The campaign reaffirms the value of the many initiatives university
staff and student groups have put in place to widen access to underrepresented populations; initiatives such as outreach work to help raise attainment among school
pupils, including targeted A-level provision and student mentoring for GCSE
pupils, and residential summer schools that inspire children who have never
previously been exposed to university life.
Increased access to university will always be extremely important for
improving social mobility in the UK, but it is important to remember that it is
only part of the picture. As Chris Millward, Director of Fair Access and
Participation at the Office for Students, wrote on this blog last week,
we must also ensure that students have a high-quality, rewarding, and inclusive
university experience in order to enjoy the benefits that higher
We should not forget that these benefits are wide-ranging, and
encompass more than just future earnings. For example, evidence suggests that
graduates are more likely to volunteer, more likely to vote, and enjoy better general health. Time spent at university also provides an opportunity to pursue passions and study a subject in great depth, and to meet other
like-minded individuals (as well as engaging in debate with those who hold
In addition, as some of the examples shared in the campaign have
shown, many graduates lead fulfilling lives in rewarding careers such as
nursing, teaching and social work, all of which make immense contributions to
society and the economy but pay less on average.
Despite these inspirational stories, no-one doubts that there is
still a long way to go. Statistically, students from particular underrepresented
backgrounds are more likely to drop out, and are less likely to graduate with a
2.1 or a first. In England, mature student numbers have decreased in recent
In England, the good work that universities are doing to help
address these issues can be supported through the Office for Students’ future
approach to Access and Participation Plans. While it is pleasing to see their
commitment to the establishment of an Evidence and Impact Exchange to share
evidence of what works, they should consider extending the duration of Access
and Participation Plans to allow universities to take a longer-term, strategic
approach to the issues facing their own university community.
They should also reinforce a focus on the wider student life cycle.
By that I mean supporting universities to collaborate with schools, colleges,
employers, charities and with other universities: students need to be supported
across their whole time at university, and also when taking their next steps
Lastly, the OfS should work to introduce a more strategic and
effective approach to target setting and monitoring, including support for
universities to contextualise their applicants’ prior achievements.
Despite the considerable efforts and initiatives of many in the
sector, social mobility is not an issue that can be resolved by higher
education alone. Partnerships with the government, schools and employers will
be crucial to continue the progress already made across the UK. But as Opportunity
for everyone has already shown, higher education has the potential to be
transformational for individuals – whatever their background. The stories we’ve
already shared are part of an ever-growing community of people whose lives have
been positively impacted by their education – and they want to share this with
the wider world. I am proud to be a part of it.