This blog concludes the series featuring ideas contained in the new HEPI-Brightside report, Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director for Fair Access and Participation. It presents the concluding words from co-editor of the report, Diana Beech, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).
The ideas presented in our report are ambitious and numerous. In an ideal world, our authors’priorities would be swiftly fulfilled. However, the policies put forward are different in nature to one another: some seek to help different under-represented groups; some require the buy-in of stakeholders outside the higher education sector (such as employers and schools); and some require a change of customs and practices, which is difficult to effect overnight.
The onus is therefore on the Office for Students (OfS) and the new Director of Fair Access and Participation and his team, in particular, to consider the ideas put forward, to prioritise those that could bring about the greatest quick gains and to put systems in place to ensure longer-term goals are also achieved.
Success will be no easy task, especially as budgets remain tight. But, as a new body, the Office for Students and its dedicated head for widening participation, the Director of Fair Access and Participation, have an opportunity to set a new vision and new terms of conduct for the promotion of social mobility in universities and colleges. This should include taking the features which worked from previous social mobility initiatives and adding new policies to the mix to help people from the most disadvantaged areas of our society – and, for example when it comes to refugees, those who come from other societies.
The key to success is ensuring no group gets left behind. Inclusion needs to become the leitmotiv – or the driving principle – of the higher education institutions of the future. A recent HEPI report, Demand for higher education to 2030, revealed a need for 300,000 extra full-time undergraduate places by the end of the next decade. But this assumes continuing increases in the higher education participation rate, which means embracing far more students from under-represented groups, and that may not happen on its own.
Human beings tend to be categorised by the areas in which they grow up, by their prosperity, by the people they meet and by the opportunities they encounter. But social circumstances should never lead to a cap on potential. It should be a priority of the Office for Students and its registered providers to ensure higher education is open to all in who desire it and can benefit from it.
Admittedly, at the dawn of a new regulatory era for higher education in England, it may feel that the Office for Students leadership is standing at the entrance to a labyrinth with multiple options to choose from to reach the final destination – in this case, a truly open and inclusive higher education sector. As with every puzzle, some routes may not lead anywhere, but they must be tried and tested in order to rule them out. Other routes may lead to unexpected yet positive discoveries and some will enable us to progress in our journey as hoped. Nobody expects an instant miracle. Widening participation practitioners across the sector have become accustomed to slow but steady progress.
There are dangers in pressing for lots of new interventions to improve access to higher education for multiple under- represented groups simultaneously. In particular, if the recommendations in this paper were implemented in an overly heavy-handed way or if we were to measure success mainly by inputs rather than outputs or if any new interventions are not evaluated properly, the end result could be more intrusive regulation without much public benefit. We must be constantly vigilant to ensure this does not happen.
It is essential we do not go backwards. It is critically important we continue to make at least as much progress in the future as in the past. But the goal should be more ambitious: to deliver a big increase in the pace at which we spread opportunity to all parts of society, for the benefit of individuals and higher education institutions but, most importantly, to the good of all society.