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).
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.
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.