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


Three cheers for FE

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Announced without fanfare, the Department for Education has just published a fascinating report on what disadvantaged students studied and earned a decade or more after leaving school. The research tracks a cohort of 600,000 state-educated students who took their GCSEs in 2005 and had to cope with the distractions of David Cameron winning the Tory Party leadership, Charles tying the knot with Camilla and Kelly Clarkson topping the charts.

What we learned

Within the cohort of 600,000, roughly a fifth of students were classed as disadvantaged (for the purposes of this study, this was defined as being in receipt of Free School Meals at any point between the ages of 11-15). Unsurprisingly, disadvantaged students fared worse than their more privileged peers: only 14% earned over £25,000 a decade later compared to 32% of students in the non-disadvantaged group.

If there are glimmers of hope, they are to be found in the work of Further Education Colleges. The most common qualification route for disadvantaged students was achievement at level 2 (GCSE grades 9-4) or level 3 (A-Level or equivalent). By the age of 25, 46% of disadvantaged students achieved level 2 or 3 at FE compared to 8% in school. The largest volume of disadvantaged male students who progressed to high earnings did so after achieving an FE qualification route.

What we think

Today - November 20 - the Association of Colleges meet for their annual conference in Birmingham. The report shows, once again, that they have much to be proud of: often unacknowledged, FECs are true engines of social mobility. Even more impressively, their work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds has been achieved against a backdrop of shrinking budgets. A recent IFS report showed that funding for FE and sixth form colleges has been cut "much more sharply" than any other area of education.

For many students, the royal road to social mobility runs through their local college. To support FECs, we need not only to ensure fair resourcing but also to make sure that partners across the education sector understand their value. An interim evaluation of the government's flagship Widening Participation programme - the National Collaborative Outreach Programme - found that universities often struggled to engage FECs.

If we want to improve the chances of disadvantaged students, we need to put our FECs centre-stage.

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.

“Access Champions has encouraged students to take progression seriously”

We work with schools and colleges all around the country, in all sorts of circumstances. Here we catch up with one of our Access Champions schools in the West Midlands, which we’ve been working with over the past few months as part of our work with the Sutton Trust.

St Edmund Campion Catholic School is an average-sized comprehensive in Erdington, Birmingham, and we’ve been working with Sandra Griffiths, who is the Post-16 Learning Leader at the school.

The sixth form has 130 students on roll. 28% of students are in receipt of free school meals, and a high percentage of sixth form students would be the first generation of their family to go to HE.

This is one of the key things we look out for when working with schools, as there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that family background is a key factor in improving social mobility.

Early on in the programme we ask Access Champions to look at how they currently support students when choosing to apply to university, and help them identify quick changes to make to those systems that could make an immediate impact on students.

One such change that Sandra made was to move progression activities, such as personal statement and reference writing, to earlier in the school year. A small change, but one that has had a powerful impact: students now get more support with admissions interviews.

This means they have more confidence, and improving mock interviews for competitive courses, such as Medicine and Dentistry, had led to two students getting offers to study Medicine this year, as well as others getting offers to study Nursing and Teaching.

On top of those simple changes, we also help Access Champions to look more long-term. Sandra’s plan for progression is to support students with informed decision-making and to organise access to HE days for Year 12 students in collaboration with local HE institutions.

We’re really looking forward to seeing how those plans come to fruition over the coming weeks and months, as this year’s university application cycle begins in earnest.