Statement from social mobility charity CEOs following discussion on widening participation with Universities Minister

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We were very pleased that Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities and Science, responded so quickly and so positively to the statement we issued on university access last week, following leaks from the government’s post 18 education funding review.

We are grateful to the Minister for his time this week; we had a constructive and wide-ranging discussion and he reiterated his commitment to closing the access gap.

Among the topics we discussed were the barriers that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face in accessing HE; measuring the impact of widening participation activity and demonstrating what works; and the role of the third sector.

The Minister encouraged us to continue making the case for widening participation and assured us that it was a top priority for him.

Andrew Berwick, CEO, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Statement from social mobility charity CEOs in response to proposals for changes to Higher Education funding

“Britain’s deep social mobility problem, for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse not better.”Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation Report 2017.

Higher Education (HE) should be a route open to all young people, irrespective of background. But we have a big and persistent social mobility problem in the UK: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are half as likely to progress to HE as their peers.

Widening Participation funding exists to help close this gap. This funding is vital to the work that we – alongside universities, the Office for Students and others – do to support young people from under-represented groups to progress to, and succeed in, HE. This funding is now in question.

Our request to government

  • Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on momentum around spending it effectively

  • We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE

  • We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone

  • We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers

Rationale: We are concerned by reports that the government’s review of post-18 education funding is considering measures which could have a detrimental effect on social mobility.

Specifically:

The current student loan system is progressive as no fees are paid up front and loans are paid back contingent to income. Cutting fees to £6,500 would benefit higher earning graduates the most, as they would pay back less of the cost of their education than they do now. Addressing the cost of living, for example by restoring maintenance grants, would be a better way to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access HE.

Unless protected, a cut in fees to £6,500 could eliminate almost all the widening participation funding designed to close the access gap. This is because universities are currently required to spend a proportion of the fee income they receive if they charge fees above that amount on widening participation activities. Universities have already indicated that if fees are cut, they are unlikely to be able to fund their widening participation programmes. Clear arrangements for funding widening participation activity will be needed to replace this lost fee income.

In his speech on social mobility earlier this year, Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds reminded us that “universities expect to spend £860 million to improve access and success for disadvantaged students, this is a lot of money and it needs to be spent well.”

We agree. The fact that millions are earmarked for poorer communities and students for whom university has not historically been an option is a seldom talked about good news story for the government. This money is being spent increasingly effectively, with better evaluation, an improved regulatory framework and the forthcoming evidence and impact exchange all adding to our ability to put these funds to good use.

As charities involved in access, we rigorously measure our impact and we know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. Now is not the time for government to turn its back on the funding we need to do this.

Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on the momentum around spending it effectively.

Differential fees would add another level of complexity to student choices in a HE landscape that is already complicated. Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to receive the advice and guidance they need to make good choices about their course, and we believe there is a real risk that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could choose courses based purely on price, as opposed to the value they might deliver for them.

We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE.

The affordability of university is a significant concern for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The current level of maintenance support is not sufficient to cover students’ living costs and contributions from parents to make up this gap are seldom an option for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone.

A cap on the number of people going to university is a regressive measure which would hit disadvantaged students the hardest. These young people are less likely to apply, less likely to get in and less likely to graduate. A cap would also be bad for business and risks hampering our global competitiveness. The global trend is for countries to send more young people to university, not fewer.

We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers.

Andrew Berwick, CEO, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach


Our response to the Education Committee's "Value for money in Higher Education" report

We welcome a number of the findings in the House of Commons Education Committee’s report: Value for money in higher education.

The report highlights a series of challenges that are key to ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to access, succeed, and benefit from Higher Education.

We fully agree with the Committee's position that the current system of funding Higher Education is "widely misunderstood". In seeking to promote "better public understanding" we endorse an approach which provides funding for the enhanced training of teachers and careers advisors, and provides support for other key influencers including parents. As a recent CfE report (2018) for the Office for Studies pointed out, "support[ing] the supporters" is crucial if we are to make progress towards the goal of fair access.

