Heading for a First … Birmingham Aimhigher
Definitely worthy of a first is news that AimHigher has been reborn in Birmingham as a joint venture between Aston, Birmingham City, University College Birmingham and the University of Birmingham. To date, one of the most counter-productive coalition cuts has been to the AimHigher programme, a dedicated activity with schools to encourage young people to consider higher education. At a time of trebled fees, difficult graduate employment and the removal of the education maintenance allowance, there couldn’t be a more important time to salvage such activity, particularly as we learnt just last week that the initial figures for 2012 university applications give cause for concern.
When AimHigher funding was withdrawn, it was such a blow. But news from the second city that the universities had come together to salvage the activity is a rare piece of good news. It’s also worth noting that a number of other cities have also managed to bring their higher education institutions together to set up similar arrangements, such as AccessHE in London. At the last count, this brings together 20 institutions. But in truth, aside from a handful of cities, it appears that many institutions have not been able to retain a collaborative AimHigher-style programme. And it’s great to see that in Birmingham the four universities have managed to retain the AimHigher brand.
At a time when universities are being coerced by the coalition toward competition, it’s great to see that the spirit of collaboration can still live on. And when it comes to widening access and promoting participation, there can be more no greater issue worthy of institutions coming together.
Heading for a Fail … Core and margin
News this week that 27 higher education inistiutions have applied to lower their prices is hardly surprising given the dogs dinner the government has made of setting out their higher education strategy. While at first glance it may seem like good news for prospective students, on further analysis it raises some more concerning questions.
As a consequence of the government getting its higher education sums badly wrong, the core and margin model has been introduced in a desperate attempt to force some universities to lower their prices. But, depressingly for me, the courses or institutions lowering their prices are doing so not necessarily because what they are providing isn’t up to scratch, but rather because their perceived reputation may not be high. Worse still, these are decisions not based on what it actually costs to teach a particular course, but manipulated to suit the Treasury finances.
Then consider the socio-economic backgrounds of the students likely to be forced into courses on £7,500 or less, and the backgrounds of students still likely to proceed on to degrees at £9,000 per year. The idea that students from richer backgrounds will have more spent on them, while those from more deprived backgrounds are slung into economy class stands against what higher education has, up until now, played such an important role in countering.
Rather than improving social mobility, there is a real danger that government miscalculations and an ideological bent on the market through mechanisms like core and margin will see a widening of disadvantage, rather than a closing of the gap.