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A golden thread or hanging by a thread?

  • 30 March 2020
  • By Eluned Parrott

This blog was kindly contributed by Eluned Parrott, Director of the Unite Foundation, the UK’s biggest provider of scholarships to care-leavers and estranged students. Last week Eluned wrote a fantastic blog for HEPI on Covid-19 and care-leavers.

Last month the Unite Foundation launched major research by a consortium led by Sheffield Hallam University investigating the factors that affect access, retention and outcomes for care-experienced and estranged students. It comes hot on the heels of research from Katie Ellis at the University of Sheffield and an extensive study of the situation in Scotland from Celcis.

The most recent report, Positive Impact?, shows empirically that care-experienced students (as opposed to estranged students which the data do not cover) who complete their studies do at least as well as their peers in academic and career terms. On the surface, this is a hugely positive story, showing that for vulnerable students, university truly can transform lives. Unfortunately, completion rates are still stubbornly low, with this group 38 per cent more likely to withdraw from their studies than their peers.

Alongside the data analysis, the report explores the importance of a holistic approach to support for students who do not have a family network. From in-depth interviews with students and staff, a fragmentary picture of dedicated individuals, innovative practice, but a lack of co-ordination emerges. This suggests that while there is no shortage of goodwill, access and participation are seen as an added-value activity, not embedded as a core part of every university’s business.

For those who work with care-experienced and estranged students, a common thread runs through these successive reports. We now need to weave that into the fabric of university strategic planning and value excellence in access and participation, as highly as we do teaching and research.

What really drives Culture Change?

The carrots and sticks that drive cultural change at an institutional level tend to be a combination of regulation, money and recognition. The higher education sector is already highly regulated and funding from tuition fees has also expanded the investment in widening participation activity across the UK (though not necessarily in student support) What I have yet to see is consistent recognition for those universities who excel at helping vulnerable students to both access and succeed in their studies. While the Office for Students is giving clear direction in this area, some of the odds are still stacked against them. That is particularly the case in the various university league tables.

No university leader is motivated solely by league tables, but none is immune to their influence either. Given the importance of recruiting high student numbers in an increasingly competitive market, league tables matter in a direct, financial way.

Let’s take contextual offers as an example. We know that young people who have been in the care system are often moved repeatedly from school to school throughout their educational career. This leads to significant educational disadvantage. It is unreasonable to assume that with a very different input in terms of the quality of an education, the output in grade terms is going to equal those who have had stability, support and consistency. There are those who fear that contextual offers will lower academic standards. Positive Impact? provides statistical evidence that care-experienced students outperform their expectations at university; in short, we can say with some confidence that contextual offers will not lower the academic or career outcomes of a university’s graduate cohort.

Equal value needs equal weight

What is self-evident, however, is that contextual offers do lower entry-qualifications. In a rational world that should not matter, but sadly we do not live in one of those. Just as designer brands use high prices to suggest exclusivity, all of the UK’s main league tables use entry grades as a proxy for the quality of an institution. The Complete University Guide even warns in its methodology that ‘Universities which have a specific policy of accepting students with low grades as part of an access policy will tend to have their average score depressed’, admitting that universities that introduce more inclusive admissions policies will fall through the league table as a result.

Despite all of the positive language, in some league tables, universities would gain more recognition for an admissions policy of taking only public school students with AAA at A level and turning them all out three years later with a 2:1 than they would for admitting students who have experienced significant educational disadvantage and utterly transforming their lives. A system for judging the success of an educational experience that allows this is fundamentally broken. For me, the real test of a university’s teaching ability is whether the experience they offer enables social mobility and helps people to build a future that is not a prisoner of the past.

Retention is as important as access

While we are not close to ‘job done’ on access, we need to make sure that we do not lose sight of participation. Continuation rates in England are measured and assessed against a benchmarked expectation by HESA, but they do not include care-experience or estrangement as a benchmarking criteria (which is limited to sex, gender, entry grades, subject and, for England only, location), nor do they have data for the whole of the UK. This means that whether it is the Teaching Excellence Framework or league tables that use the benchmark like the Complete University Guide, or a comparison between the benchmark and achievement as the Guardian does, there is no specific recognition of support for some of the most vulnerable students in any of the data tables.

If we want to encourage a higher education environment where inclusion in all its complexity is truly valued, we have to celebrate success not punish it; those who publish league tables need to look long and hard at their methodology and ask themselves if they are unintentionally embedding exclusivity. We also need to ask whether the Office for Students, HEFCW and the Scottish Funding Council have sufficiently robust ways to not only judge but also reward those who truly excel at inclusion – from pre-entry to launching graduates onto a successful future life.

Until excellence in inclusion is truly valued and rewarded, it will be continued to be seen as a bolt-on activity, instead of the golden thread that runs through everything we do. That has consequences in the real world.

Our research has highlighted some superb practice, but from the student perspective the experience of accessing help is often that support services are hidden, fragmented and hanging by a thread. With student support services triaging their caseload to reduce the financial weight, vulnerable students have reported having to explain their circumstances repeatedly to get the help they need. This can be deeply traumatic, particularly for vulnerable students coming to terms with a history of abuse. If we cannot help someone without compounding their trauma, something is desperately wrong.

As a sector, we need to ensure our administrative systems – or lack of funding – are not getting in the way of good support. To students, our labyrinthine organisational boundaries present a meaningless barrier to help at best, and at worst, force vulnerable students to confront their most traumatic lived experience repeatedly. That has got to end.

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