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The success of the Access to HE students is an example of widening participation in action

  • 31 May 2019
  • By John Hayes

Yesterday’s Augar review praised the track record of Further Education Colleges’ Access to HE courses, which it argued, provide better value for money than University foundation year courses. This timely guest blog by Rt. Hon Sir John Hayes MP, former Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning discusses the success of Access to HE students.

I have long thought that to build a more mobile and just society we need many paths to higher learning and skills. Real life is messy, and going to university straight after school is not always the right choice for everyone. If we want to improve access to university to more people then we must recognise that increasing participation is not just about 18 and 19 year-olds but about the whole of our society.

It’s time to face the fact that too much of past expansion of higher education has been more of same kind of people studying in the same kind of way. The depressing fact, as the recently published Augar Review of post-18 Education and Funding notes, is that the overwhelming majority of young people who do not achieve a level 3 qualification by the age of 18 or 19 never do so. We can no longer afford to leave so many people behind. Instead, we should recognise that rather than making people ‘fit’ university life we must enable more institutions to ‘fit’ the circumstances of many more potential learners. Flexible provision should be tailored to what Edmund Burke evocatively described as the ‘crooked timber of humanity’.

Vital to this approach is facilitating access for adult learners. As Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning in the early years of the Coalition government I championed the Access to HE diploma as a way more people could gain the qualifications they needed to progress to higher education. Typically studied at an FE college, the diploma offers an alternative means of entry to HE from the traditional A level route. As a result of my efforts, students who successfully complete their HE course are entitled to have the balance of their Advanced Learner loan paid off. The news that 26% of students admitted to Higher Education as a result of gaining an Access to HE diploma graduated with a first class degree in 2017/18 is delightful proof that this approach works in practice. Overall, the performance of Access to HE students is comparable with those entering HE with A levels and Applied General qualifications.

The Access to HE route is an example of widening participation in action. Last year, nearly 24,000 students entered HE via this route: 57% of Access to HE students are over the age of 25 and 29% are from an ethnic minority background. Crucially, Access to HE has enabled students from poorer backgrounds to study career focused degree level qualifications in a way that fits their lives. Almost a quarter (23%) of Access to HE learners are from disadvantaged areas and 77% of those who progress go on to study at a nearby institution, with nursing being the most popular subject.

The Augar review would appear to have heeded the lessons of the success of the Access to HE scheme, noting that this route represents a much more cost effective way for students with low prior attainment to access HE than undertaking a full foundation year. I believe that such a flexible approach is the only way to bridge the gulf that has developed between those who go to university straight from school and those who do not. I therefore welcome the Augar review’s proposals for a lifelong learning loan allowance and for the expansion of modular leaning. We should give more people the chance to study in a way, at a time and at a pace that meets their needs. It is to be hoped that the Government acts on these recommendations.

Only a society in which all can realise opportunity through education – the engine of social mobility – deserves to be called socially just. We should not be satisfied until everyone with the talent and aptitude to excel can access an excellent education. That means refocusing on widening access through a clear sighted vision which challenges traditional assumptions about modes of learning and access points to HE.

Deepening participation alone is not enough; who participates, where they came from and where they end up matter too. I will not be content until, to paraphrase FE Smith, all with stout hearts and sharp minds have their chance of glittering prizes.

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