The Green Paper contained a proposal in relation to universities that would require them to commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees. The objective being to further utilise the role of universities in raising standards across schools and removing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils.
In discussion with Universities UK's member universities it is clear that they see working in partnership with schools as central to their civic and public roles and their drive to enhance social mobility. On the latter, it is well understood that prior attainment is critical if we are to widen participation, achieve fair access and retain students so they can succeed. This was most recently reinforced by a report on the role of universities in social mobility Working in partnership: enabling social mobility in higher education and research recently published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
When looking over our members' responses to the Green Paper it is therefore no surprise that there is a strong support for the government's objectives in this area. Universities are already doing a lot in this space and most would recognise that there is more they can and want to do. So what is the problem?
The main issue with the government's proposals for universities is the relatively narrow scope of what is being proposed. Raised aspirations, improved attainment, increased teacher ability and retention and improved school success can all be achieved through a number of partnership and engagement mechanisms between universities and schools. For example, School Membership Plus run by the University of Essex plays an 'anchor role' in the region for existing schools. The programme involves relationships with 32 schools from Essex, Suffolk, East London and Norfolk which benefit from 25 different types of support methods.
This model supports many of the government's objectives for the role of universities in improving schools, but expands the concept of what sponsorship involves. There are many similar examples across the whole country. How universities engage with schools will depend on an institution's mission, strengths, size and local circumstances. To maximise the impact of their investment an institution will take account of all these factors when developing their strategies and engagement.
To charge higher fees universities already have to commit to the development of an access agreement. To address the challenges set out in the consultation, guidance from the Director for Fair Access (DFA) to universities could set out a clearer expectation for institutions to do more to raise attainment through working with schools. This would not detract from the DFA placing stretching and challenging expectations in terms of what an institution is expected to achieve and in many cases could lead to an increased drive to establish the sort of sponsorship arrangements envisaged in the Green Paper. It would, however, mean that there is greater flexibility and recognition of the particular circumstances of different universities and the schools they work with, and that requirements are objective-led rather than adding an additional narrow regulatory requirement.
If the government chooses to adopt the proposals as currently set out in the Green Paper, essentially prioritising school sponsorship over other types of contributions, it is inevitable that this will result in some unintended consequences. These would include damaging existing partnerships between schools and universities, focusing resources on fewer schools, skewing incentives for university involvement, and potentially undermining an institution's financial viability in the case of smaller or specialist institutions.
Lastly, this is a fairly evidence light area and it will be essential that further evaluation of existing forms of sponsorship is undertaken to determine which approaches work best within different contexts before a much broader extension in school sponsorship is considered.