Thinking big: 35 ideas for widening access to higher education

Let’s face it – we all appreciate a nod in the right direction when starting a new job.

This could be a polite hint about what needs doing, guidance on what to prioritise, or helpful advice on how to go about it. Chris Millward, is surely no exception to this rule, having just started out in his new role as Director of Fair Access and Participation at Office for Students (OfS).

Special advice

The new Director certainly has a big task on his hands. The impetus to improve access to higher education has been growing for many years, with institutions and policymakers realising true success is not just about attracting students into colleges and universities, but supporting them from before admission right through to the completion of their chosen course and out into the labour market.

Deciding which students to support and how best to help them can, however, feel like a Sisyphean task, particularly when budgets remain tight and disadvantage comes in various guises and is not always immediately apparent. Moreover, there have been some false dawns, as with the short-lived Aim Higher programme.

To help the new Director of Fair Access and Participation in his mission to open up higher education to everyone, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) together with the mentoring charity Brightside has brought together 35 leading thinkers. In our new joint report, issued today, they explain what they think could be done to improve social mobility through higher education.

The report, Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation, contains a broad range of ideas from widening participation practitioners, students, politicians, think tanks and academics. The views are as diverse as the voices.

Generating ideas

Some of the proposals are financial, including the reintroduction of maintenance grants, fee waivers for certain groups of students such as asylum seekers, and assistance for those from higher education ‘cold spots’ to enable them to attend open days and get a feel for what going to university really entails. My own entry calls for more dedicated rural outreach programmes to ensure that young people from areas far from a university do not grow up thinking higher education just isn’t for “people like them”.

Other solutions are centred around the targeted provision of care to vulnerable students. Ross Renton of the University of Worcester, calls, for example, for the appointment of a dedicated Commissioner for Student Mental Health to coordinate a national response to the growing mental health crisis in schools, colleges and universities. Such a Commissioner, working alongside the NHS, would be able to push for positive policy developments to support students suffering from mental health issues.

Some ideas put forward would require a radical change of customs and traditions. Rosemary Bennett of the Times advocates curbing the use of unconditional offers to stop students “trading down” to a university that is beneath their abilities. Anna Vignoles of the University of Cambridge thinks it is high time we experiment with post-qualification admissions to ensure that disadvantaged students, who may lack the confidence to aim high, do not give up the opportunity to apply to higher tariff institutions.

Nick Hillman of HEPI asks whether we should found some new Oxbridge colleges to ensure an increase in the number of students from under-represented groups at England’s oldest, richest and most prestigious universities.

There are proposals aimed at people outside of the higher education sector too. Nik Miller of the Bridge Group calls for greater scrutiny of employers to ensure they are not just prioritising students from a limited list of the least diverse institutions. Helen Smith of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Service (AGCAS) also calls on employers, to put an end to unpaid student and graduate internships, in order to provide a more equal chance of progression after university.

As the new regulator for higher education in England, it is clear that people will be looking to the OfS to set a new and more effective agenda for widening participation in the future. As advocated for by Gary Attle of Mills & Reeve, the OfS is well placed to conduct further research into the specific contexts behind university admissions data to aid public understanding and the development of appropriate policies.

These policies should not just be short-lived. As Graeme Atherton of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) emphasises in his contribution, the future for widening participation targets must be one which goes beyond one Parliament if we really are to bring about lasting and effective change in the sector.

At the start of a new regulatory regime for higher education in England, now is certainly the time to experiment with new ideas and to build on the successes of the past. It is hoped that the priorities set out in this report serve to ensure the sector does not go backwards and instead continues to spread the potentially life-changing magic of higher education to all parts of society.

3 responses to “Thinking big: 35 ideas for widening access to higher education

  1. I have just read the new manifesto on ‘Reaching the parts of society universities have missed’
    I agree with almost all of the recommendations but there is one major barrier that has been completely missed out.
    Mature students [or anyone who is studying independently] who need to take national qualifications like GCSE and A level for university entry can find it very hard to get access as private candidates to exams.
    First of all they have to find their own exam centres and many schools and colleges are unwilling or unable to accommodate private candidates. So students have to shop around and sometimes need to travel long distances to sit exams. This is particularly tough for people with families and /or disabilities.In addition, the exam fees are a significant cost. Exam centres can set their own fees but an average fee for an A level is around £350 and for a GCSE around £125 These fees are for a standard A level or GCSE ,but if the subject has NEA like assessed coursework , a language oral or a science practical endorsement the costs are significantly higher. And even exam centres willing to accept students for the written exams will not conduct the additional NEA assessments . This makes it very difficult for mature students to get assessed for subjects like GCSE English, GCSE and A level foreign languages, A level history and English and most significantly for A level sciences subjects.
    I came across this heartfelt comment on the Student Room a few weeks ago from a student who found out a bit too late how difficult it was to take an A level Science subject with a practical endorsement as a private candidate in order to get into a degree course in medicine.
    ‘Just to add for anyone looking into this… None of the local schools would let me sit papers (they previously would have done). AQA now want the practical endorsement & papers sat at the same centre. I was given the wrong advice vie and thought I could sit practicals at a private centre & then sit the exams locally. Instead I have to take a 3 hour round trip 6 times for lab days and 6 times to sit exams. It cost £1850 for the practicals + exams. Then it’s going to cost over £300 in hotels. We can barely afford this & I’m now actually really ill, so stressed I ballsed up my Medicine interview, & am totally demotivated by the whole situation. As someone else said, this is really discriminatory to independent students. With 3 kids and working 3 days a week, this was hard enough without the exam issues. The joke of it is I’ve had some patronising comments from admissions teams about not expecting to be treated differently to school leavers…if only I wasn’t being treated differently!!’
    When you read this account , how can anyone continue to be surprised about the dramatic drop in the numbers of mature students going on the higher education? Why do we make it so hard for them?
    I am proposing one simple and inexpensive solution to this problem . The Office of Fair Access and Participation could require that the Exam Boards collaborate to set up and run a number of Open Exam Centres for private candidates. In addition, any financial support from government for exam fees for these students would be money well spent.
    I am writing from the National Extension College[NEC], an educational charity ,set up over 50 years ago for adults who need a ‘second chance’ . We deal with access to exam issues on a daily basis and know what a barrier to exam system is for mature students planning to go on to higher education. NEC has set up a network of exam centres for our own GCSE and A level students which guarantees exam entry.
    Ros Morpeth , CEO , National Extension College

  2. @ Ros Morpeth

    You are right that the A-level changes (Gove reforms) have done mature learners no favours. Add to your list the ending of January sittings and the shift to linear, end of stage assessment. The old AS + A2 model was a lot friendlier.

    I sat an A-level as a private (self-taught) candidate. Exam fees amounted to £475 and since there are few centres and the exams tend to take place in the morning, I had to book B&B (another £390) & stay the night before.

    I looked at your website and what you offer (eg £650 for a distance taught Maths A-level) seems very good value. For subjects requiring oral/aural exams and practicals, you look a great choice.

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