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Opening up opportunity: social mobility and the Higher Education and Research Act (2017)

  • 23 March 2018

The following blog is taken from a speech given by HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy, Dr Diana Beech, at Mills and Reeve’s Spring Conference, Higher education and research: a brave new world?, held at the Royal Society on 15 March 2018.

In her inaugural speech, Prime Minister Theresa May stood outside the door to Number 10 and spoke profusely about her mission ‘to make Britain a country that works for everyone’. She committed to fighting what she recognised as being societal ‘injustices’ and specifically alluded, among others, to the fact that ‘if you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university’ – a subject already discussed in detail in a previous HEPI report.

With these words, the new Prime Minister focused the eyes of the nation on the potential of UK citizens from all walks of life to access higher education, to fulfil their potential and, ultimately, to improve their career prospects and future earnings – something which she sees as being traditionally reserved for the ‘fortunate few’.

This new rhetoric of opening up opportunity provided the ideal backdrop for the roll-out of the Government’s reforms of the English higher education sector – the plans for which had already been put in place in a white paper in the months before Theresa May assumed office and made their way through parliament in earnest later that summer in the form of the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill was intense yet short-lived, since Theresa May’s decision to call an early General Election in spring 2017 meant significant concessions had to be made by Government to get the Bill through parliament before it disbanded. The result? The Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017, establishing a new market regulator for the English higher education sector – the Office for Students (OfS) – with powers to issue penalties to institutions failing to comply with its new regulatory framework and to revoke and bestow degree-awarding powers as well as university titles.

Despite coming to be seen as an Act heralding the formal marketisation of higher education in England and paving the way for the much-disputed Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), the reforms also make provision for another important, yet often overlooked, ambition – namely to make the English university system ‘an engine of social mobility’.

The HERA (2017) seeks to increase social mobility in the English higher education sector in a number of ways:

First, it brings to an end the office of Director of Fair Access to Higher Education – a role which had been supported by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) since 2004 and held most recently by Professor Les Ebdon. In making way for the responsibilities of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and OFFA to be subsumed by one regulatory body, the HERA (2017) includes in the OfS’s senior leadership team provision for the new position of Director for Fair Access and Participation (DfAP) – an appointment set to be taken up by Chris Millward from April 2018.

The DfAP’s main role will be to support the sector in creating and implementing access and participation plans, which the HERA (2017) has made a mandatory condition for any higher education institution wishing to access higher fee limits, such as those applying to be ‘Approved (fee cap)’ providers. These access and participation plans must detail institutional provisions relating to the promotion of equality and opportunity and, under section 32 of the HERA (2017), the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations setting out provisions that are required to be included in all access and participation plans. The HERA (2017) also gives the Secretary of State the power to request the OfS report on how well the sector is performing in these areas, either via its annual report or a special report if requested.

Employing an access and participation plan is nothing new for many English universities and colleges. Since 2004, there has been a requirement in place for HEFCE-funded higher education institutions wishing to charge fees at the higher level to have an approved access agreement. What the HERA (2017) effectively does, then, is extend the scope of these existing access agreements. And as their name suggests, the new access and participation plans encompass promoting successful participation in higher education as well as simply ensuring fair access to higher education. As the consultation guidance on the OfS states:

Access and participation plans will be expected to cover the ‘whole student lifecycle’. That means providers should be considering activities to ensure that students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds can access, succeed in and progress from their higher education course.

The intention is that access and participation plans will focus on performance, outcomes and targets, and that registered institutions will commit to monitor and evaluate their compliance and progress. The draft legislation concerning the plans indicates that the mandatory general contents may include measures to:

  •  attract applications from prospective students from under-represented groups in higher education;
  •  provide or secure the provision of financial assistance to students;
  •  make information available to students and prospective students about financial assistance; and
  •  set out objectives to promote access and participation.

True to its risk-based approach to regulation, the OfS will expect greater commitment from registered institutions in cases where it identifies a higher risk that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups are not being supported.

To assess institutional adherence to access and participation plans, the OfS will be able to draw on data and evidence which registered institutions will be obligated to supply under a new Transparency Condition (Condition A3), provided for by section 9 of the HERA (2017). This puts a mandatory duty on institutions to publish data which will highlight their track records in relation to students accessing and succeeding in higher education, including application, offer, acceptance and progression rates broken down by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background. It is hoped that by asking institutions to make their records on widening participation open and more transparent, it will encourage further progress in this area.

While the sector transitions to these new requirements, it is nevertheless important not to forget the progress that has already been made in terms of widening access and participation. As we stand today, at the dawn of the new regulatory regime, not only are more young people going into higher education than ever before, but also more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to our universities and colleges. Latest data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) shows that, by 15 January 2018, application rates for 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in England increased to the highest levels recorded – at 22.6 per cent.

Yet, the sector is under no illusion that much more still needs to be done to make access to higher education more even. Most notably, we are now standing on the brink of a crisis in part-time higher education in England, with part-time student numbers having fallen by 56 per cent in the past five years. So, anything that can be done by the OfS to reverse this trend will be welcomed with open arms. As Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, has recently said:

The OfS now has a golden opportunity to put social mobility at the heart of its mission and to turbo-charge efforts to widen access to universities across the board.

We must also not forget that students from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities generally face higher non-completion rates and poorer graduate outcomes if they make it through their course. The odds are also stacked against those living at home while they study, those coping with disabilities or suffering from poor mental health, those from non-traditional family backgrounds (such as care leavers or refugees) and those identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual or other (LGBT+).

HEPI, together with the education charity Brightside, has already published a series of essays contemplating ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access?’ The insights put forward in the report include introducing much bolder contextualised admissions policies for highly-selective universities (with AAA+ offers being reduced to CCC in proven cases of disadvantage), more support for people in care, and new Personalised Learning Accounts to meet demand for more flexible lifelong learning.

The review of post-18 education recently announced by the Prime Minister may also bode well for the Government’s social mobility agenda, providing the opportunity to iron out some of the creases in the current fees and finance system. Although the current model has proven to be progressive in terms of getting more students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – into higher education, the fact remains that those from the poorest backgrounds end up borrowing the most money and graduating with the highest ‘debts’. Possible solutions would be lowering the interest rates on student loans (particularly stopping interest being accrued while students are still enrolled at university) and bringing back maintenance grants for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Cracking the crisis in the part-time market may not, however, be as simple, as making loans more easily accessible to mature learners may still not be enough to appeal to this traditionally debt-averse demographic.

While questions are being asked about what works and what doesn’t in this ‘brave new world’ we find ourselves in, universities around the country are certain to be thinking long and hard about their obligations to enhance social mobility. At a time when universities are facing increasing scrutiny in the public eye, now is most certainly the time to show how higher education can lift people up, not let people down.

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