Interview: Graeme Atherton, widening participation champion, head of AccessHE and director of NEON

University for all? Graeme Atherton, widening participation champion, head of AccessHE and director of NEON tells Anna Britten why it’s far from a pipe dream

“Everybody, in a hundred years’ time, will be in education till they’re 21, 22”

As a working-class boy from Blackpool who read PPE at Oxford then became an influential higher education figure, Graeme Atherton knows a thing or two about social mobility and the transformative power of learning.

He is also a man with a long job title: leader of AccessHE, a London-based network devoted to bringing more underrepresented learners into HE, and also of NEON (the National Education Opportunities Network), a member organisation supporting those working in widening access. Both AccessHE and NEON are divisions of London Higher, the association of nearly 50 universities and higher education colleges in the capital.

Graeme also holds visiting professorships at two universities, sits on the board of the National Union of Students (NUS) and publishes regularly.

At the NEON summit in July 2020, universities minister Michelle Donelan raised eyebrows with her disparaging comments on the numbers of young people going to university. Did she know who she was talking to?

It’s a surprising forum in which she would make those comments.

She hadn’t done a NEON event before. She hadn’t been in her post a long time and in a pandemic, it’s quite difficult for ministers to get out as much as they like and meet people in the sector and see universities. Possibly because of that she wasn’t therefore fully aware of the audience. Or maybe she was.

I think certainly some of the comments regarding how young people from working-class backgrounds have been “taken advantage of”… that certainly was pretty inappropriate, and inaccurate.

There hasn’t been, rhetorically, follow up to those comments to the same degree since. I don’t know what one would read into that.

The people who work in this field are very committed to the work they do, working directly with learners, or trying to as much as they can within the context we have at the moment. So to hear those sort of comments is very dispiriting.

You would have hoped for much greater support for the efforts they have put in. And, of course, those efforts, for many of the attendees, are being funded by the government, via the Office for Students, via their Uni Connect programme [an outreach project intended to boost the numbers of young people from underrepresented groups going into higher education].

So not only are they doing this work, they’re doing this work because you [the government] essentially want us to. Then to turn around and say you want us to do this work, and yet we are deceiving people… It’s just wrong. Very damaging comments.

We did our bit. I had conversations with several civil servants prior to the event, regarding the event, and certainly we sent them briefing information.
So, whether you don’t know what the event’s about, or who’s going to be there, having not read the brief – which would be poor practice – or you’ve read the brief and decided to ignore it. That’s not the right thing to do.

What are your predictions/concerns around the future of the government’s widening participation agenda?

This period is going to lead to financial constraints, which could impact, for instance, on the Uni Connect programme. Let’s hope not – it’s a crucial part of the outreach landscape. We’ve gone through five or six iterations of collaborative regional programmes, so to go through all this again…
This is just poor policy: you lose knowledge, you lose learning, you don’t want to see that happen.

The government seems to focus its energies now on this issue of students in level-four/level-five positions.There seems to me a muddling going on here – the idea is, we should we should shift some of these students away from a full degree higher education into level-four or level-five qualifications delivered possibly through FE. OK, that’s one position.

But would it not be more sensible to think about the thousands of young people who have barely made it to level three, who aren’t in employment or education, moving them into level-four or -five qualifications, instead of moving students who are going to, most of them, graduate with degrees, into those qualifications? Seems a strange thing to be trying to do. You could expand level four, level five, by bringing in students who are in level three and below.

The majority of 18- or 19-year-olds are not in higher education. The DfE’s own stats tell that. They’re either retaking their A-levels or retaking other forms of qualification. Some will go in at 19. Some will go in at 20. And why don’t we focus on them rather than picking on some stats which show some students don’t do as well out of HE as possibly they would like?

We don’t know if they like it or not – we assume because they’re earning less than apprentices in five or six years this means that they’re wasting their time.

And the media aren’t without blame here because what they like to do is find a couple of students really unhappy about being at HE and run a story about them.

Now, in life, what happens is people who aren’t happy, they’re the ones who complain. If I get a pair of shoes I like, I don’t generally go back and go,
“The shoes are brilliant, wonderful, love them.” I just wear my shoes. If I don’t like them then I’m on the phone to Adidas going, “These trainers are no good, they don’t fit me.” And same thing in life. Look at the data.

“You’ve got countries in the developing world like Indonesia, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines, where GDP is far lower than it is in the UK, yet they still found some resource to support students. Yet we can’t do it in this country.”

I wrote a paper published by Sutton Trust, which looked at responses to Covid by universities and systems across the world. They did a survey, and of 21 OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] nations, 19 provided some form of financial support for either specific low-income students or students including low-income students. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland have all provided some support – England hasn’t. You’ve got countries in the developing world like Indonesia, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines, where GDP is far lower than it is in the UK, yet they still found some resource to support students. We can’t do it in this country.

That tells you something about the present day approach and leads you to feel that you do not have a government at the moment that is essentially supportive of higher education. It’s what we see in front of us.


AccessHE aims to get more Londoners from underrepresented backgrounds into higher education


Of the big events of 2020 what have been the key takeaways from a widening participation angle?

The approach of the government towards expanding access, the 50% target and move away from that.

And the shift towards online provision. Within WP, there’s a lot of focus on working with schools. So it has been a huge effort to pivot to online working there. Will that continue?

This class of 2021, this group of students who missed a significant part of year 12, or advice and guidance, because of the pandemic, and they’re in certain parts of the country, experiencing continued disruption in their learning. I’m not convinced that there is attention on that group at the moment. I guess it will come up again, before Christmas, possibly.

