This guest blog has been kindly provided by David Woolley, Head of Schools, Colleges and Community Outreach at Nottingham Trent University.
If you are lucky, there may be a few times in your career when you are given the opportunity to really make an impact. For those of us working in widening participation outreach, that time is now.
We have a Prime Minister committed to social mobility. We have a Government which thinks the instrument for hitting its social mobility targets is the higher education sector. We have a regulator, OFFA, which is encouraging universities to move their Access Agreement spend away from financial support and into outreach activities in order to facilitate this social mobility. Colleagues involved in outreach should acknowledge this opportunity to participate in something that might actually change people’s lives is rare and empowering. I’m not sure the sector’s track record in this area merits such faith.
Consider university outreach. It has been known for some time that attainment is a central issue for social mobility. Research shows that children’s educational attainment is overwhelmingly linked to parental income and qualifications and therefore increasing attainment amongst ‘widening participation’ cohorts is key to improving access to higher education and facilitating social mobility. OFFA acknowledge this.
So why doesn’t more university outreach provision focus on the crucial attainment factor? Having attended numerous widening participation conferences and read numerous Access Agreements over the years, I am struck by the continued focus on activities which raise aspirations and awareness of higher education – activities which do little to address this central issue. Even the increasing amount of research casting doubt on these ‘hopeful interventions with unknown effectiveness’ does not seem to have impacted greatly on the type of provision universities offer.
It is a similar case with higher education finance. Whilst it is apparent that tuition fee ‘debt’ is not putting young people off university, there is evidence that students’ understanding of how HE finance works is poor, particularly amongst those living in lower participation areas and those eligible for free school meals. Given that many universities have been running HE Finance talks in schools since at least 2006, when tuition fees were increased to £3,000 a year, why is there not greater understanding of the finance system amongst young people?
The issue of the HE participation of white working class boys is a focus of the current Government, although again the sector has been aware of this for some time. OFFA note, with approval, that more Access Agreements have targets for this cohort and so hopefully progress will be made here. I fear it is a vain hope. Can the sector point to an outreach activity which has successfully increased the number of white working class male participants progressing to university? Can it highlight ends achieved rather than means deployed?
Where is the evidence of what outreach activity works? Which universities have robustly evaluated the impact of their activities on the participants of those activities and can show that that has had an impact on the progression to HE of its participants? Research and evaluation in this field is increasing, but a recent report by Bournemouth University and Liverpool University concluded that most English universities are using widening participation research and evaluation to defend their spending, not to improve their outreach activities. Given that the Government clearly think universities have not made enough progress in this field, and given the lack of evidence the sector has into what works, it is surprising that universities and outreach departments are seen as the solution to the social mobility problem. Of course, the sector has made progress in this area. More young people from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before are going to university. But can the sector honestly claim that enough progress has been made given the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on outreach?
There are pockets of good practice and evidence that universities can facilitate social mobility at the scale the Government requires. At Nottingham Trent, for example, we are making progress on the attainment issue. Our evidence shows that in their 2014 GCSEs, 61% of the 1,129 pupils we had worked with over several years achieved 5 or more A*-C GCSEs; 16% higher than the Nottingham average. Furthermore, the pupils value-added scores were higher too, achieving on average over four grades higher than predicted per participant than the average for their school.
In addition to a focus on attainment, we can show that work experience is crucial. We have shown that if they undertake a sandwich year as part of their degree, almost 90% of our poorest students get a graduate level job, the same percentage as our richest students.
We are also developing our work to accelerate progress. We are exploring character education in our outreach, drawing on evidence from the United States, in particular seeing the impact the Knowledge is Power Programme has had. I haven’t yet got the evidence this sort of provision will increase success at the rate required but I can show it has been successful elsewhere, is research-informed, and is not simply ‘hopeful’.
It is time for the sector to repay the faith shown in it. We need to stop hoping and start implementing effective, evidenced activity. The UUK Social Mobility Action Group makes a number of considered recommendations, including a greater focus on attainment, evidence and impact and on the performance of different groups across the student lifecycle. Outreach colleagues should weigh their provision against these recommendations and make the necessary changes to take advantage of the opportunity given to us. We may not get another.