Higher education: a diverse range of opportunities for everyone

Daniel Hurley

Dan Hurley

Policy Manager
Universities UK

It has only been a week since the Opportunity for everyone campaign launched, and already we have seen many examples of the higher education community’s efforts to boost equality of opportunity.

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 education provides.

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 opposing views).

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.

Higher education’s role in aiding social mobility in the UK is therefore so much more than increasing the earning potential of graduates.

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 years.

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 after graduation.

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.

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