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Image: Hernán Piñera [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Efforts to widen access to higher education must not be lost in the Covid-19 maelstrom

It could be argued that up until last month, widening access to higher education in England was experiencing something of a high-water mark. Rates of participation among people from disadvantaged backgrounds appeared to be at record levels and providers had set their most challenging targets ever via five-year access and participation plans, which illustrated the long-term commitment of the university regulator to addressing inequalities.

The coronavirus crisis, however, has thrown the future of widening access work into question. It is a test of how committed higher education really is to addressing inherent inequalities, and of how real the recent progress has been.

This is not the first time that widening access work with schools and colleges has had to weather the impact of external forces that have disrupted the UK economy, society and higher education. One of the fallouts of the crash of 2008 was the election of a government that in 2010, as part of its austerity measures, abolished Aimhigher, the flagship national widening access programme.

It took nearly 10 years for widening access to climb back up and rebuild a sense of national coherence and shared commitment, as well as for overall levels of investment in work with schools and colleges to recover.

Covid-19 could similarly cause commitments to be reigned in and progress to stall. The financial impact of the virus may push some universities to the financial brink, and all will suffer to some extent. The feeling has always been there that widening access is not a ‘core business’ of universities, meaning that it is expendable when there is a crisis—as in the early 2010s.

Analogue to digital

So far, the government has done little to dispel these fears. The initial focus appears to be on protecting research rather than teaching and learning overall, as seen by the creation of a cross-departmental working group on this issue.

While the higher education minister has asked universities to refrain from making unconditional offers—a practice that could affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may feel hurried into taking the first choice offered at this uncertain time—she made little mention of widening access overall.

The temptation is to allow access to fall down the list of institutional and policy priorities, but supporting access for disadvantaged students has never been more important. The shift to completely online learning, in particular, will be harder to cope with for students who need face-to-face support.

The Covid-19 crisis does not leave many alternatives to online learning, so how this is delivered needs to evolve rapidly. The vast majority of work that universities do with schools and colleges is analogue, based almost entirely on face-to-face contact. It now needs to move online to support learners who will otherwise miss out on the advice and support they need.

While the prospect of home-schooling has been greeted with a collective groan from the millions of parents (including me) who will be doing it for the coming weeks, the reality is that some students will come out of this stronger than before as they benefit from the educationally rich environments their parents can provide. But the learners for whom widening access work was designed will not.

This suggests the need for a more intense effort to support schools and colleges than at any time since this work really began in the early 2000s. Reigning in efforts to widen access, or a failure to find ways to turn analogue to digital within weeks, will potentially choke the flow of future students that higher education and society need.

The importance of medics

Recognition (at last) of the need for more nurses and allied health professionals is one certain outcome of Covid-19. Subjects allied to medicine is the subject grouping with the highest percentage of students from areas of low higher education participation. More than one in five come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and in London most nurses are now from a BME background.

Whether Covid-19 inspires more people to serve on the medical front line or dissuades them, only time will tell—but universities need to continue to make it clear to students of all backgrounds that studying these subjects is an attractive and viable proposition.

Students from low-participation areas make up more than 34,000 young, full-time first degree entrants and, in the present context, higher education cannot afford to lose them.

Even those universities relatively immune to recruitment pressure (some of which have made significant strides in recent years in recognising the importance of widening access) would be best advised to realise that dialling back on engagement with low-income communities now will not benefit them—or higher education more generally—in the coronavirus-shaped world, where humility is likely to be of much greater importance than in the past.

Online outreach

More immediately, higher education providers cannot maintain or increase their widening access efforts alone.

The guarantees from the Office for Students about medium-term funding of its national Uni Connect programme and flexibility over short-term expectations of 2019-20 access work and targets are welcome.

The potential exists for a significant increase in online outreach provision across the country, which can be a resource after the crisis has passed as well.

Changes to how universities admit students this year will also need to be designed with the impact on students from underrepresented groups paramount. Teacher assessments tend to underestimate the ability of such students and, while an appeal exam in September—as proposed by the government for students who are unhappy with their grades—has some logic, it is not likely to favour students who have been out of education for nearly six months and who don’t have the kind of home support that would benefit their efforts.

Higher education is contributing in a range of ways to addressing the Covid-19 crisis, from providing frontline medical staff to researching the spread of the virus. Keeping its doors open to all who can benefit should be another.

Graeme Atherton is director of the National Education Opportunities Network.