University of Derby named number one for widening participation

The 2020 NEON Awards celebrated achievements in widening participation in a challenging year

The University of Derby has been named the best UK higher education provider for widening participation at the 2020 National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) Awards.

The awards were presented at a virtual ceremony this afternoon [Thursday 22 October] and celebrate NEON members’ and their learners’ achievements in widening access to higher education and social mobility.

With over 60 nominations, shortlisting was a difficult process and it has highlighted the outstanding work that is being carried out by both institutions and individuals across the UK,” said director of NEON, Dr Graeme Atherton.

Introducing the awards, NEON chair Sir Les Ebdon – who is former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and served as director of Fair Access to Higher Education – spoke of the challenges that the pandemic had presented to all those working in widening participation and social mobility. He pointed to a “reduced enthusiasm” in government for widening participation, saying “we suffer from a lack of voice in government”, and praised the work being done by NEON members was “more important than ever.”

Announcing The University of Derby’s win, Dr Atherton said: “The University of Derby’s promise that ‘higher education should be equitable, inclusive and open to all who have the ambition and desire to learn and progress’, really resonated with the judging panel. They were impressed with the breadth of activities the university undertakes to make a difference to learners within their region. The unique ways in which the University work and the innovation they have shown in engaging learners makes them a worthy winner of NEON’s Higher Education Institution of the Year Award.”

Accepting the award on behalf of the University of Derby, Professor Kamil Omoteso said: “There is still more work to be done but I can assure you that everyone at the University of Derby is committed to building on our existing results, removing barriers and improving life chances.”

Professor Warren Manning, provost (innovation and research) at the provider added: “We firmly believe in the transformational nature of education and by placing social mobility at the heart of our strategic priorities clearly demonstrates our commitment to ensuring everyone, across our region and beyond, receives the high-quality education they deserve, regardless of age, background or location.”

Earlier this month, The University of Derby was also named University of the Year at the UK Social Mobility Awards (SOMOs) ahead of entries from The Open University, City University of London, Exeter, Lancaster and Worcester universities.

The provider also ranks second in the country in the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) Fair Access Table ranking.

In 2018, 24.3% of young undergraduate entrants (4th in UK) and 28.3% of mature undergraduate entrants (3rd in UK) to the University were from low participation neighbourhoods, and the number of mature undergraduate entrants has continuously increased (63% increase since 2015) through targeted professional programmes.

Founded in 2012, NEON brings together those involved in promoting social mobility through widening access to higher education across higher education institutions, schools, colleges, the voluntary sector, professional bodies and employers. Over 90 higher education providers from across England and Wales are members of NEON and they teach over 70% of England’s undergraduate students.

2020 NEON Awards: the winners

 Widening Access Initiative (Outreach)

Discovery Days, University of Nottingham – Winner


Widening Access Initiative (Retention and Success)

We Care Team, University of Sunderland – Winner


Widening Access Partnership

The University of Nottingham and IntoUniversity – Winner


NEON Access School or College 

Southmoor Academy


NEON Student of the Year

Declan McLoughlin, Queen Mary University of London


NEON Contribution to Widening Access

Ant Sutcliffe, Higher Horizons+ (Keele University)


NEON Higher Education Institution of the Year

University of Derby


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