Alleviating poverty through education
Whilst the UK economy moves out of recession and in to a period of growth, Local Authorities and other organisations in the immediate hinterland of Welsh HE institutions are facing severe reductions in funding that will exacerbate existing socio economic problems in localities that display a high degree of dependency upon publically funded services and are amongst the poorest localities in western Europe.
An obvious and much rehearsed discussion point revolves around the role of education as a key component in alleviating poverty. This, in itself, constitutes a multi facetted scenario. Examples include the recent debates regarding the effectiveness of teacher training in Wales, the recent PISA results and political consideration of the ability of local authorities to manage education provision. Forthcoming funding cuts to the Further Education sector in Wales seem likely to reduce that sector’s contribution in the enablement of learning as a route away from poverty and social exclusion. Funding for 14 -19 pathways funding will be ring fenced but opportunities for older learners who act as community stakeholders may well be jeopardised.
In respect of Higher Education, Welsh Government policy statements and Higher Education institutional strategic plans reiterate a commitment to reviving and sustaining communities in Wales. Participation in H.E. in Wales is gradually increasing. Initiatives such as First Campus strive to improve upon the comparatively low levels of H.E. participation by people from areas of deprivation. Participation and successful attainment by students from non traditional backgrounds can have positive outcomes in respect of life chances and career trajectories in comparison with many who do not progress to Higher Education. However, the majority of Welsh undergraduates are young people. Thus, there exists a potential negative impact whereby young graduates leave areas such as the valleys to study with no aspiration to return. Factors here include a cultural distancing and a lack of graduate level employment opportunities.
Questions then remain regarding the entrenched nature of socio economic deprivation in areas that lie in close proximity to HE institutions. Whilst initiatives such as The University of the Heads of the Valleys and Learning Zones in Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent are bold and welcome endeavours. However in many areas of deprivation , the Higher Education sector remains largely invisible. Whilst initiatives to widen access are vital, many do not provide a permanent presence or point of contact.
There is a need to extend research to inform a wider debate at a strategic political and H.E. institutional level in order to increase the engagement and subsequent impact of the Higher Education sector in Wales in combating poverty. An initial enquiry might revolve around issues of meaning and importance attached to terms such as community partnerships by those at senior management levels in universities and community based practice.
Paul Murphy , M.P. for Torfaen, has recommended the development of hubs across Wales to increase applications to Oxford and Cambridge universities. A way forward might lie in the establishment of a network of regeneration hubs, each supported by an H.E. institution, thus supporting co productive capacity building in respect of community and voluntary sector responses to funding cuts that will leave little alternative to that of self-reliance in respect of service provision. Multidisciplinary teams could expand knowledge and skills transfer from the H.E. sector with reciprocal benefits for H.E. institutions in respect of research informed learning and teaching. An obvious starting point for any debate would be that of financial resources. Despite recent Westminster Government initiatives to reduce expenditure such as benefits, areas that lie in close proximity to HE institutions in Wales absorb large amounts of money with little evidence that standards of employability and educational attainment for the most marginalised residents are improving. An initial pilot, in a small number of localities, perhaps one per H.E. institution in Wales and financed over a time period that enables measurable, specific outputs and outcomes , would provide the basis of a costs benefit analysis.