On Monday, 16th October 2017, Unite Students are publishing a new report on the non-academic parts of the student experience entitled ‘Everyone In: Insights from a diverse student population‘.

The following blog is HEPI’s response to the important findings, which also appears in the document itself. 

It is sometimes said higher education is the only part of our education system where prior disadvantage is wiped out. This is because the most advantaged students sometimes perform less well academically than other students between enrolment and graduation.

Yet the research behind such claims includes more sobering facts too. The most notable is that people who enter university with the cards stacked against them struggle to reach their full potential.

This report proves this inconvenient truth beyond all doubt. Outcomes are less good for BAME students, disabled students, LGB+ students and those with a declared mental health condition, while students who combine two, three or four of these characteristics face an escalating scale of disadvantage. Similarly, commuter students face challenges because our university system is based, on a ‘boarding-school model’.

None of this is a surprise to people who work with students every day. But the fact that such unequal outcomes persist is the next big challenge for our higher education sector to address.

One distinctive feature of higher education regulation is that policymakers have seemed to put more emphasis on socio-economic indicators – for example, in their advice to the Office for Fair Access – than on the so-called ‘protected characteristics’, such as sexual orientation, listed in the Equality Act (2010). As a result, opportunities to address disadvantage may have been missed.

The incoming Director of Fair Access and Participation, Chris Millward, and the new Office for Students should make use of their broader responsibilities to measure equality of participation more precisely alongside equality of access, and then to help tackle it more methodically. One advantage would be the positive signal this sends to people who want to attend higher education but worry it is currently out of their reach.

Universities stopped being in loco parentis for young undergraduate students when the age of majority fell to 18 almost half a century ago. That was liberating and welcome. There is nonetheless a growing sense that higher education institutions have a bigger duty of care to their younger students than has been recognised in the recent past.

Entering higher education is the start of a transition process not a one-off event. There are stark differences between first-year students just out of school and final-year students on the cusp of entering the labour market, even though this survey shows the latter group face separate fears of their own, partly linked to Brexit.

We also all need to think more deeply about the non-academic aspects of university life. For example, accommodation choices have a direct impact on the quality of the student experience. Individual students need more support to make the best personal decisions over where to live, perhaps setting impressive hotel-style accommodation against other features more aimed at helping them integrate.

When choosing accommodation partners, higher education institutions have a responsibility too: they should be asking more questions, not just ‘how many beds will there be?’ Universities additionally need to think about the specific needs of commuter students, and further explore the exciting ‘sticky campus’ concept.

To me, the data provided here show above all that people who are on the way to higher education should follow their hearts as well as their heads when choosing their institution, their course and their living arrangements.

They should also listen to the experiences of those who have entered university already, as laid out in this report. The overall goal should be to make it as easy as possible for students to learn, to integrate and to flourish.