Is winter coming for widening access?

After years of consensus definitions and approaches are shifting when it comes to access and participation. Jayne Taylor asks why doors are closing just as data starts to look concerning

Jayne Taylor leads the Student Recruitment and Access Development team at Sheffield Hallam University.

It’s getting colder out there for disadvantaged students.

The demographic tables have turned and with the upturn in 18-year-olds now upon us, universities are likely to become more selective over the following years (especially for high demand courses).

This demographic boom will equate to almost a million extra 18-year-olds over the next decade. Following the recent OfS release of national outreach coverage data – intended to give Uni Connect partnerships and universities a strategic steer on future activity; the question arises – are we encouraging increasing numbers of disadvantaged students into an impossibly competitive educational marketplace?

The OfS data set illustrates where “outreach” (an extremely broad term which can and does mean all sorts of activities delivered by universities and their partners in schools, colleges, and communities to encourage higher education participation for both recruitment and widening participation purposes) has been delivered across England. OfS has mapped where this activity is taking place in order to ensure coverage of delivery and avoid the dreaded cold spots.

Outreach becomes access

While no one is arguing that this isn’t a noble exercise and one which must focus the strategic efforts of widening participation departments and Uni Connect programmes around the country, there appears to be little emphasis on what happens next. What happens once aspirations are raised, HE participation is encouraged and careers promised when some universities are cherry picking the highest tariff students?

Outreach is an essential part of the widening participation journey. The identification of cold spots is useful to understand where outreach is not taking place and to focus resource and subsequent delivery plans. There are clear links between place, participation, and progression. In March this year, TASO, argue that taking part in more intensive outreach is associated with higher KS4 attainment and higher HE progression. However, increasingly it appears that outreach teams are expected to do some pretty heavy lifting when it comes to equal higher education access for those from disadvantage or experiencing additional barriers.

Shifting sands

OfS Head of Evaluation Richard Shiner is optimistic that more young people from underrepresented neighbourhoods will enter higher education over the next few years. At times it is hard to share his optimism.

One of the major challenges that outreach will struggle to solve is the issue of tariff which looks highly likely to increase across the sector. This will serve to “price out” lower tariff students who are disproportionately represented in low participation neighbourhoods due to compound disadvantage.

Combine this with the possible demise of level 3 BTECs, which traditionally allowed a vocational approach but with the opportunity to achieve a high tariff, apparent over-recruitment by some in an uncertain marketplace due to Covid plus a rising demographic and many universities will use tariff as a way of managing numbers.

Foundation year programmes are another pipeline used by underrepresented groups to access HE, but their future is also uncertain with a potential change to their funding arrangements being considered as part of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review and government’s response to Augar. The government is likely to exacerbate this already challenging environment for widening access by promoting differentiated routes away from HE for vocational learners.

A leaky pipeline

Data released last Thursday on widening participation in England shows the gap in progression rates for the most disadvantaged is growing. This is a problem which, whilst exacerbated by Covid, has been years in the making.

So how do we respond? Firstly, we can’t expect outreach to do all the work. Widening participation should never be reduced to ticking off postcodes or schools; taking a holistic approach is the answer. Universities have a responsibility to their communities which stretches throughout the educational journey; these responsibilities are grave and require investment, partnership working and comprehensive civic plans.

Universities must also recognise the importance of genuine pipeline programmes to highly selective courses. Increasingly these courses will become the domain of the privileged without direct action to identify and support diverse student populations.

Accepting and valuing admissions access as a facet of widening participation, whilst controversial for some, will be the lifeline for many students. The relationship between widening participation teams and admissions departments must work hand in glove in order to focus on both pre and post application access. The engagement of academic admissions tutors is also vital to support equitable opportunities for all students.

Doing the work

By identifying our own access cold spots through the development of internal reports, which can provide vital information on the student body per course and by using effective governance to monitor progress, we can co-create action plans alongside our admissions departments and academic colleagues. We must be held accountable to these plans and our progress.

From these plans we can develop long-term widening access strategy which includes outreach, but which also recognises the role of contextual offers and access schemes which fold in an intersectional, EDI approach. We must find the human in the data and identify their needs by working in strategic partnerships throughout the educational lifecycle.

Providing real, meaningful, and collaboratively devised opportunities to progress for underrepresented groups and the individuals within them will be hard graft. It will require universities to work across departments like never before and take responsibility for much more nuanced approach to course recruitment. None of this will be solved easily.

The coming years will represent a boom in recruitment for some; a fight for the best and the brightest for others but we mustn’t be responsible for a generation left behind.

4 responses to “Is winter coming for widening access?

  1. What about the inequaity between employment sectors? My daughter, who has a first degree in journalism and worked as a journalist for several years before running her own business for 15 years, has just completed a Masters degree at Sheffield Hallam with a view to returning to a different part of the media sector. The course was great but trying to find a job offering a salary above £20000 is proving very difficult and impossible to support children, rent and living costs. There are, fo course, penty of younger applicants for whom this is not such a challenge. Meanwhile her contemporaries who learnt trades or entered ‘the professions’ have decent pay, their own houses and some security. University is a wonderful experience and a gateway to opportunity for some, but not necessarily a pathway to opportunity and a secure future.

  2. To use the writer’s terminology, we are speaking about students other than “the best and the brightest”. For admission to lead to success, significantly more learning support needs to be available as the tariff level falls. This is possible but it requires resources, not just “commitment” by universities.

  3. EDI is fast becoming the hill Universities will DIE on. Equality of opportunity is essential and legally required, Diversity should come naturally as a result of Equality but forcing it creates problems for both the student and staff, especially where Inclusion is used to force a square peg into a round hole where the peg really doesn’t want to be no matter the enthusiasm those that make up the hole have for accepting them. And as one who grew up in a communist world I would caution against the communist ‘wedge tool’ of ‘intersectionality’.

  4. I agree with John. For many degrees, prospective students need to reach a level of knowledge and ability before they are admitted or they are more likely to fail. I don’t want to see unqualified medical staff or structural engineers, or architects.

    The aim of education should be to develop the talents of individuals.

    If we seek greater diversity at Universities by including more people from disadvantaged and economically less developed areas we must invest early in the process and not later than the age of 7 years.

    Individual skill, intelligence, ability, talent, attitude and aptitude exists, in part, from birth and becomes apparent for most people around the age of 7 years. From age 7 to 11 and then to 15 is the best time to support, nurture and develop the individual. Left till any later and the return on investment becomes much harder and less likely to succeed.

    The education “process” after age 16 tends to split the more academic from the technical and practical in preparation for University and other forms of FE and HE.

    I think the idea of expecting everyone aged 18 to go to University is misguided, unnecessary and inappropriate. Social mobility can be achieved by other means including apprenticeships and individually, talent focussed support.

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