Need a reason to be cheerful this Monday morning? Let’s remind ourselves that today HE participation rates stand at all time high in the UK.
Participation leapt in the early nineties with the expansion of the higher education sector. In the years of the Labour government outreach initiatives such as Aimhigher contributed to a steady narrowing of the gap. And in the last decade the removal of the cap on student numbers opened up further opportunities.
Though serious participation inequalities remain in geography, gender, ethnicity and age, it is a fact that poorer children are more likely to make it to university now than ever before. In the past decade we have also seen a closing of the attainment gap for pupils from poorer backgrounds by ten per cent.
These improvements in attainment and access have been hard won by schools, universities, teachers, widening participation practitioners, and pupils themselves. Many of you reading this piece today are a human testament to these abstract figures.
We are the ones who were given a chance to flourish in higher education. We owe it to the next generation to ensure progress in widening participation is not lost in the face of Covid-19.
The need is greater than ever
Pandemics exacerbate inequalities in all their shapes and forms. Covid-19 will compound the educational disparities that drive unequal higher education participation. However, this pandemic has also made visible the material poverty that pupils, students and their families face. It has shone a bright light on the disadvantages that have held our learners back.
Food poverty and digital exclusion are now a part of daily public discourse in a way that they have never been before. Many of the young people we seek to support are the children of key workers. Many of the mature learners we reach out to are the key workers keeping the country running. Though the future is murky right now, we’re learning so much about what people need from higher education and what they might need in the years to come.
The pandemic will lead to a recession. I believe this recession will be different to the 2008 banking crisis. Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and co-author of The Spirit Level, wrote recently that human impact and wellbeing will take priority in shaping the societal response this time round.
Both from an economic and wellbeing perspective investment in education is a no-brainer in policy terms. It might not be exactly what the higher education sector has had in the past, and it might take new thinking about how to create the most meaningful opportunities for people. But the need to offer pathways to transformation will be there, and universities will still be essential to meeting that need.
A punk-DIY ethic
Though Covid-19 threatens widening participation it is not insurmountable and with lateral thinking and determination we can protect progression to higher education.
For the next few months widening participation work may feel unfamiliar. It will, rightly, be messier and more responsive. Some universities have played a vital role in the emergency phase of Covid-19. Lancaster University has partnered with Stagecoach to drive Wi-Fi buses out to broadband cold spots. They have teamed up with Wilkos to deliver stationery packs to homes without pens and paper.
In Bradford, where I chair the Department for Education’s Opportunity Area, local mums are delivering lessons on wheels alongside meals on wheels. My own charity, The Brilliant Club, has made available free open access masterclasses with our PhD tutors on our YouTube channel and published a rapid review of digital inclusion practices. Teachers across the country have worked hard to pivot to online teaching and telephone support for pupils and families.
But when the summer break arrives universities should pick up the baton. We simply cannot afford to lose this summer. The activities that take place in July and August tend to be the highest impact widening participation initiatives. Summer schools and other holiday interventions should be re-imagined. We should not cancel activities but re-tool them. The widening participation sector, both universities and charities, should focus on delivering quality virtual academic experiences that create communities of learners and meaningful educational outcomes.
Many of us have long held aspirations to take our outreach online and now is the time to make it happen. Constraints breed creativity. Work in partnership. Put programme before platform. Pool resources (I have 500 fully trained PhD tutors on the bench right now). It won’t be perfect but who said it has to be? A punk-DIY ethic will see us through. We’re all learning as we go. Don’t let a lack of perfection paralyse action this summer.
As universities face stormy weather and strategic financial management puts widening participation budgets under threat, widening participation practitioners will need to be prepared to make the case within and outside institutions.
Here it is: we know from the work of Professor Raj Chetty at Harvard University that social mobility and educational opportunity can deliver major productivity gains. Widening participation will help to accelerate the recovery of our higher education institutions, the educational ecosystem and broader society. And that’s why widening participation should be a key part of building our new future post-pandemic.