22 SES 08 B, Inclusion and Diversity in Higher Education Settings
Social mobility through higher education is a policy priority in the United Kingdom. The emphasis has recently shifted away from a social justice approach of ‘widening participation’ by increasing the social mix of those admitted, especially in terms of socio-economic status. This has been replaced by an emphasis driven more by concepts of meritocracy and maximising national competitiveness. Nevertheless, encouraging disadvantaged, but academically-talented, young people to apply to university continues to prompt significant public discourse and occupy large commitments from the public purse.
One of the key concepts to emerge over the last fifteen years in the UK is that of the 'low participation neighbourhood' (or LPN). These are geographically defined areas that are assessed by various algorithms to have a lower-than-average propensity to send young people into higher education, based on historic data (Higher Education Funding Council for England 2005; 2010). This approach has demonstrated the stark differences in progression between areas, with rates that can vary between 5% and over 50%, with detailed tables and maps being made publicly available.
The reliance on this LPN data has grown significantly in recent years as a tool for targeting, monitoring and funding, both by government, individual universities and charitable organisations. For example, universities attract additional governmental funding for recruiting students from LPNs, while discretionary student bursaries are increasingly targeted at students living in LPNs prior to studying.
However, LPNs are generally very poorly understood by policymakers and practitioners. They are often confused with postal codes and, as a result, are assumed to have a far greater level of geographical granularity and discriminatory power than is actually the case. They are imagined to provide an almost foolproof means of identifying where young people from lower socio-economic groups live. In reality, many LPNs contain over 10,000 individuals and a very diverse social mix, including both individuals and communities in relative affluence. Indeed, more disadvantaged higher education applicants are to be found outside of LPNs than within them, while most applicants from LPNs are actually from higher socio-economic groups (Harrison and Hatt 2010).
The primary research question is to examine how LPNs are constructed and what they really 'mean' in terms of the people that live in them. The paper will also examine how LPNs have become misunderstood and the ramifications of this confusion. In contextualising this research for an international audience, the paper will also reflect more generally on the reasons why area-based statistics are so seductive within the field of education and the pitfalls that they present to the unwary.
Harrison, N. and S. Hatt. 2010. ‘Disadvantaged learners’: who are we targeting? Understanding the targeting of widening participation activity using geo-demographic data from Southwest England. Higher Education Quarterly 64: 65-88. Higher Education Funding Council for England. 2005. Young participation in higher education, Report 2005/03. Bristol, HEFCE. Higher Education Funding Council for England. 2010. Trends in young participation in higher education: core results for England, Report 2010/03. Bristol: HEFCE. McCaig, C. 2012. New OFFA Access Agreements and the National Scholarship Programme: ramifications for access to English higher education, Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference, Newport, 13th December 2012.
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