in order to maximise its effectiveness in a new era of self-determination. More
  • Maximum cloud coverage
    Cloud computing has the potential to revolutionise IT in education, making it cheaper to run, more responsive to students’ needs and environmentally-friendly into the bargain, argues Clive Bush. More
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Don’t leave it to universities to woo young people. Schools and colleges can take their own steps to help their students make it through the doors of HE, despite rising fees and shrinking numbers of places, says Graeme Atherton.

Stuck on U

Convincing young people of the merits of studying now to reap the benefits later has never been easy. However, at the moment, it appears harder than ever.

The increase in university tuition fees from next year has only exacerbated the seemingly endless flow of negative publicity about attending university. With some justification, many would argue, we are becoming a nation of university sceptics.

However, school and college leaders still have to ensure that learners get a balanced view and see the benefits of higher education – in particular those students from lower income backgrounds – so that they can make decisions based on facts rather than media headlines.

The coalition approach to HE policy in the last 18 months has been a radical one. While HE providers in England will be able to charge up to £9,000 per year for courses starting in 2012, at the same time the funding for teaching courses has fallen by 80 per cent. On that basis it’s possibly less surprising that, as of July, the average fee set was at £8,236.

The government did not anticipate this development. Instead, it had hoped that the change to the fee structure would foster a higher education market and greater competition between universities.

In an effort to boost competition, it has removed the cap on student numbers to enable universities to accept more of the highest achieving students. At present universities are allocated a limited number of student places but from 2012 any university will be able to recruit as many students as it likes who achieve AAB/equivalent or better.

The government has also made another 20,000 student places available to those universities who charge less than £7,500. The promise is that there are more policies to come to encourage this ‘contestability’.

The importance of social mobility?

While increasing fees dramatically, the government through its rhetoric has also continually pledged its commitment to social mobility and fair access to higher education. However, the policies to back this approach up have been somewhat mixed.

Since the early 2000s, virtually all schools and colleges in England have had some involvement in the now defunct Aimhigher programme, to support progression to HE among more disadvantaged learners.

The government’s view is that universities should replace the work of Aimhigher, which finished in July, by increasing their investment in outreach activities with schools and colleges.

To ensure this happens they have instructed universities which wish to charge over £6,000 per year (virtually all) to submit an access agreement. These documents outline how universities, via this outreach activity and bursaries/fee waivers, will ensure access to their institutions.

Delivery of these agreements will be policed by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which was set up in 2004 when fees were first raised to more than £3,000. OFFA will have powers, yet to be made totally clear, to bring the universities into line if they do not deliver on their agreements.

Where do these changes leave schools and colleges who want to work with universities, especially to support the progression of their more disadvantaged learners? OFFA is not Ofsted but its existence still means that universities have to continue to work with schools and colleges to support access to HE for learners of all backgrounds.

Most universities will do so anyway, due to a combination of altruism and self-interest, but it will be on their own terms, targeting the institutions and learners that meet their particular strategic objectives – for example, the Russell Group universities chasing the ‘gifted and talented’.

Know your power

There are a number of things that school and college leaders can do to get university engagement for their institutions and, most importantly, their learners.

The new system shifts power to the student consumer and has placed many universities under severe pressure. They need students – from all backgrounds – hence, they need to work with schools and colleges. This fact should be at the forefront of the minds of leaders when they work with universities.

As a first point leaders should look for strategic links with the university. A quick read of the access agreement (see www.offa.org.uk) should reveal the university’s priorities. If a university approaches you, focus on these priorities and then look for sustained partnership and engagement via contact at dean or pro vice-chancellor level, as well as a relationship with those who deliver outreach work.

The bigger problem is when universities don’t approach you. Again, the access agreement is a starting point. Schools and colleges can use agreements to identify how they can help universities meet their own targets and then approach them.

What may tip the balance here is collaboration. If schools and colleges can work together both locally and nationally to speak to universities with a collective voice, they greatly strengthen their position. For example, it is vital that universities do not lose sight of work at Key Stage 3 as they compete more intensively for students.

Schools and colleges together need to get this message across to the HE sector and there are a number of ways to do it. Invite HE representatives to speak to regional and local meetings of senior leaders, for example, or invite local HE institutions to join your school or college governing body.

Autumn 2011 also sees the launch of a new independent organisation to support schools and colleges working with universities: the National Access to Higher Education Network (NAHEN). Look out for the opportunity to join.

Finally, work with ASCL which is also becoming more active in this area and don’t be afraid to be bold and think politically. Virtually all MPs across the parties sign up to the social mobility agenda now so get them to help you locally to make social mobility a reality.

Dedicated staff

Commitment is also required from school and colleges however. Universities will not be able to respond to requests for activities if the school lacks the capability to deliver. Giving a member of staff a specific HE access or progression role is vital. Such a role ideally needs recognition and status.

AccessHE, the post Aimhigher organisation in London, is offering all schools and colleges in the capital the opportunity to nominate an AccessHE advocate – a role with free, accredited training and external status. Those outside London can explore with their universities how, in return for the school or college identifying such staff, they could give some external training and status.

Commitment also means identifying different groups of learners that universities may have to target – those with free school meals for example – and making time in the curriculum for this work to happen. The new statutory information, advice and guidance responsibilities on schools can be the umbrella for this.

Schools and colleges which have collaborated successfully with universities in the last decade, with and without Aimhigher support, know the benefits it can bring learners. This work can and must continue.

  • Graeme Atherton is director of AccessHE.

Other resources

Tuition fees

While it's true that young people entering university in 2012 will have higher fees, most will pay back less to start with than those in university in 2011. Go to www.studentfinance2012.com for resources that help explain the new system to students.

16-19 bursaries

Schools and colleges should by now have published their statement on how they will administer and distribute their allocated 16-19 bursary fund. The statement must be available to young people and the YPLA. Full details on distributing the funds are available at www.ypla.gov.uk/learnersupport/16-19-bursary

Access to HE

All universities charging over £6,000 per year must publish an access agreement setting out how, via bursaries/fee waivers and outreach activities – including work with schools and colleges – they will ensure fair access to their institutions. The agreements can be found at www.offa.org.uk

Stuck on