NIACE responds to Hughes Report on improving access to education

22 July 2011

There is a good deal that is useful in the report of the government’s Access to Education Advocate Simon Hughes MP and it is to be hoped that the government gives it the careful consideration it warrants in its consultation on the higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, says Paul Stanistreet, NIACE’s Lead on HE.

NIACE particularly welcomes Mr Hughes’ recognition of the importance of ensuring that colleges and universities are ‘equally accessible’ to people who didn’t go into further education or higher education at 16 or 18 and his recommendation that ministers restore funding for FE access courses for students over the age of 24. We also welcome his calls for the development of a national programme of access and foundation courses.

Access courses offer a critically important route for young people and adults who have been failed by the education system the first time around. It’s vital that in formulating education policy the government takes into account all aspects of the system that supports adults into learning and recognises their interconnectedness. Further education should have a critical, central role to play in this.

The interim report of the Colleges in their Communities inquiry, which NIACE supports with the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group, called for ‘a further education system with colleges at its heart responsible for and responsive to the needs of all adults and young people, employers and local communities’.

For that reason, we very much welcome Mr Hughes’ recognition that ‘one of the best ways of opening the doors of our universities and recruiting for degree students from all backgrounds in this country is by ensuring that FE colleges are recognised in every community as the further education service for all the community, fully integrated with schools on the one hand and with university and the world of work on the other’.

Mr Hughes rightly points out that colleges are often the ‘local doorway’ through which people from non-traditional background access educational opportunities. However, as today’s University and College Union report on variations in levels of education within Britain’s adult population demonstrates, there is a deeply entrenched divide between the educational haves and have-nots in Britain that will take a huge effort – and not just from government – to reverse. In some areas, as many as a third of adult have no qualifications at all.

Some of Mr Hughes’ recommendations could represent steps in the right direction. NIACE welcomes his emphasis on improved information and guidance, for both young people and adults, and his recommendations for better communicating the potential costs and benefits of higher study. As the UCU report shows, we face a major challenge in persuading people from the least advantaged communities of the value of higher education.

However, there are clear risks that the government’s reforms will have the unintended effect of further narrowing participation among excluded groups. There remain significant concerns about the impact increased tuition fees will have on demand for places within disadvantaged or non-traditional groups; while the introduction of loans for learners over 24 taking qualifications at Level 3 from 2013-14 could also have a serious negative impact on participation.

It will be important in considering the recommendations of the Hughes report that the government considers carefully the good practice that already exists in improving access and widening participation – in schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace – and, given the timing of the report, that it is prepared to look again at existing policies, such as the introduction of Level 3 loans and the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which could impact negatively on access from disadvantaged groups.