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Access to higher education before, during and after the pandemic – by Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation

  • 30 September 2020
  • By Chris Millward

This blog was kindly contributed by Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, who is taking part in a free HEPI webinar later today.

I last wrote for HEPI in December 2019, responding to its pamphlet on social mobility and elite universities. Since then, higher education has become even more important to local and national prosperity, and more prominent within public debate.  Universities and colleges have shown themselves to be essential to local and national resilience during the pandemic: supporting health trainees to join the frontline, understanding the spread of coronavirus and how to tackle it, leading the race for a vaccine, sharing facilities, and of course shifting to online and blended modes of learning.  

We have also seen this summer how central higher education is to the ambitions and expectations of families throughout the country.  This is clear from the intensity of focus on admissions decisions since August and the specific concerns about fairness for the least advantaged students, which makes the access and participation work of universities and colleges more crucial than ever.  

As I highlighted in December, the expansion of higher education places over 20 years has been transformational for a generation of students. But whether and where you study, and what you achieve in higher education, is still significantly determined by where you started from.  

School attainment is the pivotal ingredient, given our highly stratified system, but universities in this country have been slower than elsewhere to recognise context and potential within admissions. If we can change this, there will be more young people entering all parts of higher education from the least represented communities across the country, which will itself shift expectations. But we need also to provide route-maps through the financial and social barriers they identify, and create more opportunities for their parents too.  

In January, the Office for Students published a report summarising the commitments that universities and colleges have agreed with us through their new access and participation plans, many of which address these imperatives.  The plans show a step change in the level of ambition, leadership and professionalism across the sector’s access and participation work. Given our stronger focus on all stages of the student lifecycle – access to, success in and progression beyond higher education – they also show different parts of universities and colleges working together to design and deliver their plans.  

The plans commit to halving the access gap in high-tariff universities over 5 years, bringing 6,500 more students from the least advantaged neighbourhoods into these universities each year.  They also pledge to halve the continuation gap between the most and least represented groups, and the attainment gap between white and black students.  But they also show that more work is needed to improve understanding of and support for care experienced students and other students without family support, and that most universities are still focusing on young students within their strategies.  

When lockdown happened in March, we changed our regulatory requirements to focus on the three issues we considered to be most important during the pandemic:

  1. the quality of learning and teaching;
  2. the financial health of universities and colleges; and
  3. support for the most vulnerable students.  

With regard to access and participation plans, we made clear that financial commitments to students must be honoured, but we allowed flexibility so that planned investment could be moved from activities that could not happen, such as direct engagement with schools, to immediate concerns about hardship and wellbeing.  Since then, we have been gathering evidence on the impact the pandemic is having on access and participation work, including by polling students.  

What do we know from this?  As HEPI readers know well, this year’s cohort of university applicants has faced more disruption than any in our lifetimes: unable to see through the last months of learning and leaving celebrations, two sets of grades following assessment changes in August and a protracted admissions cycle as a result of these changes, and now changing circumstances for their arrival at university. 

This year’s admissions data looks positive, with acceptances increasing overall and by more than 10% in high-tariff universities, and the highest rates of increase among the lowest participation groups.  This is the first year for some time in which mature student numbers have increased, particularly among people older than 24, and across nursing and allied health professions.  

So, we are seeing increased levels of higher education participation, particularly among the groups we are targeting through our access and participation work, in universities with the furthest to travel on fair access and in subjects that are crucial to prosperity. This has happened due to swift action by universities and colleges, backed up by government decisions to remove student number controls and increase funding, and also to increase placement capacity.   

But significant challenges remain. There are, as we are seeing already, the academic and practical challenges of supporting transition for students who are entering higher education following a period without learning and who are subject to social distancing restrictions. Then the longer-term impact of the pandemic on educational inequality.  The Education Endowment Foundation’s rapid evidence review suggests that lockdown will return the attainment gap to the position at the start of the decade, so we need to ensure that this does not put the progress on fair access into reverse.  

For existing students, the pivot to more online delivery has enabled some outreach, services and learning to become more accessible, meeting needs that some students, such as those with disabilities, have identified for some time. But, as our recent polling showed, the experience of this depends on access to equipment, good connectivity, enough money to live on and, above all, a quiet study space. On the back of this, Sir Michael Barber’s digital learning and teaching review has provided a definition of digital poverty and is inviting evidence by mid-October on how to tackle it.         

We will issue guidance to universities and colleges in November 2020, which will set out how they should report in spring 2021 on the activity and financial support they delivered to students

We will be using insights like these to inform our regulation and funding of access and participation during the coming year. We will issue guidance to universities and colleges in November 2020, which will set out how they should report in spring 2021 on the activity and financial support they delivered to students through their access and participation plans during 2019/20, together with any impact the pandemic has had on the plans we have agreed with them from 2020/21 onwards. This will help us understand whether reasonable judgements have been made during the pandemic and to agree any changes with individual universities and colleges that may be necessary to address new imperatives.  

This could be driven by more students becoming eligible for financial support and the need to secure digital resources for some students. And it could put more resources into FE-HE partnerships to meet increased demand to study locally, including from adults who want to re-train.  We expect this to be an increasing priority, both for individual universities through their access and participation plans, and for the local consortia we support through Uni Connect.                 

Although some graduates regret their choice of course, few regret going into higher education, given the friendships, knowledge and experiences they gained there.  As the Social Mobility Commission’s report published earlier this month makes clear, education cannot on its own achieve equality of opportunity: it needs to be part of a joined up strategy to level up jobs and living standards across the country.  But for this to succeed, we need everyone to have the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge to the highest possible level, and to be able to benefit from the life changing experience of higher education: wherever they start from and whichever route they take.   

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