A toxic mix…the demise of a Widening Participation Outreach programme for low-income parents

This post was contributed by Heather Finlay, Programme Co-ordinator, Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) Outreach in Children’s Centres and Kerry Harman, Programme Director, HEIS. 

Recent policy shifts in the areas of higher education (HE), welfare and childcare services have produced a toxic mix that has contributed to the demise of a widening participation (WP) outreach programme for low-income parents at Birkbeck. But, as Professor Claire Callender asks when commenting more generally on the drastic decline in part-time student numbers in HE since the introduction of increased fees in 2012, ‘does anyone care’? And for that matter, does anyone even know? In a recent issue of the Guardian, Richard Adams  reported recent statistics from the Office of Fair Access in an article claiming that the ‘University tuition fee rise has not deterred poorer students from applying’. This is great news and an argument popular with Conservative party politicians when justifying the increased fees in HE. The problem is  that the claim is not entirely accurate. While the number of 18 to 21 year old students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to HE has increased, the increased fees have had an adverse impact on specific groups, including part-time students and low-income parents.

Low-income parents, particularly those who are single parents, face a number of challenges if they decide to pursue HE study including finding affordable and flexible childcare, negotiating an HE system they may be unfamiliar with and managing their family obligations. In an attempt to provide access to HE for this often difficult to reach group, Birkbeck had been offering an outreach programme in Sure Start Children’s Centres since 2007 in some of the poorest boroughs in London. The outreach programme was available during the day, local to the participants and included free childcare during the sessions. And, up to 2012/13, very few of the students paid any tuition fees because they were eligible for government-backed fee grants which covered all their fees. Modules from Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) were used on the programme and the pedagogic approach was designed to be inclusive and incorporate the experience of the participants . (Higher Education Introductory Studies is a level 4 Certificate of HE that provides a supported pathway into HE level study for students with non-traditional academic qualifications and no recent study experience.) A recent, externally funded evaluation of the provision indicated that the experience was transformative for parents participating in the programme, both for them as individuals and as parents. Yet despite this, enrolments fell by 50% for the 2012/13 intake on the programme and in 2013, even with an intensive recruiting campaign in the local community, there were no enrolments on modules at the Children’s Centres.

While further research is needed to better understand the factors contributing to the collapse in enrolment on the outreach programme, anecdotal evidence suggests that a toxic mix of factors is impacting the decision of low-income parents to NOT take up HE study. The abolition of government-funded tuition fee grants for low-income part-time students in 2012/13 and their replacement with student loans is one factor. Another is the increase in tuition fees because of the withdrawal of government funds for teaching in 2012/13. This was definitely a matter of concern, not only for prospective applicants but also for Sure Start Centre staff who play a significant role in recruiting to the programme. A fee waiver attached to the modules running at the Children’s Centres was not enough to persuade parents to apply as many were averse to taking out a loan to ‘pay’ for any subsequent study  towards a degree. Furthermore, recent changes to the welfare system have increased the pressure for lone parents to be in paid work. This includes the requirement for lone parents to be available for work once children reach five years of age, as well as the need to be in work in order to avoid the consequences of the benefit cap. Participants attending pre-enrolment information sessions (Learning Cafes) for the outreach programme spoke about the need to be available to commence work if a job offer was made and were thus reluctant to embark on a programme of study. What’s more, reduced Sure Start Centre budgets are making it increasingly difficult to resource the provision of free, onsite childcare as well as the work needed to support low-income parents in their decision to commence HE level study.

At a time when policy shifts are focused on getting lone parents into employment, it is important that this is not done in a way that prevents them from accessing HE. As work becomes a less certain route out of poverty, with over three-fifths (62%) of children in poverty living in a working household, pathways into higher paid work need to remain available.

Further reading

Callender, C., Hawkins, E., Jackson, S., Jamieson, A., Land, H., & Smith, H. (2014). ‘Walking tall’: A critical assessment of new ways of involving student mothers in higher education, Nuffield Foundation. Available at: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/cscthe/news/nuffield-report-published (Accessed 8 September, 2014).

Hinton-Smith, T. (2012). Lone Parents’ Experiences as Higher Education Students. National Institute of Adult Continuing Education: Leicester.

Jackson, S (2012) Supporting part-time learners in higher education: Equalities and inequalities.  Journal of Social Inclusion 3(1): 58-70.


One thought on “A toxic mix…the demise of a Widening Participation Outreach programme for low-income parents

  1. Student fees policy likely to cost more than the system it replaced
    “The proportion of graduates failing to pay back student loans is increasing at such a rate that the Treasury is approaching the point at which it will get zero financial reward from the government’s policy of tripling tuition fees to £9,000 a year.”

    I always felt it seemed strange that reports were claiming that the higher tuition fees had not led to a reduction of poorer students applying to university. Thanks for your article revealing the true impact of these extortionate fees. And the new system is not even good economics! I would like to hear Nick Clegg’s response.

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