Friday, January 7, 2011

Hunt Report: draft available

A draft of the long awaited Hunt Report is available here. The draft is dated August 8th so it possible that the published version will differ: after all why else wait 5 months?
It is a long report and covers a lot of ground so I haven’t read it all carefully. But from what I can see it is a lot like other such reports, fairly bland and uninspiring. There are many worthy statements that no one is likely to disagree with. That’s a bad sign in my view. Whether it adds much, or differs much, from the OECD’s recent report I don’t know. The committee that produced this report, though containing a range of very able people, looks to be dominated by insiders to the system. That’s also a bad sign in my view.
I confine my views to the issue of access to higher education by low income/low SES groups. This is mentioned in a few places. On page 13 it recommends widening access by such groups “by additional weighting”. What this means does not appear to be specified unless I have missed something.
Section 1.3 discusses “Broadening participation in Irish higher education”. Table 2.1 shows the dramatic differences in access rates by socio-economic background. This is all very well known but worth reminding ourselves of nonetheless. While it comments that pursuit of equality has been a mainstream concern of policy since 1966 it declines to mention that policy in this area has systematically failed, hence Table 2.1. After 40 years of failure, is some readically new thinking not required? This is something of an oversight.
As far as I can the only other place this issue comes up is Section 9.2, page 99 in the section “Maintaining equality of access”. The word “maintaining” should really be “achieving” since you cannot maintain something that has never existed. It comments that “One of the principal barriers for entry to higher education affecting students from lower income groups is their relatively lower levels of school completion and lower levels of attainment in the Leaving Certificate”. Well yes but it would be more precise to say, since this has been demonstrated, that it is THE principal barrier.
What this means, is that the problem with improving access to third level education lies elsewhere, in first and second level education (if not before). It may well have been beyond the remit of the report to recommend changes there but at least it should have noted this.
It comments further that “…students from lower income groups who do achieve the necessary prior levels of attainment, financial constraints… can and do affect participation. These financial barriers, which can be significant…”
No evidence to support this is given. It seems unusual that statements like this are made in an important document but with no reason to take it seriously. I suspect that this is because no such evidence exists & evidence implying the opposite does exist. It has been demonstrated that the abolition of university fees was not associated with a change in the socio-economic gradient in university access which suggests to me that fees are a side-show.

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