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New Insights on WP: The Welsh tradition and contemporary challenge

  • 31 August 2017
  • By Kirsty Williams AM

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Since 15 August, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the twelfth in the series, features the chapter written by Kirsty Williams AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education, Welsh Government, on equity and excellence: the Welsh tradition and contemporary challenge.

Equity and Excellence: The Welsh tradition and contemporary challenge

Kirsty Williams AM

The mission to widen participation in higher education must be a collective effort. It should involve schools and universities, just as it is a task shared by government and families.

In Wales, it is also a matter of marrying equity with excellence, and of engaging with our traditions in order to break predestined privileges and deliver better access to the professions, to academia and to individual and national prosperity.

The tradition that we now term widening access is a seam that runs through our national and international endeavour in democratising knowledge:

  • from the Pennsylvanian-Welsh Baptists that inspired the first American college to accept students regardless of their religious affiliation;
  • to the pence of the poor that founded our first universities; and
  • through the work of Elizabeth Phillips Hughes in pioneering women’s education at Cambridge and then back home in Wales.

I take inspiration from those pioneers as we now deliver a reformed, progressive and sustainable finance and support system for Welsh students and universities. But we must only glance at that rear-view mirror as we move forward apace with our reforms.

On becoming Education Secretary, I inherited a student finance system that had become unsustainable and unaffordable.

But perhaps more pressingly, was a focus on paying off a portion of tuition fees actually supporting students in the best way? Was it furthering our ambitions to widen access, to enhance outcomes for graduates and to encourage part-time and postgraduate study?

In opposition, my party, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, was consistent in the belief that day-to-day living costs were the biggest barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As Education Secretary, this view has been echoed by the Diamond Review. It was unequivocal in telling me that it was maintenance costs, not fee level and support, that was the biggest issue in widening access and delivering a simple, fair and progressive system.

That report, recommending a shift to living costs support rather than fee support, also satisfied my principles for progressive and sustainable student support. Those principles are that:

  • we maintain the principle of universalism within a progressive system;
  • we have a ‘whole system’ approach;
  • investment is shared between Government and those who directly benefit;
  • we enhance accessibility, tackling barriers such as living costs; and
  • student support is portable across the UK.

Therefore, from 2018/19 Welsh students – full- and part-time undergraduate and postgraduate students – will benefit from a system that makes available equivalent maintenance support across these modes and levels of study.

I know that, delivered alone, this will not drive forward a fundamental shift in social mobility through widening access to higher education. It is therefore imperative that universities, schools and colleges work together closely and are flexible and innovative in these approaches.

In Wales, investment to support such collaboration and intervention is already helping to reduce the attainment gap at GCSE, which will in turn support access to, and success in, higher education.

In addition, providing opportunities for undergraduate students in disciplines such as Physics and Modern Foreign Languages to spend time in local schools, mentoring and inspiring pupils in those subjects to go onto further study are essential to these objectives. It provides invaluable experience for the students, represents great civic engagement for universities, and supports enhanced educational experiences across our system.

As has been appropriated by other UK administrations in their own reforms, and indeed referenced in the Diamond Review, the famous Robbins principle that access to university should be based on ability alone, not the ability to afford it, is also at the heart of our reforms. But I am also keen to recall the other thrusts of the Robbins Report. Firstly, the judgement that a higher education ‘system as a whole must be judged deficient unless it provides adequately for all’.

I believe that in being the first in the UK, indeed perhaps the first in Europe, to deliver parity, fairness and consistency in maintenance support across modes and levels really does move us to a system that provides for all. Of course, a commitment to widen access is what motivates my politics and is how I will judge the success of these reforms.

But that commitment, and that measure of success, cannot be confined to just one type of student. In particular I would congratulate National Union of Students Wales for their work in making the case for part-time and postgraduate students, not just the traditional middle-class 18-year olds.

It is clear to me that progression into postgraduate study is one of the contemporary challenges of widening access. It is only by addressing this and improving access, for example to the professions, that we will re-energise our original mission in a new technological and economic age.

Even back in the 1960s, Robbins was prescient about needing a ‘rapid increase’ in postgraduate numbers. He said that ‘the pace of social change and the complexity of modern social and economic organisation all demand an increasing number’. As we head into a future shaped by innovation and high-tech industry this could not be more pertinent.

Looking at the data from Wales it is clear that our reforms – delivering living costs support – must deliver on opening up postgraduate study across the nation.

So, while there is one postgraduate from Cardiff or Ceredigion for every two full-time undergraduates from those same areas, it is only one-per-four in a Valleys area such as Merthyr Tydfil or Torfaen.

Of course, those areas already lag behind the proportion of 18-year olds that enter higher education, so it is a double deficit. In the late Roy Jenkins’s home patch of Abersychan in Torfaen, the youth higher education participation rate is only one-in-five. And yet, in my constituency, only 15 miles up the valley in south Powys we see participation rates of 45 per cent and over.

In those former coalfield and steel communities, it is often local colleges and universities, and The Open University, which have been best at the heavy lifting in widening access. They are rooted in the education traditions I mention above, but have also been innovative in their outreach and social missions.

I believe that our new student support system gives all universities the opportunity and imperative to work with schools and potential students to raise their sights on widening access to postgraduate study.

This is essential in order to address the lost potential and talent of current, and future, generations. By not making postgraduate study attainable for all students, who knows how many innovations, ideas and inspirational leaders we have lost along the way. Not forgetting the financial benefits that have failed to spread because of the existing inequality in access to postgraduate study.

Our universities owed their first steps to an education revolution of civic, economic and academic ambition. It was a collective effort, and what Raymond Williams would recognise as part of a project for an engaged and participating democracy. In delivering a fair, consistent and progressive student support system, we have the opportunity to ensure we capture and maximise the potential of all our citizens, from all corners of the nation.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

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