‘Culture and continuous support are key for widening access’

Dr Lucy Meredith, from the University of the West of Scotland, talks about how her team is embedding widening access programmes – like new employability modules – into every undergraduate experience

Widening access. Perhaps quite a complex phrase for something so fundamentally important: ensuring everyone – irrespective of their background or personal circumstances – has the opportunity to experience the life-enhancing benefits of higher education.

Equity and inclusion within higher education are, rightly, key priorities for governments around the world and, in Scotland, universities have worked hard to meet the Commission of Widening Access target two years ahead of schedule.

Fantastic progress is clearly being made. UK-wide, a recent report by the Education Policy Institute examining the impact of interventions for widening access to higher education found that the sector has significantly increased activities to boost attendance of the most disadvantaged students.

However, in order for widening access initiatives to truly succeed, at what point is it less about the number of activities any one institution is delivering and, instead, more about how a university embeds widening access within its strategy and then evaluates success?

The same report underscores this point. It found that the sector must do more to monitor student progress and build a greater understanding of the real impact of widening access activities.

In order for widening access to be successful, it is therefore a coupling of both culture change and continuous support. We adopted this approach at University of the West of Scotland, where we are proud of our status as the most successful university in Scotland in ensuring more people from disadvantaged backgrounds can access higher education. To put that into context: a quarter of higher education entrants from the most deprived areas in Scotland study at UWS.

Our Strategy for 2025 sets out an aim to develop our graduates as the leaders of tomorrow. It is not at all enough to just enrol widening access students – we must ensure that we support them to succeed throughout their journey with us and, importantly, give them the tools to thrive in the ever-evolving and dynamic world of work.

We support our students to gain meta-skills that are in high demand across all industries and sectors; thereby equipping our students, and giving them a competitive edge, for success in their varied chosen future careers.

We support our students to gain meta-skills that are in high demand across all industries and sectors; thereby equipping our students, and giving them a competitive edge, for success in their varied chosen future careers.

This recognition of the vital importance of setting our students up to succeed – and our commitment to proactively providing innovative educational opportunities for all – led us to introduce an additional new approach. We’re confident our Academic, Professional and Personal Development (APPD) modules will play a central role in supporting student success, wellbeing and employability.

UWS is the first university in Scotland to offer this type of support to students, which will equip them with a range of important skills required to be successful, lifelong learners. It has seen the University develop a suite of core and common modules across all programmes that develop students’ 21st-century skills and attributes, and complements the theory and knowledge-based components of their learning.

The modules will be part of the majority of UWS’s undergraduate programmes by summer 2022 and will be delivered by our students’ personal tutors, supported by programme teams and professional services. The programme focuses on three key areas: our students’ success, planning their futures and becoming a professional.

The curriculum enables students to meet their diverse learning needs, personal and career aspirations, while also providing flexibility for programme leaders to contextualise this learning within disciplines and professions.

The curriculum enables students to meet their diverse learning needs, personal and career aspirations, while also providing flexibility for programme leaders to contextualise this learning

At each level, the modules will provide each UWS learner with a mentor who understands them and their UWS journey; opportunities to reflect on professional, personal, and academic goals; the chance to design a plan to enhance graduate outcomes; the opportunity to plan and complete skill development; access to core content that enables student attainment and success; direct opportunities for work-based learning; and an e-portfolio record of attainment, portable for sharing beyond UWS (for example with employers) and durable beyond graduation, directly recording progress towards attaining both their programme learning outcomes, and co-curricular and extra-curricular achievements.

From a widening access perspective, the whole initiative is underpinned by personalised and student-centred approaches, and is driven by conversations and guidance on managing academic, professional and life challenges, and identifying how UWS can support our students in overcoming these obstacles.

This is the first piece of the jigsaw.

We will then consider continuous monitoring and support. And by this I don’t mean a ‘big brother’ approach; instead, it’s about understanding the connections between student motivations, engagement and success and tapping into these at the right time to make a difference.

We should think of new and innovative ways to support students from all backgrounds to continue and excel during their higher education journeys; not least those students facing a range of different, complex challenges.

Identifying where departments who perhaps don’t regularly work together have specific skills that, when combined, could make a real impact, is a powerful way of providing cross-institutional support.

Collaboration right across the institution, for example, with a shared vision placing students at the centre, is fundamental. Identifying where departments who perhaps don’t regularly work together have specific skills that, when combined, could make a real impact, is a powerful way of providing cross-institutional support.

At UWS, we have taken this approach with our Student Success and Strategic Planning teams. Bringing these departments even closer together to collaborate is supporting our students to re-engage – using a data-informed, driven and directed approach – allowing us to assist students at the early stages of disengagement and support them to reach positive outcomes.

In the first minister’s initial programme for government, Nicola Sturgeon made a crucial commitment. She said: “A child born today in one of our most deprived communities has no less a chance of going to university than a child born in one of our least deprived communities.”

Our university is dedicated to ensuring that higher education really is an option for everyone.

It is clear that progress is being made across the UK in this area, but more can be done. By embedding widening access in the culture of an institution and ensuring there are effective support mechanisms in place at every step of the way for students, university doesn’t need to just be a dream for some people. We can collectively help students from all walks of life believe they can do it, and support them to achieve it.

Dr Lucy Meredith is interim principal & vice-chancellor of University of the West of Scotland, having served first as the university’s provost and deputy vice-chancellor. 

Images from the University of the West of Scotland


Read more: New deprivation data could improve university outreach, says Hesa

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