Universities must remove the barriers facing Access to HE students

Tom Benson argues that universities - especially the most selective - overlook the value of Access to Higher Education diplomas, and the students that take them

Tom Benson is Adult Student Experience Lead at Exeter College

Access to Higher Education Diplomas have life-changing impact on the students and enhance diversity within higher education. So why do universities not seem to value them?

I work almost exclusively with mature students as the adult student experience lead at a local further education college. I support students who have made the decision to go back to school in order to go on to university – something many of them wouldn’t have thought possible their first time around.

The Access to Higher Education Diploma is a nationally-recognised level three qualification designed to prepare adults to study in higher education. First year students in 2019-20 were a tad over 600,000, and only 0.04 per cent of those were Access to HE students. Although that’s not an impressive ratio by any standards, the diversity within these numbers is laudable: 55 per cent of them were over 25; 74 per cent identified as female; and 23 per cent were from disadvantaged areas. These are all significantly higher than other level three qualifications.

Separate and not equal

Many of our students see access courses as a valuable second chance, or a vital stepping stone to enable them to go university when they couldn’t as school leavers. But there is still a perception that Access to HE courses are not equal to A levels. Georgia Price, mature student recruitment officer at the University of Bristol, told me that she believes that the competitiveness of Russell Group universities coupled with a society-wide fixation on A levels as the gold standard has bred this myth being ingrained in the minds of adult learners.

This misconception has an impact on the confidence of adult learners. I routinely encounter students telling me that, “universities won’t take me at my age,” or, “I can’t get onto the course without A levels.” This misconception is reinforced when university websites list only A levels or International Baccalaureate as entry requirements for a course. If you can’t find any mention of Access to HE diplomas on a prospectus, would that make you feel like your course is valued less, or even considered as a qualifying entry requirement at all?

When universities do mention Access to HE courses, it is usually to say that applicants have to contact the admissions office if they can meet the equivalent A level offer in UCAS tariff points. Why should access students have to apply in a different and more complex way? These artificial barriers are off-putting to an adult already conscious that they are doing education differently to the norm. It is a real shame that universities with increasingly prominent messages of inclusion are still putting up barriers by discouraging routes specifically for adults.

It is in universities’ interest to address this because the number of students enrolling in access courses has been steadily increasing year on year, with another 40,000 more in 2019-20. This is because they are designed around the needs of their cohorts.

Susannah Taylor and Ben Levontine are studying Access to Social Science at Exeter College. Not only do they see the course as a second chance, and stepping stone to their ultimate goal of university and a degree, but older access students are conscious of how long qualifications can take. They believe they have less time and so the short nature of the diploma is appealing.

Access courses also give students an opportunity to acclimatise to being in a learning environment with other adults. This was one of the key factors in Susannah choosing the course. She told me that she wanted “a classroom environment, because that’s what university is and [she had] been out of school for over 20 years.”

Roisin Quinn, student access and FE college relationship manager at the University of Exeter notes that access courses can actually facilitate skills students wouldn’t necessarily pick up elsewhere: “The great thing about access courses is that they provide these soft skills for higher education, which is fantastic and so many other level three courses don’t do that.”

Busting myths

So, given that access courses are well situated and tailored to the needs of adult learners, what are universities doing about the barriers my students face in transitioning to HE? Whether through altruistic ambition or regulatory squeeze, some institutions do seem to be progressing. Price, for example, has worked hard to ensure that from the admissions side so that it’s clear that Access to HE courses are a recognised route into their degrees, making Bristol as inviting as possible to mature students: “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to change things quite quickly, but at the same time you’re trying to undo a lot of myths.”

At Exeter, the access, participation and outreach team is focused on transparency. Quinn recognises the work that outreach has to play in dispelling these myths: “lack of transparency and difficulty accessing information about HE can cause confusion and even sometimes results in Access to HE course students opting out of applying to certain universities.” Working with local partners like Exeter College, Quinn is hoping to promote accessible entry routes to top local universities directly to mature students.

Such outreach work is vital for mature learners who are likely to have other responsibilities such as work or family. A key benefit of focusing on ensuring a smooth transition for access learners is it takes some of the application pressure off of them. They can spend less time stressing about going to university, making it a much more inviting option. If universities are serious about widening participation and equality of opportunity, then creating an equitable application process is the way forward.

But we need more coordinated action across the sector. Like any large sector, change takes time and despite media attempts to berate inclusion and diversity attempts in HE, there is a definite appetite within universities to do more.

We are heading in the right direction. That said, mature students still are not in the conversation when talking about widening participation in HE. Work needs to be done to better support those adults who are keen to get a degree and reassure them that university is the right place for them.

I hope that soon more institutions will not only see the value of an Access to Higher Education diploma, but actively remove the barriers that prevent students holding such diplomas from applying to study with them.

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