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Higher Education Has Not Been the Great Leveller Blair Envisaged

  • 1 March 2022
  • By David Woolley and Kathy Charles

This blog was contributed by David Woolley, Director of Student and Community Engagement, and Kathy Charles, Executive Dean of Learning and Teaching at Nottingham Trent University.

The latest UCAS application figures confirm a trend that has been increasingly apparent in recent years. Despite everything, the demand for higher education, especially amongst the young and even those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, remains strong. It is 25 years since Tony Blair entered Downing Street and one of his most notable policies, to get 50 per cent of young people to higher education, is an established feature of modern higher education. Admittedly, participation is not evenly spread geographically, demographically or across the sector mission groups but there has been considerable diversification of the undergraduate demographic since Blair made that pledge. 

This is to be applauded. A modern economy needs a large proportion of graduates (we are not going to quibble over the exact percentage rate required), who better reflect the demographic make-up of the country. The current Government is now turning its attention to broadening the range of higher education qualifications available, which is a welcome step.   

The promise of graduate employment and the capacity to earn, on average, 20% more than those without a degree is no doubt a key driver behind this diversification but to what extent is that the reality for the increasingly diverse cohorts across different institutions?  As Michelle Donelan recently stated, ‘disadvantaged entrants are less likely to continue after year 1, less likely to achieve a first or upper second-degree classification; and less likely to progress into highly skilled employment or study’.  A quick glance on the APP data dashboard on how other demographics fare shows a similar story.    

So perhaps the letter, but not the spirit of Blair’s goal has been achieved. Higher education has not been the great leveller he envisaged.  

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many of our universities tend to reflect the structures, policies, processes, demographic and life experiences of the late 20thcentury rather than the third decade of the 21st century. Whilst the undergraduate body has grown and diversified at pace over the last 25 years, many of our institutions, on a cultural level, have not kept up.  

Consider teaching, learning and extra-curricular activities – the sum of most students’ experiences. Teaching staff are recruited primarily for their track record (or potential) in research, or sometimes in industry. There is still little acknowledgement of the need for different teaching approaches with more varied student cohorts. The tendency, perhaps particularly for those new to teaching, is to fall back on their own experience of university and to replicate it. They may be part of a long line of teaching replication ideally suited to a particular type of student, rather than a teaching tradition which acknowledges diverse starting points and life experiences.  

The same holds for extracurricular activities and the broader university experience. There is strong evidence that participation in extra-curricular activities correlates with improved student outcomes but for a variety of economic, social and logistical reasons, not all students are able to, or indeed choose not to, access such opportunities. Blair had the cultural capital and financial resources to take advantage of everything the higher education system had to offer. Much of today’s demographic does not.  

This needs to change. Students who pay the same deserve the same chance of achieving the same outcomes. To date, efforts to address this have largely focused on interventions for different groups. These interventions have their place but without accompanying cultural and structural change, they place the blame firmly on the shoulders of the students themselves.  

The Success for All programme at NTU is attempting to address these structural and cultural issues. Our Learning and Teaching Professional Development policy ensures that those new to teaching develop a range of inclusive pedagogical approaches with a strong focus on active collaborative learning which has been shown to reduce awarding gaps. The courses also introduce colleagues to the varied learning backgrounds which our students bring to their classes. We offer teaching sabbaticals through our Trent Institute of Learning and Teaching to support colleagues in evolving and disseminating impactful teaching practices. But more needs to be done to acknowledge the importance of teaching skills and experience in recruitment.

We are also addressing our overall student experience. To capitalise on the value that participation in extracurricular activities brings, services, such as culture and sport, are changing the nature of their provision to make it more relevant to a broader demographic. Activities such as work experience and volunteering are increasingly being embedded into the curriculum. We are also providing financial support specifically to facilitate engagement in broader university life.  

To get the most from the undergraduate degree experience there is still a reliance on the cultural, social, and financial capital of undergraduates in decades gone by. The most successful graduates are those who achieve higher grades and take advantage of life-wide learning opportunities. During the great expansion of HE, little attention has been paid to this: instead, focus has been on the metrics of continuation, awards and the NSS. The idea that entering a university or having a degree places everyone on a level playing field is false. We must make more effort with our teaching, assessment, extracurricular activities, volunteering and related provisions in order to make university more suitable and more effective for our current students.

On Thursday 10 March 2022 HEPI and Advance HE are jointly hosting a webinar on equality and diversity. To register your place, please click here.

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1 comment

  1. Arti Kumar says:

    We need to transform education, and one way of doing it is to use ‘SOAR’ — a pedagogy and process of integrated, holistic, personalised, contextualised learning and development. It has been authored and widely used as ‘SOAR for Employability’ but its definition of employability is very broad.
    The second edition will be available this month: Kumar, A (2007, 2022) ‘Personal, Social, Academic & Career Development – SOARing to Success’ Routledge, Taylor & Francis: London and New York.
    This needs to be extensively promoted so that educators can use its powerful, positive tools and realise its potential.

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