New Brightside and HEPI report calls on universities to take radical steps to make higher education accessible for all

Brightside and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) have released a collection of action points for the new Office for Students on unlocking access to higher education.

Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation contains the views of 35 leading thinkers from academia, university administration, Parliament, think tanks and the media. Contributors include the President of the National Union of Students, Shakira Martin, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Rob Halfon MP, and the Sutton Trust’s Director of Research, Conor Ryan.

Their proposals include:

• experimenting with post-qualification admissions;
• appointing a Commissioner for Student Mental Health;
• requiring targets for students from care;
• delivering mandatory unconscious bias training for staff;
• granting fee waivers to asylum-seekers;
• guaranteeing mentoring for every pupil who wants it;
• curbing the use of unconditional offers;
• mandating statistical returns on sexual orientation; and
• founding new Oxbridge colleges to widen access.

The full report can be downloaded here. It follows on from last year’s joint Brightside and HEPI publication Where next for widening participation and fair access? Insights from leading thinkers.

We’ll be publishing all the contributions here over the next few weeks, beginning with the preface from Paul Clarke, Head of External Affairs at Brightside, which you can read below.

‘A crucial part of widening participation work is helping prospective students plan for their future: to embrace change with confidence and see the opportunities beyond the apparent obstacles in their path. This has been a challenge for the widening participation sector itself, ever since the Dearing Report in 1997 launched the modern widening participation agenda. A year later, tuition fees were introduced for the first time, beginning a series of policies which have left higher education in a state of continual flux.

This decade alone, radical change seems to have become an almost annual occurrence: starting with the demise of Aim Higher in 2011, the tripling of tuition fees in 2012, the lifting of the student numbers cap in 2015, the setting of ambitious targets to double the number of disadvantaged students in higher education, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and the creation of the Office for Students (OfS). And with the Prime Minister’s announcement of a comprehensive review of higher education funding at the start of 2018, things will not settle down any time soon.

The establishment of the Office for Students might seem to be a mere technical change: the merger of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) under one more convenient umbrella. But the Office for Students has the potential to be an agent of profound change, particularly with regard to widening participation.

Its stated aim is to ‘ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers’.

Another seemingly minor name change worth noting is the change of title for the Office for Students’s chief of widening participation policy from the Director of Fair Access to the Director of Fair Access and Participation. This represents recognition of a growing consensus in the sector: that simply getting more students from under-represented backgrounds into higher education is not enough, especially when they have worse non-continuation rates and outcomes than other students overall, with disadvantage following them long after they have left higher education.

The incoming Director of Fair Access and Participation, Chris Millward, has strong foundations upon which to build. Thanks to the access agreement procedure and enforcement established by OFFA, there are now record numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and first-generation students in higher education. The National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) is driving the sort of meaningful joint working between higher education institutions OFFA called for, often in areas of the country previously ‘under the radar’ of many widening participation interventions.

But weaknesses remain. There has been a precipitous decline in part-time students, many of whom have traditionally been from disadvantaged backgrounds. Progress across the sector has also been uneven overall, with a small number of universities doing the heavy lifting when it comes to increasing the number of disadvantaged students, while the access gap remains stubbornly wide at many of the most selective institutions.

Tackling these challenges will require fresh thinking and new ideas, from a variety of different perspectives. That is why Brightside and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) – following on from our joint 2017 publication Where next for widening participation and fair access? – have called upon a range of people to provide advice to the new Director of Fair Access and Participation. These include vice-chancellors and widening participation departments, third sector representatives, politicians, media commentators and former and current students with experience of widening participation work. Whereas the more extensive essays in our previous publication proposed longer-term strategies, the short contributions displayed here are intended to be actions that could be put into practice more quickly.

The ideas presented are as diverse as the voices. But a common theme is that widening participation needs to be thought of with a broader scope, that ‘one size fits all’ solutions will not work if we wish to make higher education representative of the diverse society it serves. Different groups such as care leavers, refugees or those with physical disabilities or mental health problems have different needs, and support should be tailored accordingly. This support can be financial, and ideas advocated here include the return of maintenance grants, fee waivers for specific groups of students and funding to help disadvantaged students cover the costs of attending open days.

Equally important is support to make everyone feel welcome in higher education, regardless of their background. Mentoring and other forms of one-to-one support, such as dedicated staff with responsibility for care leavers or students with mental health issues, can reassure prospective students that higher education does contain people who understand their concerns, and in many cases have overcome similar obstacles themselves. Such personalised support could also be extended to the parents and families of first-generation students, the people who probably have most influence over someone’s decision to pursue higher education. Speaking to someone with first-hand experience of the higher education system can also help those who lack other forms of advice and guidance to find the mode of study that is best for them, whether that is a traditional three-year degree course, studying at a further education institution or taking one of the newer technical routes such as degree apprenticeships.

Awareness of the opportunities higher education can offer takes time to develop, and there are calls here for greater engagement with schools at an earlier stage, and also for universities to devote resources to improving early years’ education. But the sector should not be moulding students or asking people to change themselves to fit in. Instead, it should be making concerted efforts to change itself. As some of our contributors state, the prevailing culture and curriculum in many higher education institutions is built on traditions, preconceptions and unconscious bias which can feel exclusionary to those from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds and identities. White, working-class boys, too, continue to remain severely under-represented in higher education, shrouded by a belief that university is not for them, with fewer aspirations and a distinct lack of drive and support. Understanding and changing this hegemony in our institutions requires robust research, strong will and tenacious action.

There are no silver bullets here, rather a selection of tools for widening participation which, if used wisely, can dismantle the barriers that prevent far too many individuals from benefitting from higher education. Advancements in technology also mean that the Office for Students has a greater range of means at its disposal. At Brightside, we are using the internet to help universities support young people in parts of the country that previously seemed difficult to reach. There is also huge untapped potential for technology to be used to introduce young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to networks to build their social capital, which is of critical importance when it comes to building their careers.

In addition, the vast amount of data in the ‘knowledge economy’ has the potential, if used and analysed correctly, to reveal the factors that most influence different participation rates. It can also be used to form the basis of more effective interventions to close the gaps – whether through more refined application of contextual admissions which truly reflect both an applicant’s background and potential or more accurate targeting of widening participation work to ensure those who need it most are not missed.

This report is not intended to be simply a list of demands to the Office for Students and the new Director of Fair Access and Participation, in particular. These proposals can only be successfully implemented with the co-operation and genuine commitment of the entire higher education sector, which must work towards long-term goals with long-term funding. But all funding needs to be justified and the current evaluation of widening participation is too patchy and inconsistent across the sector: practitioners have a duty to understand what works, whether any spending is worth it if goals are to be reached and what the opportunity cost of backing one project over another might be. We must also ask some tough questions and consider some radical changes: around the use of unconditional offers, the introduction of quotas or a move to post-qualification admissions, for example. Alongside many others working in widening participation, we at Brightside regularly hear stories from the young people who progress through our programmes about how higher education has transformed their lives. We, together with HEPI, hope that the ideas here will bring about real change in the sector, so it can transform many more.’