By Dr Liz Marr

The other day I ran into an old friend who led one of the three Aimhigher partnerships I was involved with.  We had a lovely reminisce about mutual friends, some of the great things we achieved and the difference we knew we had made. Her greatest sadness, aside from the lack of continuity for learners and the closing off of hard-won opportunities for those least likely to progress to HE, was having to make young and very talented staff redundant. As it happens, they are all in jobs and doing very similar things, but thinking about what they are doing now really brought home to me how wasteful the stop/start funding approach to supporting widening access has been.

Yes, Aimhigher did receive a lot of money and yes, it is possible that not all of that money was spent effectively. But I would contend that NNCO (described by some as Aimhigher-lite) has not only replicated, for the most part, the partnerships which were funded by Aimhigher but has re-incurred the cost of setting up those partnerships. Just a brief look at some of the current projects listed for one network revealed that the majority of things they were doing were the same Aimhigher activities, with the same partners, developed under the last funding allocation (some of them even had the same names).

Now I’m not an accountant but just say that the funding for Aimhigher had continued, albeit in smaller volumes. Surely we would have been able to build on what we had achieved, rather than reinventing wheels; saved money on recreating posts for people who had received redundancy payments; developed a much broader knowledge base on which to evaluate impact and measure student success? Furthermore, Aimhigher existed to raise aspiration and attainment, not as a tool for universities to recruit locally.

I think what galls the most is that many of the NNCOs, who had to commit to making their activity sustainable are now repositioning themselves and have applied for (and been awarded) NCOP funds to continue what they are already doing. And it has been decided to take the money for this from the outreach portion of the Student Allocation Fund. Surely if their activity is sustainable they shouldn’t need further funding, especially given the amounts of money reportedly being spent via Access Agreements?

Of course, I’m not arguing that there should not be any funding, rather that it should be allocated according to a much longer term strategy (is it not rather ambitious to imagine that centuries of exclusion can be overturned in a decade or less) and that evidence of impact and sustainability should determine the allocation. Yes, there is an anomaly around low progression in areas where GCSE results suggest it should be higher but there has also been a huge fall off in part time and mature students – there is more than one problem to solve. I don’t absolve universities from any responsibility here – we are just as good at stop/start initiatives – but shouldn’t we also be working towards embedding what we do in sustainable ways so that we are not reliant on the vicissitudes of policy-making and funding?

I very much welcome the intention to fund those HEIs who are doing the ‘heavy lifting’ in widening participation and to increase the allocation to support disabled students. As a member of the Open University, I would obviously like to see (and hear) more recognition of the need to support mature and part time learners.

Les Ebdon once said following the demise of Aimhigher that the way to make something instantly popular was to abolish it. I am sorry to disagree with him but Aimhigher was popular and successful long before the funding ended. It worked really well and represented a collegial approach which contrasted with the individualistic, market-driven characteristics shaped by neo-liberal higher education policy. Perhaps bringing the original Aimhigher back in place  of Grammar Schools might be a more effective policy option.

— Dr Liz Marr, Director of the Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships at the Open University

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