When former Education Secretary Justine Greening MP addressed the Social Mobility Commission Conference in March 2017, she made it clear that social mobility was a “noble aspiration” for any government. Acknowledging that we all wanted a “fairer, more cohesive country… and for people to have the chance to be able to succeed,” she said that aspiration alone was not enough to make a real difference: “Social mobility is now no longer a ‘nice to have’, a ‘good thing to do’. It is a cold, hard, economic imperative for our country.”
So, at a time when the value of university education, student mental health and tuition fees are being challenged in the national press, and as we come to terms with Brexit and the disenfranchised state of our local communities, what role can higher education institutions play in equality and social mobility, and how much of a priority is it for them?
While higher education participation gaps remain as wide as ever, it is true that students from hard-to-reach groups are accessing higher education in greater numbers than ever. For many, day one on campus will be the first time they have entered the doors of a higher education institution. They are also very likely to be the first of their family to do so.
This is a good start, but it means very little if they are unable to flourish. If students are to reach their potential, they need a smooth transition into university life, have access to the right type of support at the time it is needed, and be challenged to develop their academic knowledge and skills through inclusive curriculum, pedagogies and assessment methods.
For progressive, modern higher education institutions such as Derby, with diverse student bodies representative of the communities we serve, tacking gaps in retention, attainment, and graduate outcomes is now the number one equality and social mobility priority.
While higher education institutions are hubs for knowledge exchange, academic theory, critical thinking and debate, they are also places that bring communities together and provide a route for support, progression and success. We open the doors for many people, and ensure our students not only complete studies but become game changers; a force for positive impact, bold and brilliant at what they set out to do, on a journey of transformational learning and opportunity.
Schools and further education
It has been argued that many higher education providers shrug their shoulders and point to failures further back along the educational pipeline when it comes to a lack of equality and social mobility.
At the University of Derby we believe that early engagement is the key to addressing entrenched disadvantage. Our University Explorers Programme engages Year 5 and 6 pupils – through a series of visits by our staff and ambassadors in schools – to introduce them to the concept of university; what is it, the language, and where it fits into their learning journey. More than 180 children took part in the programme from five primary schools in 2016-17.
At secondary level, we offer Progress to Success to local schools – a multi-intervention outreach initiative which provides pupils with a progressive drip feed of touchpoints from Year 7 to Year 11. The scheme seeks to improve social mobility through aspiration, awareness and attainment raising. Events are designed to inform, inspire and support pupil decision-making. Complex activity strands are introduced through the framework; layering knowledge over many years helps pupils to understand themselves, their approach to learning, and their ability to make informed choices about higher education.
All higher education providers should provide an inclusive curriculum to improve the experience, skills and attainment of their students, and should disproportionately benefit those from protected characteristic groups. The critical aim is to ensure that the principles of inclusivity are embedded in all aspects of the student lifecycle.
An inclusive curriculum promotes student-centred collaborative approaches, such as small group work and clicker technology; allows students to draw on their own experiences and perspectives; and enables peer-led learning – encouraging students to work with different peers increases their knowledge acquisition and diversity skills. This can be achieved through engineering discussion groups and insisting that students do not always work in their comfort groups.
We should expose students to a variety of delivery mediums, striving for excitement, engagement and interaction. For example, practical and authentic resources encourage participation, as everyone can discuss concrete visual examples with interest. Inviting speakers from different cultural and social backgrounds is an opportunity to reflect the diversity of the student body. These speakers can cover additional aspects of the curriculum or provide different perspectives on existing content.
At a time when the higher education sector is facing much criticism, institutions need to set out their contribution to civic life and shout loud about how they are helping people from all walks of life to build a successful future. We are opening our doors to provide a wealth of opportunities for people, and this contribution to equality, social justice and mobility should be celebrated.
Dan West is Policy and Research Lead at the University of Derby