Calling the shots on a degree place

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Two stories this week illustrate the dilemmas facing higher education (pages four and five), as the medical profession and the universities themselves cast an ever wider net for recruits. HE institutions are rapidly becoming the target for addressing a whole series of social issues - and not necessarily just for encouraging youngsters to taste the fruits of a university experience for its own sake. This is largely because of the stubborn class imbalance of the HE student population - only a fifth of full-time students in the ancient universities and a third from the newer ones come from disadvantaged families.

So widening access is king, reinforced by looming shortages among a whole range of professionals, including healthcare staff, engineers, social workers and teachers. The result is that, if the families who traditionally would have considered these occupations for their offspring will not do so, the search has to be broadened to find people who will. Ironically, therefore, those who could come to the rescue of the professions might well be those from the least professional backgrounds of all. In the process, such pressures may do more to erode the elitist traditions of the universities than any "access regulator".

These efforts will have to reckon with parents, however. A survey last week by our sister paper, The Times Higher Education Supplement, showed parents becoming increasingly interventionist in reaching decisions on behalf of their children about what they should study - no doubt partly because they are paying for so much more of it. It is a reminder that, no matter how dirigiste we try to be, parents and students will still call the shots.

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