Three ways to help underrepresented groups into higher education

As outgoing and incoming chairs of Realising Opportunities, Ella Ritchie and Suzanne Cholerton respond to three key challenges for access and participation post-pandemic

Ella Ritchie is professor emerita at Newcastle University


Suzanne Cholerton is professor emerita at Newcastle University

Realising Opportunities (RO) is a partnership of research intensive universities in England that provides a nationally supported entry route for underrepresented students.

We are committed to addressing the gap between the most and least represented groups at higher tariff providers and RO offers a two-year programme for Year 12 and 13 students across England. Since 2009 the partnership has strengthened and adapted in an ever evolving policy environment marked by organisational and governance reform.

Over 11 years, we have balanced supporting partners with diverse approaches while developing our collaborative strategy – not always an easy task but essential for a successful collaborative strategy. Our shared experience has revealed some valuable insights for how we believe the sector can address the current and post-Covid landscape and so we share our top three here.

RO provides a clear example of a supported entry route that works. To date 87 per cent of students who have finished RO have progressed to higher education with 49 per cent of those going to a research intensive university. Compared to national averages RO students have higher rates of achieving first and upper second class degrees and we see lower rates of degree non-continuation and emerging data supporting higher rates of postgraduate study and being in work after graduation.

Realising the potential of post-16 students

As pandemic restrictions ease, many students, particularly those from under-represented groups, are facing a multitude of challenges arising from disruptions to their education, the economic impact on their families and local areas and health and mental health concerns.

While navigating these challenges has likely resulted in the development of skills and levels of resilience previous generations have not possessed to the same extent, there is a risk to students’ belief in their own potential to succeed in HE.

These students need support to make an informed choice about HE. Universities should provide impartial information and facilitate access to academics and current students, helping to demystify the application process so that applicants can understand their potential and make the best decision about their future.

Through personalised experiences students can really explore their own potential through selecting from a range of student ambassadors to work with, choosing an academic subject stream or courses to connect with and having contact with a range of colleagues, students and events.

This also requires recognising that students may not progress to HE immediately after finishing post-16 education or that post-16 education may take longer than two years to complete. RO offers have always extended up to one year after students have left post-16 education but after the pandemic we have extended this to two years.

Working collaboratively not only provides access to a range of education providers in one place for students, but for institutions enables shared workload, resource, expertise and knowledge.

Accessible virtual outreach

Institutions will be considering their balance of virtual and present-in-person outreach delivery. RO has always offered a blended model and we know from our increased levels of engagement with RO programme elements during the pandemic that our approach to digital delivery worked for the majority of our students, even at a time when there were anecdotal reports of digital fatigue. We will be returning to a blended model, but with more virtual delivery than pre-pandemic.

To maximise engagement with virtual activity, universities must acknowledge that the digital divide between the most and the least disadvantaged students and the divide in home learning environments is very real and let it influence your approach to administering your activity.

Our experience has told us that ease of access to online provision is key. We’ve learnt that platforms have to be mobile responsive and not require downloads, and where we can we have facilitated pre-registration on platforms to assist with student access and ease of use.

Ideally, institutions would deliver activity as part of a progressive programme of support that students can personalise and build on. We believe that a key to RO’s success is that our virtual offering sits within a two year programme that offers students choice and access to a community of peers, current students and our partner universities.

Finally, they must build a community to engender trust. This is important for supported entry routes, but particularly vital for digital delivery. We have seen that being part of the RO community allows students to get to know us and trust us and so when things like technical glitches happen such as sound failures in sessions they are patient, use the chat function and stay involved!

Collaborating with adult learners

As the sector focuses more on lifelong learning, our personal view is that there is value in supported entry routes for adult learners, particularly if offered by a collaborative partnership and in complement to access courses.

The factors important to adults when they consider HE are the time commitment, finances, the value for money they’ll receive, the community they will be joining and how they will be taught. The elements of informed choice, personalised programme, skills development and flexible recognition aspects that RO includes would offer adult learners undeniable benefits as they apply to HE.

A blended model including online outreach would give adult learners the flexibility of involvement many would require while providing the undeniably important experience of visiting at least one university campus. A supported entry route could also ensure that applications from adult learners are considered on a case by case basis, taking into account personal circumstances, educational and work experiences and the commitment demonstrated by their involvement in the programme provided.

With this in mind we welcome that Phase 3 of the Uni Connect programme proposes a greater emphasis on supporting and delivering initiatives for adult learners. A potential route for this work could be regional supported entry routes between universities and colleges utilising the approaches that have worked well for RO.

Addressing the long-lasting implications of the pandemic and the continuing imbalances in access, participation and success will continue to challenge us – as we saw in August with record numbers of students accessing higher education and achieving top grades coupled with increasing gaps between independent and state school student attainment at A level. We are confident that – as RO has shown us – by collaborating, sharing best practice and working to give the students choice as a sector we can continue to take and make positive steps.

One response to “Three ways to help underrepresented groups into higher education

  1. I was very interested to learn about the Realising Opportunities, RO, and its successes in getting people of all ages from disadvantaged backgrounds to Universities.

    It also got me thinking about why it is necessary to provide this support to reach the destination. Is it because of the “currency” used to gain entrance? Does the main barrier to opportunity become UCAS and the system of points based entry criteria based primarily on academic qualifications – particularly in relation to the top Universities.

    Could the answer be found by a wider adoption of work based psychometric applications. When “ranking” individuals for graduate entry and other job entry, more and more businesses and organisations are using such “tests” to identify which individuals will perform best in their new roles, rather than relying on backward looking academic qualifications?

    Should Universities be developing their own, more bespoke tools to help decide which individuals should be accepted to study different courses?

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