The February news bulletin from the Society for Research into Higher Education gives a short commentary on the last few months’ policy developments, including the recent OFFA report. Mostly skeptical of the developments it reports on, but not without reason.

The latest report from HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is bullish, but as we move into the much-higher-fee era, all that money required by OFFA to be spent on outreach is more likely to be wasted chasing the same handful of very well-qualified applicants than spent on measures to widen participation.OFFA boasted of outreach spending rising to close to £200million a year thanks to access agreements. Preserving Aimhigher would only have cost £50million a year but the programme was floored by a flawed measure, according to the SRHE Research Conference paper by Neil Harrison (West of England), which was picked up by Jack Grove in the Times Higher Education 5-11 January 2012. Neil’s statistical analysis argued that the success of Aimhigher in widening aspiration to HEamong disadvantaged groups was not reflected in the way the Government measured its achievement, so that the abolition of Aimhigher was based on a misrepresentation of its performance. Elsewhere in the same issue Jack Grove also writes about efforts to preserve Aimhigher-style activities, with former NUS President Wes Streeting describing the closure as ‘absurd’. Aimhigher was marked for closure by the Labour Government and completed by the Coalition as its first higher education policy decision, which perhaps owed more to media pressure than to evidence-based policy. The Russell Group blames schools and Government for failure to widen participation, and The Daily Telegraph loved the Russell Group’s response to the Government White Paper, which said plans to widen access would fail because schools were the problem. As we were saying, it’s always more comfortable to find someone else to blame.The UK Government reforms will decrease social mobility, wrote SRHE Fellow Claire Callender (Birkbeck and London Institute of Education) in World University News 04 December 2011. As English HE is driven remorselessly down a path that looks more and more American, we might beware what the Government apparently wishes for. Anthony Marx in the Chronicle says there is an economic divide in US HE, with the 50 richest institutions having only 7% of their students from the poorest quartile of US society. It is, in his words, ‘a tragedy’. In the same issue Carnevale and Srohl make a similar argument. University expansion increases income inequality: at least, that’s Richard Vedder (Ohio)’s argument in the Chronicle, which attracted some thoughtful critical responses.Resources for foundation degreesThe closure of Foundation Degrees Forward (fdf) was announced in October 2010 and completed in July 2011, but many of fdf’s web-based resources in foundation degree development, employer engagement and work-based learning are still available. QAA hosts Employer Based Training Accreditation (EBTA) resources and its Community of Practice and Endorsement Services at www.fdfebta.co.uk/. Unionlearn has fdf’s Information, advice and guidance resources for work-based learners and their advisers at www.higherlearningatwork.org. e-learning resources that support delivery of work-based higher education in sectors such as retail, travel and low-carbon energy remain available at www.workforcedevelopment.fdf.ac.uk. fdf publications, reports and case students can be found at www.heacademy.ac.uk/fdf. e-learning programmes and resources are at www.workforcedevelopment.fdf.ac.uk.

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