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Widening participation: advocacy is as great a challenge as delivery

  • 2 June 2020
  • By Graeme Atherton

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Graeme Atherton, Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON).

With the exception of those working on international student recruitment, no professional community in higher education was left scratching their head by the challenges of Covid-19 more than those in widening access and outreach.

The closure of schools and colleges meant hundreds of activities across the country were stalled, re-arranged or cancelled overnight. Several universities have responded to this challenge by furloughing their widening access staff. One even tried to furlough staff that were not paid for from its own budget but by the Office for Students (OfS) funded Uni-Connect programme.

Thankfully, most of the sector is showing more courage, as was illustrated by the 600 people who participated in the recent National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) online conference looking at the impact of Covid-19 on access to higher education work. Virtually all the participants were looking at ways to continue engaging with learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research undertaken by NEON in the lead up to the event with over 100 higher education providers and Uni-Connect partnerships showed over 90 per cent were attempting to move their outreach work online.

The Director of Fair Access, Chris Millward, addressed the event and was reassuring in stressing the OfS’s continuing commitment to the widening access agenda and emphasising there would be flexibility in how targets around access and participation would be interpreted this year. But the warning signs are there for widening access. While there are huge efforts being made to move outreach work online, digital inequality is excluding many of the learners in widening access target groups from fully benefiting from the activities being developed.

Nor will there be a bounce-back to the old normal for outreach. Many schools are re-configuring their timetables for the 2019/20 academic year to double-down on core subjects further squeezing the space for higher education providers to work with disadvantaged learners – in particular, those in the next cohort of Year 13 students who could be most likely to reject higher education. Supporting the present Year 13 cohort from widening access backgrounds in a systematic way is already difficult. Schools and colleges have never needed to engage systematically with this group after Easter of their final year. From what we know regarding the approach of schools and colleges, little has changed here and their focus is firmly on those learners who will definitely take examinations next year, rather than those who may take some form of examination in the autumn.

The school and college environment are not the only challenges for outreach. This has been a very analogue field. Digital delivery will be a steep learning curve. Neither does the devolved model of delivery for outreach favoured since the 2000s lend itself well to the current situation. Higher education providers and Uni-Connect consortia operate relatively autonomously, mitigating against the kind of collaborative approach that has shown to be the most effective way of dealing with Covid-19 related impacts across all sectors. Despite the forces that push against collaboration, such as the model of devolved delivery described above and the intense competition between higher education providers to attract students for 2020/21, efforts are also being made here. NEON is launching a new national online hub to bring widening access activities offered by over 40 universities and Uni-Connect consortia together which will be live next month.

The greatest challenge, however, may not be related to delivery but to advocacy. It will be persuading institutional leaders and politicians that, at a time of unprecedented financial pressure, investing in access and participation matters. Last time the country faced a major economic downturn, the Government used this as an excuse to abolish the national Aimhigher programme. Accepting the emphasis that the OfS has placed on access and participation the reality is that the lingering view across too much of the sector (and government) is that, when the crunch comes, ‘WP’ is expendable. Where the Government is concerned, the inability of the OfS to explain clearly the extent of the work that is being done by higher education providers to adapt their outreach work to the present challenges in front of the Education Select Committee in May will not have helped convince them that access work remains relevant in the Covid-19 era.

However, advocating for access is possible and there are a number of themes it could focus on.

  1. Outreach work represents one of the main ways in which higher education can have a direct impact on addressing societal inequality under Covid-19. The direct link between outreach work and wider inequality will need to be made far better than it has been. This means capturing what is being done and who is benefitting quickly and smartly. This needs to happen before next academic year and not in two or three years.
  2. Through their work as widening access advocates and ambassadors, higher education students from low-income backgrounds gain vital income and skills. As higher education providers grapple with how to present a broader package of benefits to students in a very different academic year to one we have ever seen before, the opportunity to present the importance of outreach to bolster the 2020/21 student experience is significant.
  3. Widening access work will be crucial to maintaining and increasing student recruitment in all subjects. The barriers between outreach and recruitment have always been permeable in most providers. A collapse into recruitment is exactly not what we want, but the distinctive value in terms of school, college and learner relationships that outreach teams provide should be coveted now more than ever. This is particularly the case as for nurses and allied health professionals. They are in the subject grouping with the highest percentage of students from areas of low higher education participation. More than one-in-five come from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, while in London most nurses are now from a BAME background.

Advocating for widening access work on the kind of themes outlined above will not only be possible but essential for the foreseeable future. It will require to step forward all those who believe that central to the mission of higher education is its accessibility paired with coherent messaging on what widening access can achieve. If this does not happen, we risk failing the students who already stand to lose the most from this present crisis.

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