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Widening access now has a business and social imperative

A squeeze in overall demand means that there's a new urgency behind broadening the sector's net to include greater numbers of students from low-participation backgrounds, argues UCAS's Mary Curnock Cook.
This article is more than 5 years old

Mary Curnock Cook OBE is chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a former chief executive of UCAS

The narrative of widening participation, access and social mobility has been subtly changing. Gone are the days of OFFA celebrating annual increases in universities’ expenditure through Access Agreements. Welcome to the world of more targeted interventions to reduce the tangible disadvantage of, for example, white boys from poor households.

Welcome also to the reality that real progress in participation rates for disadvantaged groups in recent years is highly correlated with parallel improvements in GCSE achievement, with traditional outreach programmes probably contributing relatively small-scale improvements. OFFA’s most recent guidance asks for specific emphasis on interventions that help raise attainment for target groups.

While many believe that the leap from supporting better attainment to asking universities to sponsor schools is flawed logic, it does feel right that investment should be earlier and focused on interventions that help students from underrepresented backgrounds do better in their GCSEs. We know that this, in turn, leads to better results in sixth form that will support success in higher education and employment.

Leaving aside different approaches to improving progression to higher education, nobody disputes the moral imperative to reduce the educational disadvantage that accidents of birth appear to convey.

But there are other reasons to put resource into widening participation. The 15th January deadline data from UCAS indicate a 5% reduction in the number of students applying for full-time undergraduate education, a shortfall of 30,000 students compared to 2016. Meanwhile, according to HEFCE, the sector is apparently planning for an aggregate increase of over 12% in full-time undergraduate UK and EU recruitment by 2018-19. Comparing these estimates to UCAS data is not an exact science, but it seems to suggest that increases of around 3% to 4% in recruitment would be needed both this year and next to meet it.

In addition to this year’s fall in applications, our projections for the next few years suggest that further falls in overall demand are more likely than increases. Either the sector knows something we don’t, or there is an aggregate optimism bias, and many universities are going to fall short of their plans. What is clear is that the student numbers from EU and international are both relatively small and particularly uncertain over the next few years, so if universities are to meet their own recruitment targets then the potential from UK-domiciled students needs to be optimised.

So increasing participation from disadvantaged groups is now more than a moral crusade, and it could now represent one of the few significant growth strategies available to universities in the short to medium term. Our data suggest that there are probably 3000 students from POLAR quintile one who have applied but who won’t get an offer this year and are unlikely to reapply next year. These are students demonstrating an appetite for higher education who could be successful if they are provided with intensive support to enable successful progression.

Also, the 30,000 shortfall in applicants this year would be reversed if those groups with the lowest entry rates were increased to entry levels typical for more average groups – that might yield almost 30,000 extra students from POLAR Q1 and Q2 alone.

The suggested sponsoring of schools by universities has some merit, and existing successes for Exeter, Kings, City and Staffordshire Universities provide ground-breaking exemplars.  However, such initiatives will only ever have local impacts for relatively small numbers of students.

Meanwhile, organisations such as Into University, the Access Project, the Brilliant Club, Brightside, and Villiers Park already know how to achieve results. Support from universities to scale up these proven models has the potential to achieve results and in numbers that will make an impact. These organisations provide, in effect, a turnkey solution to a pressing social issue, at the same time as increasing the pipeline of possible applicants for higher education. That imperative is only going to increase in the coming years.

3 responses to “Widening access now has a business and social imperative

  1. NEC endorses Mary Curnock Cook’s call for investment in interventions at GCSE level to increase the numbers of young people going to university from groups whose participation rate is low. As well as looking at this younger age group, we should also be supporting ambitious and motivated people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Behind HEFCE’s reported 61% fall in the number of part-time undergraduate applications since 2010/11 lies the story of rigid structures for GCSE and A level qualifications and university entry whose design takes little account of the needs of adults who have decided to apply to go to university as mature students. 43% of our current A level students (we are a national distance learning provider of intermediate level qualifications) cite applying to university as their reason for enrolling. They are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and are studying a range of science, social science and humanities subjects, as well as maths. Last year, NEC campaigned successfully for ‘an exam system that works for everyone’. Our campaign was prompted by a small change in the regulations for the administration of GCSEs and A levels with non-examined assessment. Had the regulations been implemented unchanged, they have meant that candidates not in a school or college would have been unable to take essential GCSE and A level subjects for university entry and teacher training. These included English language and science A levels. The government’s industrial strategy, combined with persistent levels of inequality, give designing an education system that works for everyone an urgent business and a social imperative too.

  2. given that we already have very high levels of job mismatch in the labour market – (over 40% over educated for the jobs they do) where are all those graduates going to find degree-level work? It is already recognised that those from WP backgrounds tend to sudy in the new instituions and have considerably poorer employment opportunities and outcomes post-graduation

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