Universities remain a hive of inequality – they must do more to attract the excluded

The higher education sector in England has gone through some major changes in recent years, from the 2012 rise in tuition fees to £9,000 a year to the more recent decision to allow universities to accept as many students as they want. Constant policy shifts have kept universities on the move.

One theme that has continued to be a consistent priority throughout these changes has been how to make access to university more equal and fair. I think that now, more then ever, universities need to do more to attract potential applicants from poorer and more diverse backgrounds.

No matter what your political affiliation, all party leaders say that education is a fundamental driver of social mobility. And, in recent years, social mobility through education has been improving. According to figures from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCP), headed by my former ministerial colleague, Alan Milburn, a record number of young English people are entering higher education. This year, there was a 4% increase in students from the least advantaged backgrounds being placed at UK universities on A-level results day, according to UCAS.

In addition, universities are investing £735m in 2015-16 to widen access by providing support such as bursaries. The SMCP estimates there could be as many as 100,000 more university places and 2m new professional jobs created by 2020, creating even more opportunities.

Businesses and the private sector are also entering the debate on access and diversity. Global accountancy firm EY is removing the requirement for a minimum degree classification for graduates and hiding all details of schools and universities from recruiters. EY says the aim is to boost workplace diversity, which it sees as good for business.

Inequality remains

But, despite all this positive action and debate, the higher education sector remains a hive of inequality. The controversial decision by the chancellor, George Osborne, to convert maintenance grants to loans is no doubt a backwards step. It affects the poorest in society and risks deterring them from university. Recent research from the National Union of Students shows that students from poorer backgrounds need maintenance support the most.

Such grants have also been one of the most important contributing factors in encouraging students from ethnic minorities and low-income families to apply for university.

Universities must help redress the balance. Financial support is just one aspect, but it is an important one. A robust scheme of grants and bursaries is certainly needed, tailored specifically for those coming from lower socio-economics backgrounds that are still underrepresented across the higher education sector. And more expenditure by universities on outreach is necessary, together with more paid internships.

But financial support alone isn’t the only way universities need to tackle the problem of inequality and diversity. Institutions need to adopt an interdisciplinary approach towards improving access for disadvantaged students and reaching out to them. As a sector, we need to consider and incorporate ideas around teaching and learning, marketing and recruitment and the wider student experience. This includes thinking about how these issues affect students from different socio-economic backgrounds, and about what can be done to help attract them into higher education and nurture and support them once they arrive.

Ready to teach soft skills

A recent study by the Sutton Trust charity demonstrated that privately educated UK graduates in high-status jobs earn more than their state school counterparts. It found factors such as the university attended and quality of education were prevalent, but it also suggested non-academic factors and soft skills, such as assertiveness, confidence and presentation skills also had a significant impact.

This is something that universities across the sector need to address. They should investigate how they can help students from more diverse backgrounds develop such skills that will not only benefit them during their studies but once they graduate as well.

University has to appeal to everyone who feels excluded. Ethnicity and socio-economic factors are key issues, but children who have grown up in care, disabled learners, first-generation scholars and mature learners all need to be included in any debate about “widening participation”.

The gender divide also matters. UCAS figures show the admissions gap between men and women in the sector is growing and at record levels. More women than men are being accepted to university than ever before and it has become as significant as the gap between people from advantaged and disadvantaged economic backgrounds. And it combines in the acute challenge we face around the poor educational achievementsof white, working-class boys.

The sector must collaborate

But the most fundamental issue we need to face as a sector is collaboration. The policy and structural changes from government promote competition, so too often universities are working in a silo with regards to inequality and diversity.

Collaboration could take place through regional coordination among universities, colleges and schools to ensure an optimal spread and intensity of outreach activities and events, especially during the early years where interventions can have the highest impact. Universities can also collaborate in sharing insight on how best to recruit, support and ensure the success of less-advantaged students. That means investing in the professional development of the university staff who are working to help widen participation in order to ensure that the sector’s collective understanding grows.

Ultimately, while we might be in competition for students, celebrating the impact of higher education in transforming lives, improving social mobility and contributing to the economy is something we can all agree on.

To improve fair access across higher education, we must work together by sharing best practice, sharing ideas and, most importantly, sharing responsibility.