The Office for Students (OfS) should take “a more radical approach” to opening up higher education to disadvantaged groups, as the current government proposals contain little that does not already exist in the higher education system, says Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON).
The widening access expert, who is also head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CILUP) at the University of West London, was responding to a speech last month by higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan. The minister described the potential of the government’s planned “revolutionary change into further and higher education, namely the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE)” to drive social mobility, and said she was “refocusing the entire access and participation regime in order to ensure that improvements in access for disadvantaged people also result in improvements in attainment and outcomes.”
Linking widening access with levelling up is only novel because the term itself is
Atherton’s response – in a blog post for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) entitled ‘Giving widening access a real reboot‘ – argues there is little that is new in the minister’s proposals, and provides his own five-point plan for widening access.
Donelan’s “reboot”, as Atherton puts it, appears to set more ambitious targets for graduate outcomes for disadvantaged learners, and asks universities to concentrate in their outreach work on attainment-raising and supporting learners to choose options other than HE. It also calls on providers to produce shorter, and more easily-understood access and participation plans, and address regional disparities and supporting/expanding degree apprenticeships as part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.
However, Atherton says in his blog post, the actual changes do not constitute as much of a “reboot” as they may appear: “We can find strong evidence of all the five parts of the reboot in the system already.
“Linking widening access with levelling up is only novel because the term itself is.”
A broader definition of value would display that the government has learnt from the pandemic that there are many jobs whose importance has been downplayed in the past. These jobs include ones that graduates do
Atherton says that, to have real impact, the OfS needs “far greater engagement with external agencies than exists at present” – it should, for example, be engaging schools “far more proactively than has ever been done before to work with universities on attainment-raising projects”. Atherton says employers must also be engaged with more directly by government and its agencies.
He adds that, while there has been progress in terms of participation geographically, the gaps in participation between free school meals (FSM) and non-FSM learners has barely moved since 2005-06.
“Whether due to the constraints placed on them government or their own volition, they have been quite conservative (with a small c) on widening access,” Atherton says of the OfS.
As an alternative to Michelle Donelan’s “reboot” proposals, Atherton offers his own five-point plan, whose “aim is to widen access into higher education for those from under-represented groups not, as it appears the government wishes to do, restrict it”.
To truly widen access, the government should:
- Broaden graduate outcomes targets to encompass other measures of success alongside income: “A broader definition of value here would display that the government has learnt from the pandemic that there are many jobs whose importance has been downplayed in the past. These jobs include ones that graduates do.”
- Move away from the POLAR measure as a tool to orientate the work of outreach and access work – as recommended in the Augar review: “The evidence shows that only a minority of those in the POLAR quintile areas of lowest participation are from low income backgrounds… POLAR makes little sense to schools and never has. Alternatives to using POLAR exist and it is surely time to explore them.”
- Initiate collaboration across the student lifecycle: “Uni Connect is the closest thing that the government has at the moment to a national levelling up project. It would be undermining the whole levelling up agenda to scrap it now”.
- Link outreach to careers work through a change in the admissions system: “A shift to a post-qualifications admissions system which incorporates within it new approaches to supporting students to make choices earlier with more information would also help address the deleterious impact on access of predicted grades. It may also assist in the outcomes agenda by addressing a situation where over half of Black students and over 40 per cent who enter HE via clearing are not happy with the institution or course they have chosen.”
- Engage the Ofs with other policy areas: “It should be allowed or encouraged to take a pro-active role connecting its work explicitly with that of the Department of Education on attainment and careers and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on levelling up in ways that can practically help universities to pursue objectives related access and participation.”
A new regime at the OfS presents the opportunity for a more radical approach, if the government is prepared to be brave enough to take it
A reboot should look at widening access and participation for those learners it is harder to gather data on, such as older learners and groups such as those from gypsy, Romany, Traveller or showboat communities or looked-after children, Atherton says.
“Widening access is perhaps the most intransigent challenge in higher education. Regularly refreshing how it is approached is necessary to try and meet this challenge. A new regime at the OfS presents the opportunity for a more radical approach, if the government is prepared to be brave enough to take it.”
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