The continuing value of access courses

In a society which seems to stifle so many opportunities for social mobility, I find it remarkable that access courses continue to thrive. Initially promoted by the Home Office as a means of improving minority ethnic access to the professions, during the 1908s locally-designed access courses were developed across the UK by college and university lecturers who were determined – and were able – to provide a pathway suitable for adult returners aiming to enter higher education.

I’d be surprised if access courses hadn’t changed since then. For a start, they have become ‘normal’; while the excitement and innovation of the pioneers have long gone, so are the insecurity and improvisation that characterised much of the early access provision. Some of the founding principles – accumulation and transfer of academic credit among them – were adopted by managers and policy makers across entire sectors of further and higher education and training. And the courses themselves are now formally regulated, albeit by the relatively ‘soft-touch’ hands of the HE sector’s Quality Assurance Agency.

QAA’s annual statistical reports provide a brief overview of the scale and nature of access provision, and also say something about the students. In 2011-12, 42,150 people in England and Wales were registered on one of the 1,140 courses that were offered that year. Colleges are by far the largest providers, though there is also a healthy showing by adult education providers, and universities are still delivering a significant minority of courses directly.

Following the recession, demand for places has risen by one third. Some 31,860 took an access course in 2007-8, followed by a sharp rise to 39,835 in the next year. Interestingly, though, there seems to have been little change in the student profile: three quarters are female, just under a third are non-white and one third are aged 30 or above. There has been little change in the number of younger students – in contrast to what I often hear said of similar courses in Scotland. Consistently, the male learners are on average younger than their female fellow students.

The main message to emerge from this quick overview, then, is that access courses are flourishing, and are in greater demand during the recession. Importantly, the QAA figures also show that they are still recruiting predominantly from less advantaged socio-economic groups, so we can conclude that access courses are making some contribution to social mobility. So these courses clearly have a continued role to play, and in the current context are probably worth expanding.

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