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.
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.