We can't let cuts curb aspirations of the young

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Rob Ferguson

The recent report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on young participation rates in higher education has cast a spotlight on one of the most inequitable features of British society.

The disparity is stark. Fewer than one in five young people from the most disadvantaged areas enters higher education, compared with more than one in two from the most advantaged.

However, since 1993 there has been a higher proportionate rise in the number of university entrants from disadvantaged areas. The number of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter higher education has increased by 30 per cent over the past five years - compared with 4 per cent in the most advantaged areas - and by 50 per cent over the past 15 years.

For a college such as my own, which is situated in the heart of one of the most disadvantaged communities in Britain, the social reality behind the statistics is part of every working day. Some 98 per cent of our students come from areas of high disadvantage; 76 per cent receive education maintenance allowances; 93 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds; and a majority speak a language other than English at home. Yet since 1993, our university applications have risen from about 250 to an all-time high of 850. In 2009, 86 per cent of our university applicants were placed.

Statistically, it is difficult to disaggregate the factors that have contributed to this success. However, the aspiration and determination of young people themselves who, against the odds, strive for opportunities they could not have hoped to achieve a decade and a half ago is inspiring. Behind them is the support of parents who long for their children to have the opportunities they were denied. Teachers and staff have played an unsung role in ensuring disadvantaged students have greater access to education.

But the successes achieved are being dealt a hammer blow by the Government. The number of people applying to university is up by more than 106,000 on last year, yet HE funding is to be cut by pound;1 billion over three years - the equivalent of this year's bonus payments signalled by RBS - and university places are frozen.

Some university vice-chancellors now argue for higher entry requirements and the racking up of tuition fees, a form of educational rationing to favour the more privileged. Yet gone are the days when the majority accepted that higher education was an elite preserve.

In the colleges of our deprived inner cities, we will continue to spend every effort to secure our students' future - one they are now expected to sacrifice in order to pay the price of an economic disaster which is not of their making. However, this should not mean that we resign ourselves to the "inevitable" and just try to cope as best we can. The future of some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people has been hurled into the ring, and this is election year.

As far as I am concerned, a banker's bonus is perfectly expendable; the future of the young people I teach is not. If the teaching and student unions in further and higher education were to give a united voice in the streets, I for one would march.

Rob Ferguson, Senior A-level tutor (in a personal capacity), Newham Sixth Form College, London.

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