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An open letter to the new Director for Fair Access and Participation

  • 24 November 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Dear John,

Congratulations on your new appointment!

We don’t know each other well but I have long admired your career from afar. You clearly care passionately about learners and ensuring they meet their potential.

It is a huge and brilliant job that you are taking on, in fact one of the very best in higher education. You have the potential to make a true difference to people’s lives, to social mobility and to the diversity of England’s higher education institutions – just as both of your excellent predecessors, Les Ebdon and Chris Millward, did so skilfully.

You will no doubt be bombarded with advice. For example:

  • At one extreme, people will tell you that, when it comes to higher education admissions, only exam results matter and that the key challenge is to raise school standards so that initiatives like contextualised admissions become outdated. Advocates of PQA systems, for example, want more focus on actual results and less on predicted results. But exams are flawed – the HEPI blog shows one-in-four exam grades is wrong, while CAGs and TAGs suggest teacher assessment is often a better assessment of potential.
  • At the other extreme, people will tell you everything should be contextualised, so that students and institutions are always assessed in the round, taking individual circumstances into account, rather than directly compared to one another. This is how universities have been judged traditionally, for example via HESA’s benchmarks, but it is imperfect too. Some fear it may even excuse lower standards.

You will need to pick your way through such thickets in time. As you do so, it would be worth bearing the following six points in mind.

  1. Schools are important but second chances are too: It seems likely that you will be expected to press universities to do more to raise standards in schools (within your constrained legal powers). There is value in this, given the hugely unequal opportunities faced by different school pupils plus the desire of higher education institutions to seek out those with potential wherever they might be – just so long as schools, colleges and universities are not pitted against one another and are instead encouraged to work collaboratively. But it would be a tragedy if pushing universities to do ever more with schools had a high opportunity cost for other important objectives, such as tackling the Black Attainment Gap or re-engaging second-chance learners or boosting part-time provision. As part of this, it will be vital to monitor the rollout of the forthcoming Lifetime Loan Entitlement, which the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University recently showed in a HEPI blog will be challenging to get right.
  2. Don’t forget the smaller groups with appallingly low outcomes: The focus in widening participation is generally on big groups. For example, there is a focus (quite rightly) on white working-class pupils when it comes to improving access, BTEC students when it comes to reducing non-continuation rates and female graduates when it comes to graduate earnings. All these challenges are vitally important and HEPI has recently published papers on each of them. Yet we must concurrently remember those smaller groups with the very lowest higher education participation rates of all, such as homeless peoplecare leavers and people from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Many of these are covered in the HEPI / Brightside guide produced for your predecessor and it is crucial that we continue to make progress even as universities are expected to do more to raise standards in schools. Otherwise, the incentives could be aimed at getting a few more school leavers over the line and into higher education while other groups receive less focus.
  3. The big picture can matter even more than the detail: Debates about fair access tend to focus on individual stories, as all educators should because education is about transforming individual people’s lives. However, the history of widening participation shows very clearly the single best way to improve educational outcomes is to make sure the total number of places is sufficient to satisfy demand from those with the aptitude, qualifications and desire to attend. Peter Mandler’s excellent history of post-war schooling shows this to be true for the past, and HEPI’s work on student number controls in Australia show it to be true now. When places are tightly constrained, those who know the rules of the game, such as middle-class families, tend to win and those who are, say, potential first-in-family students get left behind. So, above all, it seems vital to your success in your new role that student number caps stay off. Otherwise we will return to a zero-sum game and, as David Willetts’s recent HEPI paper puts it: ‘It is hard to say that people from the poorest areas should settle for participation below 30% while it is over 60% for the most affluent.’
  4. Don’t forget the cold spots and the not spots: It continues to be the case, despite the growth in students and institutions, that some parts of the country offer less good access to higher education locally than others. This is a challenge to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. For years, there have been various lists of places that might benefit from hosting a new university floating around. Two recent ones are from Michael Gove, who favoured Doncaster, Grimsby and Thanet; and David Willetts, who went in his aforementioned HEPI paper for Blackpool, Wigan, Wakefield, Chatham and Hartlepool. Although there are fewer higher education providers registered with the Office for Students than expected and much of the supply-side reform agenda has gone off the boil, new initiatives in Peterborough, Hereford and Malmesbury are providing a sense of what can be done. If we are to have a step change in access, then perhaps we need a definitive list of places (regions, counties, cities / towns) that would most benefit from the presence of a new university.
  5. Visit visit visit: The best way to win the confidence of the senior managers in the sector who you will be having tough conversations with for many years to come is (COVID-permitting) to visit as many of their institutions as you can as quickly as possible. There is nothing to beat on-campus conversations with students, academics and managers across our diverse sector to get a sense of what is really going on. (I remember speaking to one MP who had been deeply sceptical of newer universities until he visited one that educated more Black students than the whole of the Russell Group put together. Thereafter, he was an evangelist for the institution.)
  6. Don’t do anything big without ensuring you have supportive evidence: Given evidence is the raw material of academia, trying to persuade people working in autonomous higher education institutions to do X or Y without sufficient supporting evidence is a big ask, especially in those areas where your powers are powers of persuasion rather than hard-and-fast legal ones. But, fortunately, this is a smaller problem when it comes to access and participation than for many other areas as there is such a rich evidence base. There are also lots of active researchers. So if the answer to your question does not already exist, you’ll almost certainly be able to find someone to reveal it.

For all the heat over policy, everyone working in education has much the same goals – objectives like raising aspiration, realising potential and extending knowledge. So I wish you all the best in using the soft and hard powers you will have to hand to help higher education institutions do even more to achieve these ends, within – of course – the available and constrained financial resources at their disposal.

Good luck!


  1. Andrew Boggs says:

    Right on the money, Nick. Hopefully John is given the space and time to follow-through on numbers 7 and 6. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Andrew Boggs says:

    Apologies: FIVE and 6 (typing too quickly out of overexuberance).

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