This article is more than 1 year old

Is it students or universities that need to change?

Alex Blower argues that to tackle socio-economic diversity on campus, universities must first hold up the mirror to themselves
This article is more than 1 year old

Alex Blower is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth

As a university employee leading a widening participation team, I spend a lot of time working with data.

Whether it is area-based measures of higher education participation such as POLAR or TUNDRA, or measures of socio-economic inequality such as Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Free School Meals or the Multiple Equality Measure, we are expected to use this data to target our work, and effectively measure progress in alignment with our goals.

There is also shared recognition within universities that, in order to make our student populations more representative of society as a whole, we need access to the tools that will help us measure the impact of our work.

Data and progress

For years we have, quite rightly, appreciated the importance of mobilising data to tackle socio-economic diversity amongst our student populations. As a sector we are also well aware that progress has been slower and less significant than we would like.

A growing area of concern to those interested in equitable access to and through higher education, has been around a sense of belonging. All too often we hear about the psychological impact of transitions into educational spaces which students from underrepresented backgrounds feel are alien, and at times, hostile.

They might have “made it” to university, but now those same inequalities are felt in different ways; with a whole host of implications ranging from social exclusion and a higher risk of non-completion, to a lack of career confidence resulting in half the salary in their first graduate job.

Within these contexts, the responsibility to “change”, “adapt” and “adjust” has historically been placed squarely on the shoulders of the student. It seems that only recently, with movements such as Black Lives Matter catalysing widespread conversations of reflection, are universities beginning to recognise that some responsibility for change may instead lie with them.

However, even if conversations have started, it will take sustained energy and effort by the sector over time for meaningful progress to be made. Something which requires demonstrable cultural and strategic commitment.

This shift would go some way to explaining why, despite our best efforts, meeting the challenge of making our campuses more representative of the society in which they reside, has been slow.

What (or who) needs to change?

Well, a good starting point might be to have a look at the socio-economic diversity present in our own staff populations.

Given that we spend so much time as a sector wrangling over which measure of “disadvantage” we might use to identify prospective students, it seems quite ironic (even hypocritical) that we have no interest in gathering the same information for staff.

Especially when we consider how important the intersections of socio-economic background and protected characteristics such as race, gender and disability are when developing understanding about how the resultant inequalities are experienced.

Could it be that this hasn’t occurred to anyone? Could it be because it’s not inscribed into law in the same way as gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation it’s viewed as less important? Or could it be that we might be fearful of stepping in front of the mirror, and seeing what is looking back at us?

It’s certainly not the case that tools to achieve this are out of reach. The Social Mobility Commission has released a full employers toolkit for how to effectively capture this information which could easily be utilised by any university with the inclination. The Social Mobility Foundation have a Social Mobility Employer Index which has been running for half a decade.

It is open and applicable to universities. An Index to which organisations such as HMRC, KPMG, the BBC and Auto Trader UK (to name but a few) have signed up to. Why? Because they recognise the importance of socio-economic diversity in the workforce to their organisation and the society they belong to. As civically minded universities, shouldn’t collecting this data be one of our first ports of call?

Whether we’re fearful, or simply haven’t thought through the implications of not collecting data on the socio-economic background of staff, this has to change.

It’s well past time that the higher education sector started putting its money where its mouth is.

At Access all areas – getting in and getting on we’ll assess the current access and participation landscape and consider what will need to change in terms of outreach, information, advice, and guidance, partnerships and pathways between providers, and on-course student support to sustain and grow education opportunity in the years ahead. On Tuesday 10 May at the Mermaid in London: register now.

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