Delivering university access for all – what the evidence says

Salimah Still 20

The new universities’ regulator Professor Sir Michael Barber prioritised improved access to university in his speech today, but how do we deliver access for all regardless of background? In this joint blog, three leading charities, experienced in opening opportunities for disadvantaged young people, provide their assessment.

Other than Nate Dogg and Warren G, it’s hard to get excited about regulators. But Professor Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of the Office for Students, the new university regulator, might just be an exception.

Today he set out his vision for the organisation and for the university sector, looking to drive improvements in university access, success and progress for students, whatever their background and wherever they live. As leaders of organisations committed to giving more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to go to university, we see plenty to get excited about in that agenda. So we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far about the access part.

But first, we need to remind ourselves how deep a problem we have. There is a glaring injustice in our education system. Young people from poorer families are half as likely to go to university as their better-off peers. And the inequality cuts even deeper the further up the university pyramid we go. Young people eligible for free school meals are six times less likely to go to one of the UK’s most selective universities. And the odds of a child from a state school who is eligible for free school meals being admitted to Oxbridge are almost 2,000 to 1, which is a hundred times less likely than a privately educated pupil.

However, although the access gap is a big problem, we’re getting a better sense of what might fix it, from our work and the work of numerous other organisations tackling it alongside us. There are three things that we think the Office for Students, and every university, should look for in any programme focused on supporting more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get to university:

  • Early intervention. A young person’s options at 18 are determined by their whole education up to that point – the grades they achieved, the subjects they’ve studied, the choices they’ve made (or defaulted into because they didn’t know their choices). And we know it takes time to build confidence and skills and to shift attitudes. UCAS research shows that young people who have decided on higher education at age 10 are 2.6 times more likely to attend a selective university. If we leave it to their GCSE years to try to switch them on to the benefits of university, it’s often too late. That’s why IntoUniversity runs a programme working with nearly 10,000 primary school students every year.
  • Education and exploration – not just aspiration. The vast majority of young people and families are already aspirational about their futures, even if they are not sure how to get there. The biggest single factor that affects whether young people from less well-off families can go to university is how well they have done academically up to that point. That’s why The Access Project (TAP) provides academic tutoring to help young people get the grades they need to get where they want to go. But young people also need to understand why getting the grades and going to university matters in the first place. Not to persuade them to want to succeed, but to show them how. Which is where exploration comes in – exposing young people to a much wider set of job options and backing that up with support and guidance on subject choice and career planning.
  • Finally, evidence. We need to know much more about the most effective ways to support young people to access university. But we already know that if an organisation isn’t measuring its own impact rigorously then we can’t be confident it’s making a real difference, or that it will keep improving outcomes for young people. UCAS have been pioneers in building robust control groups to analyse impact. And organisations like TAP have used that to robustly test how well we’re really doing – not just how many young people we work with but how many get to university that wouldn’t have got there without our help, and which bits of our programme did (and didn’t) help.

The great news is that the money is there – more than £800 million is spent every year on widening university access and student support. So arguably the biggest thing the Office for Students could do to transform access to university in the long term would be to help the sector to focus that money where the evidence is, so the most effective approaches get stronger and grow. Creating a What Works centre for widening participation programmes would be one way to do that. Evidence is what universities are all about, after all.

Those are our four ‘e’s of university access: early intervention, education and exploration, and evidence. If the Office for Students follows them there is a huge opportunity to open up all levels of the university system to young people from all backgrounds.

It’s time (for the rap fans out there) for the regulators to mount up!

Andrew Berwick, Director, The Access Project
Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF
Hugh Rayment-Pickard, Director of Development, IntoUniversity

Impetus transforms the lives of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds by ensuring they get the right support to succeed in school, in work and in life.

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