To mark World Access to Higher Education Day 2018, Dan West, Policy and Research Lead at the University of Derby, discusses why equality and social mobility are crucial for universities.
When former Education Secretary Justine Greening MP addressed the Social Mobility Commission Conference in March 2017, she made it clear that social mobility was a “noble aspiration” for any government. Acknowledging that we all wanted a “fairer, more cohesive country… and for people to have the chance to be able to succeed,” Greening said that aspiration alone was not enough to make a real difference: “Social mobility is now no longer a ‘nice to have’, a ‘good thing to do’. It is a cold, hard, economic imperative for our country.”
So, at a time when the value of university education, student mental health and tuition fees are being challenged in the national press, and as we come to terms with Brexit and the disenfranchised state of our local communities, what role can higher education institutions play in equality and social mobility and how much of a priority is it for them?
While higher education participation gaps remains as wide as ever before, it is true that a greater number students from hard to reach groups are accessing higher education than ever. For many of these students, day one on campus will be the first time they have entered the doors of a higher education institution. They are also very likely to be the first of their family to do so.
This is a good start, but it means very little if they are unable to flourish. If students are to reach their potential, they need a smooth transition into university life, have access to the right type of support at the time it is needed, and be challenged to develop their academic knowledge and skills through inclusive curriculum, pedagogies and assessment methods.
For progressive, modern higher education institutions such as Derby, with diverse student bodies representative of the communities we serve, tacking gaps in retention, attainment, and graduate outcomes is now the number one equality and social mobility priority.
While higher education institutions are hubs for knowledge exchange, academic theory, critical thinking and debate, they are also places that bring communities together and provide a route for support, progression and success. We open the doors for many people, and ensure our students not only complete studies but become game changers – a force for positive impact and are bold and brilliant at what they set out to do – a journey of transformational learning and opportunity.
Schools and Further Education
It has been argued that many higher education providers shrug their shoulders and point to failures earlier down the educational pipeline when it comes to equality and social mobility.
At the University of Derby we believe that early engagement is the key to addressing entrenched disadvantage. Our University Explorers Programme, engages Year 5 and 6 pupils through a series of visits by our staff and ambassadors in schools to introduce them to the concept of university; what is it, the language, and where it fits into their learning journey. More than 180 children took part in the programme from five primary schools in 2016-17.
At secondary level, we offer Progress to Success to local schools – a multi-intervention outreach initiative which provides pupils with a progressive ‘drip feed’ of touchpoints from Year 7 to Year 11. The scheme seeks to improve social mobility through aspiration, awareness and attainment raising. Events are designed to inform, inspire and support pupil decision making. Complex activity strands are introduced through the framework and layering knowledge over many years helps pupils to understand themselves, their approach to learning, and ability to make informed choices abought higher education.
All higher education providers should provide an inclusive curriculum to improve the experience, skills and attainment of their students, and which should disproportionately benefit those from protected characteristic groups. The critical aim here is to ensure that the principles of inclusivity are embedded in all aspects of the student lifecycle.
An inclusive curriculum promotes student-centred collaborative approaches, like small group work and clicker technology, allows students to draw on their own experiences and perspectives, enables peer-led learning; encouraging students to work with different peers increases their knowledge acquisition and diversity skills. This can be achieved through ‘engineering’ discussion groups and insisting that students do not always work in their comfort groups; multi-sensory delivery strategies.
We should expose students to a variety of delivery mediums – striving for excitement, engagement and interaction. For example, practical and authentic resources encourage participation as everyone can discuss concrete visual examples with interest. Inviting speakers from different cultural and social backgrounds is an opportunity to reflect the diversity of the student body. These speakers can cover additional aspects of the curriculum or provide different perspectives on existing content.
Widening Access at Derby
We firmly believe in the transformational nature of education and, as a champion of social mobility, will strive to inspire and create opportunities for all across our region and beyond, regardless of age, background or location.
We have responded ambitiously to the government’s challenge to ‘unlock the potential of a new generation’ – as outlined by Justine Greening – by seeking to establish the University of Derby as a beacon for widening participation.
The triangulation of our own University outreach programme, leadership of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Collaborative Outreach Programme (a collaborative network between universities and colleges across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire that exists to provide targeted higher education outreach programmes to secondary schools and colleges) and our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kathryn Mitchell, serving as Chair of the Derby Opportunity Area Partnership Board, has ensured that social mobility remains a priority for us.
Our Access and Participation Plan was submitted to the Office for Students (OfS) in April 2018. It includes an assessment of our performance, our ambition and strategy, and the measures and expenditure that we believe are necessary to further enhance the access, success and progression of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are fully committed to addressing any unacceptable differences that may occur between groups across the student lifecycle.
At Derby, we have experienced a significant increase in headcount for widening participation groups. We consistently surpass HESA UK widening participation benchmarks for the recruitment of students from state schools, low participation neighbourhoods and disabled students. In 2016-17, just over a fifth (20.6%) of our new, young, full-time, first-degree entrants were from low participation neighbourhoods – well above the English average of 11.4%.
At a time when the higher education sector is facing much criticism, institutions need to set out their contribution to civic life and shout loud about how they are helping people from all walks of life to build a successful future. We are opening our doors to provide a wealth of opportunities for people and this contribution to equality, social justice and mobility should be celebrated.