Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

New Insights on WP: What England can learn from the rest of the world

  • 24 August 2017

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’.

Since last week, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the eighth in the series, features the chapter written by Graeme Atherton, Director of NEON, on what England can learn from the rest of the world.


A global view: What England can learn from the rest of the world

Graeme Atherton

Inequality in access to higher education by social background is a global phenomenon, but the level of attention given to this inequality in England is quite rare. Looking at widening access in a global context allows us to see whether approaches to addressing the challenge in other countries could inform what we do in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Charting Equity in Higher Education: Drawing the Global Access Map, produced in 2016 and supported by Pearson and the University of Newcastle, Australia, aimed to examine the evidence available across the world on participation in higher education by social background.1 It showed that in 90 per cent of countries across the world access to higher education is unequal and in the remaining 10 per cent evidence regarding higher education participation and social background was not available.

While it is possible to state categorically that widening access to higher education is a genuinely global problem, there are still huge gaps in the quantity and quality of data available. Many countries in the world are collecting data in a patchy, irregular way; and important dimensions of inequality – such as ethnicity and disability – are being ignored. England compares well here – we collect richer data than almost anywhere else aside from the United States and Australia. Comparing our relative performance is harder though.

Different measures of socio-economic background are often used across countries. How access is defined depends on the social and political histories of different countries. In some places ethnicity or race is the dominant feature of access debates, whereas in England socio-economic background is almost always deemed more important.

Where comparisons involving England with the other data-rich countries have been undertaken, such work suggests that socio-economic differences in access are more pronounced in England and Canada than Australia and the United States. But the differences are small and prior school attainment is an important factor in all countries.

Where better data exists, more systematic government-funded attempts to widen access can follow. Australia and the United States both have government-funded access initiatives. In Australia, there is the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Programme (HEPPP) which began in 2011. It allocates funding directly to higher education providers to support work to address inequalities across the student lifecycle. There is a focus on regional partnerships delivering a range of outreach and school capacity-building work similar to that in England. There is evidence to show that regional partnerships have had a significant impact on higher education participation for students from lower socio-economic groups.

In the United States, the major government-funded widening access programme is not delivered regionally but via the national TRiO programme. (TRiO is a set of federally-funded college opportunity programmes that motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their pursuit of a college degree. TRiO provide academic tutoring, personal counselling, mentoring, financial guidance, and other supports necessary for educational access and retention). It began in the 1960s and now covers a range of initiatives to support over 800,000 low-income students across the student lifecycle, with annual funding in 2016 of $900 million. Participants in the ‘Upward Bound’ programme within TRiO are three times more likely to graduate in six years than non-participants. Upward Bound programmes are based on six-week summer schools and weekly all-year-round tutoring support sessions. The American and Australian experiences show the value of government-funded investment in widening access work.

There are notable contrasts between England and some other countries in how students from widening access backgrounds are supported across the student lifecycle. In the United States, both through the work of TRiO and of individual universities such as the University of California, Berkeley and their Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), specific support is targeted at widening-access students before and after entry. The TRiO or EOP approach is to see outreach and additional support on entry as part of one programme linked together across the student lifecycle. At Berkeley, first-generation students are encouraged to join EOP and benefit from individualised advice and support on finance and coping with student life as well as additional academic tutoring.

This approach is not confined to the United States. In Ireland, the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) and Disability Education Access Route (DEAR) are national schemes that offer low-income and disabled students lower entry offers, financial support and additional support through their undergraduate studies. The majority of higher education providers in Ireland have a set number of places for HEAR or DEAR applicants.

The value and importance of specific support for students from widening access backgrounds when they enter higher education is perhaps clearest in the work at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The drop-out rate for black students in South Africa is over 50 per cent. This has been halved via pioneering work in the Faculty of Commerce via its Academic Development Programme. They have created a community for black students which builds on their strengths as learners.

Widening access targets are another area where international comparisons are informative. Several countries outside of the data-rich ones discussed above have some form of access targets, including India and China, but it is also useful to look closer to home. Scotland is looking further ahead than England. By 2030, they intend for students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds to represent 20 per cent of higher education entrants.

An international perspective offers pointers for future policy and practice. Continuing investment in the production and analysis of data is essential to retain political support for widening access. In 2009, European countries agreed to set measurable targets for widening participation and to collect data on who entered higher education by social background/characteristic. By 2014, however, under half were actually collecting data and consequently fewer than 20 per cent had targets.

The second pointer is that investment in collaboration needs to be maintained, but greater intensity in the work pursued may be needed. In the American programmes, the number of hours that low-income students spend preparing for entry to higher education is higher than in England. For example, summer school programmes can last for up to six weeks as opposed to one week in England.

Access across the student lifecycle may be where the most interesting pointers exist. In several countries, there is greater coherence between what happens before and within higher education, and more willingness to focus specific services on students according to their social background. The current approach in England is to promote greater student belonging via more inclusive teaching and learning. This is crucial and informs the philosophy of the innovative work at the universities of Cape Town and Berkeley. However, it shies away from targeted work that addresses the specific challenges that widening access learners face in achieving their potential in higher education. These challenges often come in the form of a greater need for pastoral support, financial advice and academic assistance, in particular in the early part of undergraduate study.

Finally, more long-term targets, such as those in Scotland, may be beneficial in providing more stability for widening access work in England. England’s commitment to, and investment in, widening access to higher education is as serious as in any other part of the world. However, we can still look to other countries to inform our work, in particular where targeting support for undergraduate students from widening access backgrounds and state-funded outreach work are concerned. Significant progress in widening access to higher education in England has been made since the mid-2000s. To enable this progress to continue it is important we look closely at what other countries are doing.


Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.