The social divide of access to higher education: my take on what universities need to get better at. (Hint: EVIDENCE)

by Stephen Tall on January 24, 2014

I took part in the first ‘Directors Debate’ yesterday – on the real value and true price of scholarships in higher education – organised by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education at Senate House in London yesterday. We had 5 minutes, and below is what I had to say in my slot.

If you don’t want to read it all, here’s the skinny version:

Financial aid for students is undoubtedly a good thing. However, the evidence is clear that scholarships and bursaries do very little to address the biggest issue I think faces higher education: how can you get more young people from low-income backgrounds with the talent to succeed into university in the first place. Universities are focusing too much effort on (very expensive) financial aid in the name of widening participation when in reality it’s often a marketing/positioning exercise. British universities are appalling bad at evaluating the impact of their widening participation activities. If they’re serious about tackling the social divide they need to get a lot smarter and a lot more rigorous about finding out what actually works so they can invest their money effectively in widening participation strategies that truly make a difference.

And here’s the full version…

It’s a couple of years since I stopped fundraising for the University of Oxford – after 13 years – and began at the Education Endowment Foundation.

What I want to talk about today links both my past and current roles. And it includes a challenge to universities and fundraisers alike…

I’m going to start with a case study as a lens to focus on what I think is one of the key issues facing higher education – how to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university.

Let me say from the off, I realise that much of the responsibility for this rests beyond the scope of universities.

A Sutton Trust report published a few weeks ago showed that you’re FIVE TIMES more likely to be able to get into a selective university if you come from a wealthy background than from a poor background.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, that universities can shrug off their responsibility.

The same Sutton Trust report showed that academic achievement at school doesn’t fully explain this divide. In England more than one-quarter (27%) of the social class gap in access to selective universities cannot be explained by prior academic achievement – this suggests there are significant numbers of young people from low-income backgrounds with the academic ability to access higher education but who don’t.

We all know much of this, of course. It’s why universities devote so much resource to widening participation, through financial aid and access initiatives.

Here’s where my case study comes in…

18 months ago Oxford announced one of its biggest ever pledged gifts (I was involved in only a peripheral way) which came from Mike Moritz, Welsh son of an academic émigré father who fled Nazi Germany, and now a Silicon Valley billionaire – and a tough cookie, as shown by the terms of his donation.

Mike Moritz’s £75m came with stringent conditions attached, his own ‘triple-lock’ to address three things most potential major donors worry about:

1) once they’ve handed the money over they’ll lose their ‘bargaining power’ with the institution,

2) their gift won’t actually influence the institution’s mission no matter what assurances they’ve received, and

3) that the institution will become dependent only on its biggest donors and won’t do enough to encourage all supporters to give what they can.

Here’s how Moritz sought to mitigate these familiar donor concerns…

The gift is being made in three tranches of £25m. Each £25m will be matched by the equivalent of investment returns from £25m of Oxford’s own endowment, making £50m in total.

Then there will be a challenge to the collegiate University and its supporters to match that £50m through further philanthropy – making £100m.

Only when the initial £25m Moritz donation has led to a full £100m for student support will the next £25m be given. This process will happen three times over, generating an ultimate £300m.

This is a canny way of orientating Oxford’s mission — both its investment and its fundraising strategy for a number of years — towards addressing what Mike Moritz sees as the best way to champion access to Oxford.

But is he right…? Here’s the thing: we don’t know.

Moritz doesn’t know – Oxford doesn’t know – if the money that’s funding fee-waivers worth £5,500 per student – is the best use of that £300m.

Here’s where my challenge to universities and fundraisers alike comes in…

Everybody buys into the concept of financial aid, giving young people from poorer backgrounds the means to live and study.

But fee-waivers are more controversial given the new ‘graduate tax’ repayment fees system means there’s no up-front cost to the student.

Would that money, that £300m, have achieved greater impact if it had been used to fund (for example) expanded summer schools or student mentoring programmes or teacher engagement activities?

Is it better to host events at universities or to organise them at target schools?

Lots of questions we simply don’t know the answers to.

For the last two years I’ve been working for the Education Endowment Foundation.

The reason we exist is to provide schools with better evidence of how best to raise the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – and how to do so cost-effectively.

In fact, more than one-fifth of the EEF’s c.£15m annual grants go to universities looking to apply their research in the classroom and evaluate how it works in practice.

But closer to home, as Dr Lee Elliot Major (EEF Trustee and a director at The Sutton Trust) has put it:

[Universities] spend over £1 billion a year on programmes to widen participation and broaden access into our academic elites; yet we know very little about what impact most of these efforts are having. Well-intentioned efforts to aid social mobility – from school outreach programmes to financial support for students – are effectively operating in the dark, uninformed by any hard evidence of what has worked before.

The Sutton Trust recently commissioned a leading academic to pull together the international evidence of what works in widening participation and turn it into a toolkit to assist universities in spending their money as effectively as possible.

The report will be published later this year, but the toolkit may well not happen – because there simply isn’t enough good evidence around. Indeed, the handful of robust evaluations that exist are all from the US.

For a sector meant to be grounded in research, higher education is remarkably – some would say scandalously – incurious about whether its widening participation money is achieving what universities claim for it.

And, at some point, donors will realise this.

They will ask university leaders to provide independent evidence that their money is being used to best possible effect.

So it’s in our collective interests to start to ask the question “Where’s the evidence?” so that donors can be confident the money they donate is going to enable students from poorer backgrounds to enter university who otherwise wouldn’t have done so.

That’s my challenge to you, to the sector. But I think it’s also a huge opportunity to really find out what works, what makes the most difference in tackling the social divide which rules out university for so many young people with the potential to succeed.