Congratulations on your appointment. We note that in announcing you as the new director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has said that “we need to make getting on as important as getting in”.
Declaring that it’s not enough just to widen access to universities, she says that universities will have to set new targets to support students throughout their time at university by reducing dropout rates and improving progression into high paid, high skilled jobs.
There’s lots that we might disagree with Michelle Donelan about, but we agree that it would be a tragedy if universities were recruiting more disadvantaged students, only for them to drop out in droves or end up doing worse in the jobs market than their advantaged peers.
It’s why up in York we were pleased this week to be at the launch of the Purpose Coalition, highlighting actions that students, the university and the wider region can be involved in that will reduce inequality on a local, national and global scale.
And it’s why down at Middlesex, we’re so pleased to see that we are 11th in the country on IFS’ social mobility index. It shows that universities like Middlesex and students’ unions like ours can make a huge and lasting difference to students’ life chances and start to turn around inequality in wider society.
On the issues of “getting on” rather than just getting in, we have good news. We know ways in which students and their unions can help.
So as you prepare to take up the reins of the post, we’d like you to actively consider three small things that we think would make the most difference to ensuring that the ambitions are realised across higher education.
Getting on in student life
The first is about student life. We know the huge difference that getting involved – in societies, or volunteering, or student media, or sport or student representation – can make to students when at university.
It’s partly about the skills that students develop – but it’s also about the friendships that students make, the social capital they build and the contribution they make to the student and wider community.
Wonkhe research that SUs led on a few years ago demonstrated the link between involvement in wider student life and belonging and mental health – they were massive concerns pre-pandemic, and are now the top of universities’ agendas.
There was also a clear link between getting involved and both career and course completion confidence. Put simply, we know that the more likely it is that a student is immersed in student life beyond their course, the more likely it is that their mental health will be good and that they’ll do well on both their programme and in their career.
But there’s a problem. Participation across these sorts of activities is not even. Many students – especially those from “first in family” backgrounds – are discouraged from this kind of involvement. And both funding and data protocols often prevent students’ unions from knowing who’s getting involved, and where efforts should be targeted to make the most difference.
OfS never mentions getting involved in wider student life in its access and participation guidance, therefore many students’ unions struggle to engage with universities over broadening participation in their activities. Consequently programmes are not developed, funding is not allocated, challenges with data sharing are not addressed and students that need involvement the most don’t get it.
So our first plea is very simple. When universities rewrite their access and participation strategies, ask them to take into account involvement in wider student life, and to work with SUs to both establish patterns of involvement, and to broaden and deepen participation from those from disadvantaged groups.
Must be funny
The second is about money – and impact.
We know that many universities have used bursaries and scholarships in the past to recruit disadvantaged students – and your predecessor has pushed for universities to demonstrate that student financial support used in this way has been having an actual impact.
That makes sense, but in our view, there has not been enough focus on the impact that student financial support can have in ensuring that students don’t drop out, and succeed, once they are at university.
We both have friends around the country that would never say it was the bursary that made the difference to them applying to uni – but would say that that is because information on bursaries is so hard to find. Why isn’t what’s on offer easier to find on things like UCAS or DiscoverUni?
We both have friends who wouldn’t necessarily attribute feeling close to dropping out to student poverty. But when they say the demands of the course are too high, or the timetable doesn’t work for them, they often mean that they couldn’t combine it with a 30 hour a week job, or couldn’t afford all the travel required for a timetable that doesn’t work. And we all know that inflation is sharply on the rise – which should mean OfS telling universities (and DfE) to prepare for a rise in student costs with decent hardship funds.
We both know of students that scrape by and succeed on their course without a bursary or a scholarship – but because they do it by juggling part time jobs, they miss out on the careers events or the volunteering that enables them to feel confident when applying for graduate jobs. We need assessments of “impact” to be as broad as we know they need to be.
And we both know that some aspects of university can be much more expensive than students plan for or can afford. We’d like to see everyone in a university – from the catering manager to the course leader, from the timetabler to the head of the library – all coming together to develop a plan that you demand on getting the costs of student life under control.
Hear the voices
Our final plea is about voices.
Last year OfS made good initial progress on requiring universities to demonstrate a level of student engagement in access and participation work. There are lots of examples of excellent projects, enlightening student submissions and universities where both the SU and disadvantaged students are involved heavily in APP work.
But too often, we talk to student leaders at other universities where that isn’t the case. We hear talk of “plonking an underprepared sabbatical officer on a committee” too many times, and we keep hearing about projects which expect the participation of “ordinary” students but never reward them for their time and effort.
A model which sees the student member of a committee as the only one in the room that isn’t paid is bad enough. A model where the idea is that the students in the room are the least able students in the university to be able to give up their time is guaranteed to fail.
If we’re going to halt the tide of disadvantaged students struggling up ladders and falling down snakes, we need not just to “listen to the student voice” with a survey and a sabb, but to invest in deeper understanding – giving students and their unions the tools, funding and support to understand the complex lives our students lead, and to build educational change around the learning we develop from that.
No access and participation strategy should be approved without resourced, independent student lived experience work being front and centre. And students and their unions should be helped to enable students from our target groups to lead projects, initiatives and campaigns themselves. That would help with the understanding part and the “student opportunities“ part we mentioned earlier.
Students are not objects to be observed – we are people capable of creativity and leadership – and universities should be required to work with us as full partners in work that helps us get in and get on.