The Government has certainly made a rod for its own back with its widening access agenda, which regularly brings it bad publicity over high drop-out rates. The drive to open the gates of academe to all who can benefit, without the hindrance of class or family backgrounds, is a policy against which it is hard to argue. The trouble is that it becomes equated with entering university, as opposed to benefiting from higher education. As Scotland's Colleges never tire of saying, they deliver 30 per cent of higher education. Ministers' target of getting 50 per cent of under-21s into higher education would not have been met without the colleges; only 31 per cent of that age group attend university, according to the latest figures.
The relentless drive to widen access can have the unfortunate side-effect of diminishing the role of colleges which, as we have seen this week, are determined to raise their national profile (FE Focus 4). The assumption often seems to be that, if people do not make it to university from whatever background, they have somehow underachieved. This is an untenable position. The report from the further and higher education funding councils this week (FE Focus 4) shows that the proportion of youngsters going to university from both the least deprived and most disadvantaged areas has barely changed in the eight years New Labour has been in power, either in actual terms or in relationship to each other. Perhaps that tells us something: some people may not wish to head for university and they should not feel under the pressure of "failure" to do so.
If the new funding council has its way, we will nonetheless have a national campaign to step up that pressure. It is one thing to persuade universities to be a more accurate reflection of the population as a whole; universities are intended to be elitist, but the brightest and the best should not be hampered by socio-economic elitism. A national campaign will fail, however, if it merely concentrates on the university end of the equation. Success in opening up further and higher education depends on what happens in schools.
And, as the latest exam results show (page 5), there has been steady but unspectacular progress. Perhaps that is what we should learn to expect from the access agenda, too.