The focus on university access AND success is welcome, but let’s not repeat past mistakes

The new Office for Students’ (OfS) director for access and participation, Chris Millward, recently highlighted the problem of “differential outcomes” at university.

OfS Chair, Michael Barber, underscored the issue last week with his call for “results, not just plans” if universities are to continue charging £9,000 fees.

Although universities have become more accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds, Millward observed, those same students are less likely to get a 2:1 or better and more likely to drop out.

It’s a real problem, and this new emphasis from the universities regulator – on both “access” and “success” – is welcome. But what next? My fear is that, with the best of intentions, we may be about to repeat a mistake we made in the first era of the widening participation agenda: treating the symptoms of inequality but ignoring the root causes.

A partial victory for WP

In one respect, the drive to expand access to university has worked; more young people are going to university than ever before. But in another sense, it hasn’t; one-in-four privately-educated pupils go on to attend a highly-selective university, compared to just one-in-forty pupils from low-income households. So in once sense access has become more equal, but in another important sense, it hasn’t.  

Why is this? Why has the sustained effort from the government and the sector simultaneously succeeded and failed in making universities accessible to all? One reason is that, historically, university and charity outreach work was overwhelmingly targeted at those aged 16 and over. There’s a common-sense logic in talking mostly to A-level students about university. After all, they are on the cusp of applying (or not) and, as such, are better prospects for “conversion” than younger pupils who might forget the information they have been given before their own time comes; they’re also at a more advanced stage of their education, such that their career aspirations may be more fully-formed and the connections between their school work and university study may be clearer.  

The case for starting early

But there’s a problem with this logic: by the time you get to sixth form, many of the young people you would want to target have left. Only a quarter of children eligible for free school meals achieve any A-level equivalent qualification, compared to half of those who are not eligible. The rest have already ruled themselves out through their grades or their choices. Nearly everyone now accepts that if you want to increase the pipeline of under-represented pupils with a shot at successfully applying to university, you have to start younger. Indeed, one of the last acts of the Office For Fair Access (OFFA – one of the predecessor bodies to OfS) was to commission research to gather effective examples of outreach programmes that work with under-16s.

Now, the trap we must avoid is to assume that you can only help underrepresented students to succeed in their degrees once they have arrived at university. We already know that there is much we can do in secondary school – even primary school – to demystify university-style learning and to develop skills that will stand pupils in good stead once they progress to higher education.

School-uni partnerships build the skills for success

At The Brilliant Club, we work with over 30 university partners and nearly 700 schools each year to run collaborative university access programmes. Pupils as young as 10 get the chance to debate ideas in a small group tutorial led by a PhD student, write an essay or scientific report as if they were an undergraduate, and study a topic, unlike anything they will have encountered at school. This means we see them developing crucial skills in critical thinking and academic writing – things that trip up many first-year university students. The new emphasis on undergraduate outcomes from OfS was a timely reminder that The Brilliant Club should be doing more to build up university readiness in the pupils that complete our programmes and work harder to track their progress.

This should be done in close partnership with universities as they increase their support for undergraduates who face cultural isolation or financial hardship, and those with disabilities. But the lessons from the past are clear – the earlier that underrepresented young people start preparing for success at university the better, and everyone already involved in widening participation should be working to give them that opportunity.

The Brilliant Club’s conference “Measuring Up: Research, Evidence and Urgency in University Access and Student Success” takes place on 13 July 2018, and features a keynote from the OfS’ Chris Millward.

Leave a Reply