A number of the report's recommendations focus on the provision of greater data for students including:

  1. more information on contextual admissions policies,

  2. better statistics on labour market outcomes,

  3. the publication of a breakdown of how universities and HEIs spend tuition fees.

While we approve of these objectives, we believe that it is essential for policymakers to emphasise the importance of structured advice and guidance alongside more sources of information.

The Careers and Enterprise Company's "Moments of Choice" paper (2016) points out that "young people are presented with a choice environment in which attempting to act rationally looks like an irrational choice. It is simply too difficult." The response to “too much choice” should not be “too much information”.

If we are to support young people in making difficult decisions, we need to ensure that networks of support are in place so that young people are provided with the information they require and the guidance they urgently need.

Our response to the Association of Colleges' 2030 and beyond report

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The Association of Colleges has today called for a radical shake-up of post-18 education in England to create a world-class system that supports more people to learn, train and retrain throughout their lives.

In its 2030 and beyond: an upgraded post-18 education system report it also proposes a major re-design of the country’s higher technical education offer to provide a credible alternative route to a BA/BSc degree, including:

  • New national qualifications developed locally to meet employer and labour market needs and built on those already working well.
  • Government reform to grant, fee and loan rules to incentivise and support new one and two-year courses at Levels 4 and 5.
  • The same fee cap and loan/maintenance arrangements to be made available for students of all ages who take up the new national qualifications part-time or full-time.
  • Access to financial support for living costs, travel and childcare.

We heartily agree: colleges are engines of social mobility, and this important and timely call to action by the Association of Colleges is one which we thoroughly endorse in its ambition to make the post-18 education system accessible to everyone, reintroduce means-tested maintenance grants, and ensure we have a workforce appropriately skilled for the future labour market.

We urge everyone to read the report, and for government to heed its messages.

Our response to the Government's review of post-18 education

We recently contributed to the Government's major review of funding for post-18 education in England, which aims to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. Our submission focused on three key themes:

1. Making sure that Higher Education is “accessible for all”.

We welcome the prominence the review gives to disadvantaged students.

If the new funding system is indeed to be “accessible for all” then care should be taken to ensure that any changes in the funding regime do not deter students from under-represented groups from participating in Higher Education.

While the overall Higher Education Participation Rate increased to 49% in 2015-16 there remain troubling gaps in the ability of disadvantaged and part-time students to access Higher Education.  Whatever the details of the new funding system, access for disadvantaged students needs to remain the top priority.

2. Putting schools and colleges at the heart of post-18 progression

The drivers of fair access – good attainment and effective guidance – are to be found in the classroom, but schools and colleges are largely overlooked in debates about post-18 progression.

To ensure that students can make informed post-18 choices, we need to shift the centre of gravity towards schools and colleges.

Schools and colleges face significant pressures on their existing resources. In order to enable schools and colleges to improve their post-18 destinations, we advocate setting up a Student Outcomes Fund with ringfenced funds made available to improve systems in schools and colleges. 

3. Strengthening Information, Advice and Guidance in the classroom

Most adults struggle to choose between five energy suppliers, but we expect students to be able to make rational choices between 37,000 UCAS courses.

If we want applicants to make appropriate choices about what and where to study then we need to offer better support. Providing more information is not the solution. Information overload has now reached a stage that experts have argued that students are being encouraged to make irrational decisions based on crude heuristics.

Research shows that students respond more effectively to “hot information” provided by trusted sources, such as teachers, as opposed to “cold information” provided in literature and on websites. Part of a Student Outcomes Fund should therefore be directed towards supporting teachers and other key influencers to make provide effective and personalised guidance for students.

The independent panel, chaired by Philip Augar and supported by experts from across the sector, are currently reviewing evidence. We look forward to seeing how the review progresses.