Education a passport to health and wealth but there is more can be done to make it accessible to all, says Petra Wend
Half a century after the Robbins Committee on Higher Education published its report recommending that higher education should be “available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment”, there still remains much to be done to fully realise the vision. In 1963, the UK government set out targets to expand the number of full-time places to accommodate the expected surge in demand as higher education moved from elite privilege towards mass entitlement. However, the biggest challenge, then and now, is addressing the disturbing gap in aspiration and attainment between the most privileged and the least privileged communities.
To truly widen access to the benefits higher education can bring, we must turn our full attention to nurturing aspirations by providing additional support in early years education.
This is important, not just out of a sense of equality and fairness, but for society as a whole. It has been shown that graduates typically enjoy better health, create and participate in greater cultural opportunities and, at around 44 per cent, make a disproportionate contribution to tax revenues.
It is important for the economy, and the robust level of demand for graduates is evidenced by continuing growth in the earnings premium they enjoy which is typically 50 per cent more in a lifetime than non-graduates.
Most importantly it matters for each individual. In Scotland 90 per cent of graduates go on to work or further study within six months; at Queen Margaret University (QMU), this figure rises to 93.8 per cent.
Intervention needs to start long before university
According to Save the Children in Scotland, by the age of three youngsters from deprived backgrounds are already nine months behind the average development. By six years of age, initially low-achieving children from more advantaged homes will tend to outperform initially high-achieving children from less advantaged homes. Scottish government statistics on attainment show that 44 per cent of school leavers from the most deprived neighbourhoods have qualifications below standard grades and only 7 per cent have more than five Highers.
All of this points to the fact that intervention needs to start long before university and concerted action is needed from the earliest years onwards to promote aspiration and attainment.
Universities can be part of this and both QMU and Strathclyde University are launching Children’s Universities in 2013-14 which will reach out to pupils in primary schools with extracurricular activities designed to be fun and encourage learning.
Moving on from early years education, school and college learners should benefit from university resources in the way that is proving successful with the Academies Partnership model, a ground-breaking collaborative initiative between QMU, Edinburgh College, East Lothian Council, Midlothian Council, Scottish Borders Council, City of Edinburgh Council, secondary schools and a range of employers.
Smoothing transition from learning to working
Young people are jointly and flexibly taught in school, college, university and the workplace, offering an authentic first-hand experience of all the pathways open to them. After two years they can achieve an HNC or equivalent qualification which gives them access to second year at university. It removes barriers to continuing education for 16-18 year-olds, smoothing the transition from learning to working, whilst raising aspirations and awareness of the wealth of careers available in sectors such as hospitality & tourism, creative industries, food sciences and health & social care.
Finally, renewed focus is also needed on lifelong learning. An opportunity missed when you’re young shouldn’t be an opportunity missed for life. Debate about higher education too often supposes that we are talking about 18-year-olds, yet the student population in Scotland is around 40 per cent mature and the role of university in helping people to relearn and re-skill can only become more important.
Realising the Robbins principle is expensive and so far we have been fortunate that government sees higher education as a key for a healthy and wealthy country. It is wrong to think that education should be for an elite, or that it is something which is of high value only at a supposed elite of universities.
As we celebrate 50 years since the Robbins report recommended the immediate expansion of higher education, we now need to re-focus our priorities to help widen access to university to create a healthier, wealthier society.
• Professor Petra Wend is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh