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Universities can lead the way on upward social mobility


A fresh government focus on access represents an opportunity for universities, says Steve West

The effect of the pandemic on pupils’ education has been stark, and has widened the achievement gap at school between students from more affluent families and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As university leaders, we want to redouble our efforts, learn from the progress made in recent years and enhance the impact of our work on social mobility. By working closely with John Blake, the newly appointed director of fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), England’s university regulator, we can strengthen our approach to tackling inequalities and creating a fairer society. Getting this right will benefit individuals, society, and help the UK government achieve its levelling-up ambitions.

Studying at university must become a realistic ambition for everyone with the potential to benefit from the experience, whatever their background. Evidence shows that a university education can be the ticket to a more fulfilling career, higher earnings and better life satisfaction. For many from disadvantaged backgrounds, its impact can be truly transformational.

While progress has been made over recent years in opening up access to university to students from a more diverse range of backgrounds, now is the time to accelerate our work and increase the positive impact of universities.

The months of Covid disruption have set back so many young people who have missed out on hours of learning and struggled to get the support they need, despite the impressive efforts of schools. Many pupils will be playing catch-up for years to come and, sadly, some will never recover lost ground.

Last week, as part of a drive to shake up how institutions approach their access and participation work, the Department for Education (DfE) announced that universities in England will be required to “drive up standards in local schools and colleges” to help improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. University leaders are determined to play a full part in education recovery by reaching out further and wider to the talent of tomorrow, and increasing participation rates among students underrepresented in higher education.

Essential to our success is the need for universities to deepen their partnerships with state secondary and primary schools to identify and nurture potential at a younger age. Talent is spread across the country and socioeconomic groups, but historically, opportunity hasn’t been. 

Up and down the country, there are great examples of universities working with schools to encourage and support young people who might otherwise not make it to university. We know that one-to-one or small-group tutoring can have a big impact on pupil progress and attainment, especially on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and then helping them to thrive at university. For example, at my own institution, UWE Bristol, our Heading Higher Passport Plus scheme prepares students for university by giving them the chance to visit the campus, meet our current students, and develop additional study and learning skills so they can succeed when they get to higher education.

The DfE and the OfS should work with universities to think creatively about boosting tutoring and mentoring opportunities particularly for students in cold-spot areas in England with low university participation rates, often coastal areas and ‘left behind’ towns.

Clearer guidance

Another important area is careers information and advice. We should look to build on the success of initiatives like the Opportunity Areas and Uni Connect, which bring together partnerships of universities, colleges, schools and employers to address local challenges, providing advice and information on the benefits and realities of going to university or college, or moving into work. There should be a focus on local areas where opportunities for social mobility and higher education participation are at their lowest.

It’s also vital that universities can respond to local employment needs and skill shortages by giving people opportunities to change career direction in later life through upskilling and retraining. To achieve this, it is vital that we get the details right as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement is developed in the months ahead.

We must bring together and better promote the best approaches. This means greater backing for the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO). This charity provides an independent source of expertise for higher education professionals – including research, toolkits and evaluation – to improve equality. A concerted effort should be made to share best practice on improving student outcomes as well as access – and Universities UK will work with partners to focus on this in the months ahead.

The new director for fair access and participation has solid foundations to build upon. Access and Participation Plans have shaped the longer-term thinking on the issue from universities. As universities rewrite those plans as part of the access shake-up, the focus of activity should now shift more from measuring inputs towards greater evaluation and promotion of what works in terms of the whole student lifecycle: access, progression, attainment and outcomes.

Levelling-up through education and skills development has to be a priority in the recovery from the pandemic. Universities have a central role to play in encouraging more students from marginalised and deprived backgrounds to have the opportunity to study and succeed.

Steve West is the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, Bristol