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For all the billions of pounds spent by English higher education institutions over the past 15 years on widening participation initiatives, we know that significant and pervasive inequalities persist regarding access, student experience and outcomes.
The recent IFS Deaton Review highlighted the fact that while 71 per cent of people who attend private secondary schools earn a degree by the age of 26, just 17 per cent of people from the poorest fifth of families do so.
One criticism is that while universities are spending a lot of money, the corresponding evidence base for what works is weaker than it should be. Accordingly, the Office for Students (OfS) has recently consulted on a new approach to the regulation of equality of opportunity that would require providers to do a better job of evaluating the success of interventions.
However, the demands of the goal we are trying to reach should not be underestimated. In our view, more radical reform is required. As we have argued previously, sector-wide collaboration is key to ensuring that we can deliver meaningful change. Yet collaboration requires resource, and this is where we are lacking.
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While, of course, each autonomous university provider must meet its commitments and obligations regarding widening access and equalising outcomes, there is currently no meaningful regulatory incentive for providers to engage beyond the commitments in the access and participation plans (APPs) that they agree with the OfS. Indeed, there is a clear disincentive for a provider to strongly yoke its APP targets to collaborative activity because if the external stakeholder should fail to deliver, that will rebound on the provider in a regulatory framework that holds individual providers entirely accountable for their own APPs.
This is not to say that collaboration is not happening. A positive example is the Uni Connect programme, which funds 29 regional partnerships across England to work with higher education providers, schools and colleges to deliver outreach activity to under-represented groups. Findings from a recent evaluation show that the programme has succeeded in supporting under-represented groups to access higher education.
Despite this, the OfS has cut Uni Connect’s funding from £60 million in 2020-21 to £30 million in 2022-23. This sends a worrying signal to universities; as they submit their APPs for 2024-25 later this year, how far should they rely on the continued existence of this national programme?
Perhaps there is a political argument that the higher education sector should be doing the work of Uni Connect out of existing budgets. But it is worth noting that this is not the prevailing mindset in other sectors – including those not very far removed from education – that are similarly faced with major inequality challenges.
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Take health. The National Institute of Health Research’s Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Team (PHIRST) programme has invested about £15 million in establishing six centres to help public health experts in local authorities evaluate the impact of interventions aimed at reducing health inequalities. More recently, the NIHR has invested £50 million in its Health Determinants Research Collaboration programme, which has brought together 10 teams, based within local authorities, to lead on developing a national evidence base for interventions. It is anticipated that a total of 30 collaborations will eventually be funded.
Yet in higher education, we seem to be going backwards. The OfS’ call for individual universities to build and share a stronger evidence base is very welcome. But we think it would do much better to follow health’s lead and invest significantly in a national infrastructure that can build the capacity of practitioners across the sector to develop more effective, evidence-based interventions. That is likely to be the most effective way of ensuring that we are able to deliver on our collective commitment to eliminating educational inequality.
Antony C. Moss is pro vice-chancellor, education and student experience, at London South Bank University, chair of London Uni Connect and deputy director of PHIRST South Bank. Deborah Johnston is deputy vice-chancellor, academic framework, at London South Bank and leads the academic framework across LSBU Group.
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