The national strategy for access and student success
By Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education
I’m delighted that the Government has now published the national strategy for access and student success which OFFA and HEFCE developed at its behest. It’s an ambitious strategy that makes wide-ranging recommendations about what we and others need to do if we’re to tackle the persistent gaps that remain in the participation and success of disadvantaged students in higher education.
If I had to pick out one aspect of the strategy that I’m particularly excited about, it would probably be our emphasis on a student lifecycle approach. Essentially, what we’re saying is that disadvantage doesn’t stop at the front door when you enter university. It can follow you down the years – in your studies, the degree you end up with, and your search for a job once you’ve graduated. We know that there is low retention and attainment by some student groups compared to others. We also know that there are clear differences in whether – and also how – certain groups of students go on to postgraduate study or get a foothold in their chosen career. Both issues need to be addressed if we are to see true meritocracy in our higher education system and, in so doing, achieve a cohesive society where people from all backgrounds can achieve their potential.
So I was pleased that David Willetts picked out employability as one of the key themes of the strategy when he launched it yesterday at Universities UK’s conference on the important role our universities play in local and national economic growth. As he pointed out, OFFA already accepts employability measures such as careers advice and pre-graduation work placements as a valid mission for institutions to include in the access plans they draw up with us. And in the recent guidance we issued to institutions on drawing up their 2015-16 access plans with us, we made it clear that we wanted institutions to consider measures that will help disadvantaged students progress into employment or post-graduate study.
But, in drawing attention to the disadvantage that exists when students graduate and enter the labour market, I wouldn’t want people to draw the conclusion that there is no longer any inequality in entering university in the first place. The battle to improve access to higher education among disadvantaged students is far from won. Access may be improving – and I’m among the first to point this out – but the link between your background and access to higher education still remains. You are still three times more likely to go to any university if you’re among the most advantaged group of young people. And if you want to go to one of our most selective universities, the gap is even larger – with advantaged students being 7.5 times more likely to enter one of these institutions than their most disadvantaged counterparts. HEFCE research shows that students are more likely to progress to postgraduate study, itself an important route for many professional careers, if they first go to a university with high-entry requirements. So it’s crucial that highly selective, research-intensive universities address these issues across the whole student lifecycle.
So, big challenges remain across the whole student lifecycle – in access, in retention and in progression to postgraduate study or employment. I’m confident that the national strategy, with its emphasis on evidence-based practice and effective collaboration, can help us address these challenges more robustly, harnessing the enormous power of higher education both to transform individual lives and affect all our lives for the better.