The future of widening access: how collaboration needs to change (UK)

Supporting disadvantaged learners into HE when fees average £7,000 demands a new approach, says Graeme Atherton

The UCAS figures surprised many people. Only a slight reduction in HE participation among young people from the most disadvantaged areas, and apparently a smaller reduction than in more advantaged areas. A possible explanation for these results is that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds applying in 2011-12 have received years of support in terms of additional information, advice and guidance via the widening-access work of schools, colleges and universities working particularly (although by no means solely) through the AimHigher programme.

Even though AimHigher finished in July last year and many university widening-access departments have been in flux in 2011-12 ahead of the new access agreements, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds had already developed the skills to navigate the new financial system and a belief in the value of HE that means they are still prepared to take on the risk of higher debts. But will their cohorts reaching the point of entry feel so confident in subsequent years? Decision making regarding higher education is a process. Young people do not suddenly wake up at 17 and think “I’ll go to uni”.

Research shows clearly that from primary age children are starting to think about their future and that includes higher education. By 14, many have pretty firm ideas and are starting to follow qualification paths that can dictate their futures. By 17, most have made their minds up. The worst possible conclusion to draw from these figures is that the widening-access challenge is licked. The real crunch will come when we see the impact of how today’s 14 or 15-year-olds are thinking. It is essential they receive the kind of support that their predecessors received. This can only be done effectively with institutions collaborating with one another.

Collaboration in widening-access work will have to be different in the 2010s to what it was in the 2000s. The removal of top-down state funding implies a bottom-up, flexible, entrepreneurial approach. Previous boundaries set by HEFCE to shape regional partnership no longer exist. At the regional level new organisations are emerging that are forming their own borders and focusing on enabling collaboration in quite contrasting ways. Overall, however, commitment of HEIs to supporting regional vehicles is best described as guarded. At present, there is no accurate picture of how things differ across England, and no mechanism to communicate examples of how collaboration is being made to work in the access agreement era. This gap has to be addressed. Many institutions are guarded because they do not have evidence of how regional collaboration could happen and what they need to know.

But regional collaboration will not be enough. An unintended consequence of the partnership strategy pursued in the 2000s was the growth of regional collaboration vehicles that became too often almost hermetically sealed from each other. Supporting learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter HE when fees average more than £7,000 will take creativity, innovation and above all coherence across the whole widening-access community. Launched in January 2012, the National Education Opportunities Network is an attempt to foster this coherence and create the space for the exchange of ideas and practice that spans regional boundaries. As the new national professional organisation for the widening-access community, NEON will focus on developing accreditation frameworks for those involved in widening access and quality standards for institutions across sectors delivering access activity.

The cross-sector nature of what an organisation such as NEON needs to do is vital. HE providers may be the place where we want students to reach but they don’t define the journey. The widening-access community also includes schools, colleges, a growing and vibrant third-sector presence, student unions and a range of employers and employer organisations with commitments to social mobility. NEON needs to be shaped by all of this community – not one part of it and not by the state. Don’t let the recent UCAS figures fool us – the widening-access challenge is going to get tougher in the 2010s. It will take new thinking and new partnerships. Most importantly, it will need a widening-access community prepared to do this for itself.

Dr Graeme Atherton is head of AccessHE – a London-based organisation that supports under-represented groups into higher education.

Source: Guardian Higher Education