On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.
Over the next few weeks, we will be showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.
This blog, as the first in the series, features the Foreword to the report written by Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education.
Professor Les Ebdon CBE DL, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education
Today, the doors of higher education are open to thousands of people who would have been shut out in the past. Many universities and colleges have made great progress in widening participation and improving fair access.
But considerable challenges remain.
I am the fair access regulator for England, and this report covers the whole of the UK, which of course has different higher education systems in its various parts. But one thing that they all, sadly, have in common is that they do not yet provide true equality of opportunity.
There are still stark gaps between different groups of people at every stage of the student lifecycle, in terms of whether they apply to higher education and where they apply to; whether they are accepted; the likelihood of having to leave their course early; the level of degree that they get; and whether they go on to a rewarding job or postgraduate study.
While we celebrate improvements in access for disadvantaged young people, we must not forget that for older students and those studying part-time, the trend is steeply downward. And we must not allow headline figures about rising applications to distract us from the troubling issues of non-completion rates and different degree and employment outcomes, particularly for students from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
So my answer to the question ‘What next?’ is this: we need more progress, more quickly.
Incremental change is just not enough. Every year that we do not have truly fair access is a year in which yet more talented people are let down by a system that should lift them up.
This is the challenge that will face the Office for Students next year, when it takes over responsibility for fair access regulation in England.
I believe the Office for Students can be a strong force for positive change, and its chair Sir Michael Barber has already said that fair access and progression will be top priorities. So, as the new organisation’s leaders develop its mission, values and policies, they will no doubt find this report very interesting. I hope they will consider the bold approaches to improving access explored in its pages, such as the use of contextual information, and embrace input from all those with a role to play in fair access, throughout higher education and beyond.
There is much that is already working and now is the time for everyone involved in improving access and participation to build on that foundation to achieve further, faster change.
New ideas will be the keys that unlock a real fair access future, so I am delighted that HEPI and Brightside are supporting this by bringing together such an interesting range of perspectives in this publication.
Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list to receive the next instalment of this series delivered directly to your inbox! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.