Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In 2012 UK higher education is at a crossroads in terms of access. We hold our collective breath as we await the immediate impact of the new fee structure and student number controls, whilst attempting to predict the longer term consequences of the demise of Aimhigher and Connexions, the advent of Free Schools, and proposed changes to the A level curriculum, all set against the backdrop of economic recession and Plan A(usterity).

But if we are to secure the future of a higher education system that serves all those who might benefit from it, and ensure that students really are ‘at the heart of the system’ – there are three nettles that need to be grasped, now more than ever.

The first concerns the crucial role of higher education Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) in facilitating access for non-traditional students. Whilst we may applaud in principle the government’s intention to empower the student consumer by publishing ‘more raw information from universities than ever before’ it’s utterly unclear in practice what students are going to do with the mass of available information in the absence of any coherent delivery system for advice and guidance. Because, just at the moment when it really matters that we get this right, the plug has been pulled on all the support systems simultaneously.

I won’t dwell overly on the demise of Aimhigher here; although, since one consequence of an HE ‘market’ is that institutions will prioritise marketing over altruistic outreach, a national infrastructure with an explicit, cross-sector widening participation remit might seem worth having. No, there’s another, parallel market being created in IAG that should arguably be causing as much concern from an access perspective.

England’s Education Act 2011 sounded the death knell of the Connexions careers service, and devolved to schools the duty to provide ‘access to impartial careers advice’. Whilst few would rush to reinstate Connexions and the provision of IAG has been problematic for years, it would take an article twice this length to outline the potentially disastrous impact that the implementation of this Act will have on those students who need expert advice and guidance the most.

Suffice it to say, students at schools that already do this well will continue to benefit from the enormous advantage that sound advice and guidance bestows. For those without access to such advice, the gulf will widen further. And whilst they may understandably rail against yet again having to make up for problems for which they are not responsible, universities will find themselves being asked to fill that gap, and at a time when the market imperative they face risks seeing focused recruitment trump broader and more impartial outreach work.

The second nettle is that of contextual data. Indeed, I would argue that universities need not only collectively to grasp it, but loudly to counter some media scaremongering about ‘social engineering’ and ‘dumbing down’.

However, I would sound a cautionary note from the perspective of potential students. As an applicant it might be good to know that any mitigating circumstances such as school background are fully understood and taken into account. However, it would also be good to know that they were understood, and taken into account, in the same way by each institution applied to. The issue is not just the use, or not, of a broad set of indicators known collectively as ‘contextual data’, but transparency about exactly which data is used, and a degree of consistency in the way it is used. As a former admissions tutor I am fully aware just how contentious this suggestion is, but I firmly believe that until we achieve that transparency and consistency we will not end the media scaremongering about dumbing-down – or indeed be able to marshal a coherent response to complaints from those schools who feel they are being ‘penalised’ for being successful.

Finally the third, often overlooked, nettle is that of a student’s success once at university. The view that universities have a magic levelling effect has been underscrutinised, and whilst many are rightly worried that the huge hike in fees will prompt an increasingly utilitarian approach to higher education, one positive impact of the increased focus on the student experience is increased awareness of the fact that not everyone gets the same benefit from their course. I am not referring here to the debate about the ‘quality’ of one institution versus another – rather to the evidence that two students from different socio-economic backgrounds studying the same subject at the same university and achieving the same class of degree do not have equal job prospects. We are already seeing a greater focus on the role of university study in conferring ‘employability skills’ alongside subject knowledge, and for nontraditional students this is particularly important.

There are no silver bullets of course, but one smart approach that some of Brightside’s university partners are taking is to provide combined initiatives that speak to a number of these issues. We provide an e-mentoring service that universities (and others) can embed into their outreach activities. This makes ongoing mentoring support available beyond the summer school or shadowing scheme, and as the thread that binds intermittent, face-to-face activities, and enables the delivery not just of information but also personalised advice in a timely and effective way. Moreover, our HEI partners are increasingly seeing this as a way not just of supporting outreach and providing volunteering opportunities for their undergraduates, but also of aiding retention and success (third years mentoring first years, for example) and promoting employability (such as recent graduates and local employers mentoring second and third years).

I once argued that charities like ours should be aiming for planned obsolescence; that the only real marker of success would be having worked ourselves out of a job. Sadly, however, no-one doubts that in the next few years universities – and organisations like ours that support them – are going to have to work harder and smarter than ever to facilitate access to and success through higher education for those from nontraditional backgrounds. I shan’t be giving up the day job just yet.

Dr Tessa Stone is Chief Executive of Brightside, and Chair of the Bridge Group.

Brightside is a national education charity which creates, develops and manages online mentoring and other online tools and resources to connect, inform and inspire more young people to achieve their full potential through education. Working alongside our partners in the higher education, business and charity sectors we mentored over 12,000 students through our schemes in the academic year 2010–11, whilst tens of thousands more benefited from our free online resources.

The Bridge Group is an independent non-partisan policy association promoting social mobility through higher education. The association offers specialist guidance on policy, drawing on the expertise of our professional network of associates and the collation of research and evaluation, and so seeks to bridge the gap between research, policy, and programme implementation.

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