Also: post-qualification admissions – fairly big news. This is something I have written and argued for before. And certainly that will be a an issue for next year that we will obviously want to engage as well. It’s not just about whether you’re putting an application in in January or in August. But it should be a broader discussion about how you prepare students for the best choices possible.
I’m very happy that this consultation review is happening.

You mentioned earlier that the media is not blameless – how easy is it for you to get your point across in the press?

I think there’s a lot of interest in access issues.

If you did an audit of the times in which education spills over from the educational press into the mainstream media, a high percentage of those instances will relate to issues of participation, and often inequality. The fixation on Oxbridge is still troublesome because that does then define what we mean by social mobility or widening access overall. But there is interest in issues of inequality.

Certain things get picked up more often than others. The work we did on white working-class students got a lot of pick up, which is OK. It’s a good report. But I’m disappointed, for instance, that a report that we did only two weeks ago, which looked at the potential learning loss from the class of 2021 and how it unfolds unfortunately upon students and black minority ethnic groups, got zero pick up.

Same with the report on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) students. We felt that was a really important report; literally nobody wants to talk about them. The report was pretty conclusive on how poorly the student group do. How they don’t achieve their potential and the community itself feels that education doesn’t welcome them. There’s a line in the report, by Trevor Phillips, saying that comments regarding the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community are the last acceptable form of racism.

I’m hopeful that that in the next two, four years, you may see an upturn in universities in this area.

What was your own journey into higher education, and into this field?

I went to Trinity College in Oxford [he studied philosophy, politics and economics]. And I came from a council estate in Blackpool, in an area which is one of the poorest wards in the country. And my parents left school when they were teenagers, with no qualifications. I obviously have had the widening participation journey if you like, from a background where very few people went to higher education per se to an institution that is seen as one of the best in the world.

Then I went to be a lecturer in sociology for a bit. When I first went into teaching after my PhD, it was just when this work [widening participation] started to become much more prevalent in policy terms.

My PhD was looking at adults going back to education, so I had already spent a lot of time researching education. I felt that it was the route to societal change, and social change and economic change, and, therefore, to be involved in that was very important.

Because of my own background, when I work with young people, it’s very easy for me to relate to them. They’re from where I come from. I know what their lives are like. I suppose it was quite a natural thing to do.

I like the direct influence work; you’re in an almost activist space.

Through collaborative outreach projects, we’ve worked with learners who had come from care backgrounds, very poor backgrounds, with asylum seekers and refugees who couldn’t speak English, yet four years later, are going into higher education. Every year at the NEON Awards we see these stories. Students who have set up their own access charities. You didn’t realise the impact you were having at that time and on their lives.


Graeme hopes to eventually see a rise in concern for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) students


What are NEON’s priorities and projects for 2021?

One is the class of 2020/2021 issue. We have our uni4me website [], where 50 of our members have online activities. And we’ll be working hard with partners in the first half of next year to try, through the uni4me platform, to support those in level two, or year 13. Making the case for access will continue to be a priority for us.

We have research where we’re doing discussion sessions in certain parts of the country that have been at the forefront of the Covid economic challenges, to understand from stakeholders about the education opportunity overall, including access to HE – so trying to take the voice of those communities and bring that through in terms of what they want to see in terms of education opportunities.

For us, the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller area as well.

And to continue to support our members. Do we continue to deliver the same sort of topic areas? Do we choose more online delivery?


How would you sum up your philosophy on all things higher education?

My philosophy is that higher education should be available to all those who have the potential to benefit from it. Higher education should be as close to universal as possible.

In a recent piece that we did for Hepi we argued for a target of beyond 50% going to higher education. You get a lot of pushback on this: “Oh, universities are not for everybody.” I’m not saying universities, I’m saying higher education. I’m not talking about the three-year courses for all students. There were certain students who’ve never even thought about whether it was for them or not. That was where it was problematic.

“I wonder sometimes, do we feel a bit like those who were sitting here 100 years ago, going ‘School should finish at 14. No reason for these kids to go to school beyond 14!”

I wonder sometimes, do we feel a bit like those who were sitting here 100 years ago, going “School should finish at 14. No reason for these kids to go to school beyond 14. It’s a ridiculous thing. You don’t need school beyond 14!”

Now, a hundred years later, you’re not allowed to leave school at 14. You stay at school till you’re 18, nobody really argues with that. So in a 100 years’ time, we’ll look back on this and go “Why were you even having those debates?” Everybody in a 100 years’ time will be in education till they’re 21, 22.

I won’t be alive to see that. But it’s out there. So in 100 years’ time they’ll look back and go “Yeah, that guy was a sage.” Or maybe they’ll say “He was an idiot.” But my point is, we are very focused on what’s happening now, but in education, we’re preparing for a long-term situation.


What’s your final message for UB readers?

Retain that view that has higher education has to be for all of those who can benefit. Look to – and I’m sure many of them do – open your institutions up to a broad set of students from all different backgrounds, and do that in a very proactive way. Are you having that conversation?

One of the things I spoke about recently is the issue of class. Harvard recently had an institutional conversation – the Presidential Taskforce on Inclusion and Belonging – that took two years. They produced a report where they spoke to all parts of the university about diversity and inclusion – students, academics, alumni, leaders. That sort of thing would be really interesting to have. Open your institutions up to these things, embrace and look to the future of what education inevitably, as I’ve argued before, will be one day: for everybody.

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