July 27, 2022

The same but different: improving fairness of access, participation, and outcomes in higher education

Fairness lies at the heart of modern higher education – in principle, at least. That everyone – regardless of social or economic background – can aspire to study for a globally acknowledged qualification, opening doors to greater education and employment opportunities, has been a cornerstone of HE provision for decades. But equality only works if everyone’s starting point is the same and, as societal divisions widen, universities must do more to level the pitch.


At its best, HE is an instrument of opportunity, offering students a pathway for increasing knowledge and acquiring the skills they need to become more socially and economically mobile.


In the UK, HE participation has risen rapidly in the last twenty years, superseding the 50 percent government target set in 2001 and benefiting students, universities and communities alike. Arguably, though, it hasn’t delivered as extensively on the promised improvements to equality of opportunity, diversity, and prosperity.


In fact, expansion has, if anything, highlighted social stratification, throwing the impact of school attainment levels into sharp focus and emphasising the socio-economic gap that continues to influence HE access and outcomes.


At the same time, opportunities to offset early obstacles to attainment by undertaking part-time study in later life have declined steeply over the last decade; a 2018 report by the Sutton Trust showed that numbers had fallen by more than a half. This decline – the product of a variety of factors, including changes to tuition fees – has made it harder for those from more diverse backgrounds to access HE.


And, as more employers use HE as their go-to recruitment filtering device, the prosperity gap between graduates – especially from elite universities – living and working around London and the South East, and their counterparts in post-industrial, coastal and rural areas continues to grow.


A change in perception

The public perception of HE as the great leveller has also shifted in recent years. As conversations around the value-versus-cost equation of HE gains ground, the pressure of mounting fees coupled with concerns of the limited relevance of traditional degrees in a fast-moving jobs market is causing some to press pause on their university applications.


Superficially, universities don’t have much to worry about. After all, around half-a-million students accepted university places this year, with applications for undergraduate and postgraduate courses expected to reach a million by the middle of the decade, according to admissions body UCAS.


Nevertheless, it’s likely that structural inequities will be deepened with spiralling living costs and tuition fees, exacerbated by the freeze on maintenance loan income thresholds and the proposed minimum eligibility requirements to access loans (not to mention the increased cost of servicing those loans) – all of which will have a disproportionate impact on students from disadvantaged communities.


Mind the gap

The data in this recent government briefing paper demonstrates the importance of examining barriers to access, as well as evaluating comparative outcomes, in order to address the disparity between academic attainment and graduate success experienced by students with different life experiences.


For instance, while women are much more likely to go to university than men (as well as to complete their studies and to gain a first or upper second-class degree), men are more likely to enter ‘highly skilled’ employment or further study immediately after graduation. Male graduate average earnings are also around 8 percent higher than their female counterparts a year after graduation – a gap that rises to a staggering 32 percent ten years after graduation.


Similarly, when it comes to ethnicity, although students from Chinese, Indian and Black African backgrounds have the highest university entry rates, Black students are more likely to drop out or to achieve a first or upper second-class degree. By contrast, white graduates have the highest employment rates of any ethnic group.


Students with disabilities also encounter greater access and outcome disparities, being more likely to drop out of university (especially if they have mental health issues) and less likely to enter highly skilled employment or higher study after completing their first degree.


There are clear links, too, between deprivation and participation in HE, as well as achievement levels and subsequent progression to highly skilled employment or higher study. The regional statistics are compelling: the entry rate in the top ‘POLAR’ (Participation of Local Areas) group show a close and persistent correlation between historical and current participation levels.


Intersectionality biases these statistics even further – for example, the gap in drop-out rates between male and female students increases when deprivation is a factor, with male students from more deprived areas at higher risk of dropping out.


Taking action

On its own, the government’s widening participation (WP) initiative – designed to redress socio-economic disadvantage – isn’t enough to advance equality of opportunity for disadvantaged groups through the student lifecycle.


In its analysis of widening opportunity in HE, Universities UK argues that providers must focus on three elements:

  • Ensuring that the admissions process enables everyone capable of benefiting from a university education to have an opportunity to participate, taking into account applicants’ backgrounds as well as their talents.
  • Delivering a more personalised HE model that reflects achievement based on ability and commitment, while levelling, as much as possible, the effect of external contributory factors.
  • Promoting equity of opportunity after graduation for individuals of similar academic achievement, regardless of their socio-economic background.


Strategies include:


Contextualised admissions

Contextual information and data are already extensively used by universities and colleges to assess an applicant’s achievement and potential in tandem with their educational and socio-economic background, to help build a more complete picture. This approach can also inform ongoing support provision and careers guidance.


Built-in accessibility

To attract a more diverse student body, universities can tackle inequality by exercising more accessible and inclusive design principles (universal design for learning, or UDL). Planning for learner variability – whether prompted by physical or socio-economic challenges – through the creation of a customisable and personalised student experience that minimises, or even renders irrelevant, barriers to effective learning, is key.


Flexible study options

Giving students an element of choice about how and when they participate offers accessibility to those who have work or caring responsibilities. Online-only, hybrid and blended models delivered via a mix of in-person, synchronous and asynchronous sessions can provide the flexibility that’s crucial for learners of all kinds to access HE.


Enhancing soft skills

The importance of so-called ‘soft skills’ to graduate success is well documented. Course leaders should ensure adequate focus on enhancing students’ communication, collaboration and networking abilities – fostering the critical and creative thinking skills that are so central to graduate success. Students that are encouraged to develop their own networks and engage with employers and local communities before graduation will have a head start in their careers.


Building professional connections

Developing robust relationships with employers is an important way for universities to level the playing field for students. Not only does it offer additional opportunities for students to gain work-based experience, but it also helps organisations refine their recruitment practices to avoid bias – conscious or unconscious – based on ‘sticky’ preconceptions.


Putting fairness first

Most would agree that higher education has an important role to play in creating a more equal society. If HE institutions allow market forces to dictate policy, they risk reinforcing existing inequalities – cementing them within an increasingly immutable infrastructure.


Students that are disadvantaged, physically, socially, or economically will suffer – but so, too, will the universities that thrive on diversity and the global economies that urgently need more specialists in sectors like tech, engineering and healthcare to prosper. Universities must embrace inclusion, prioritising measures that not only enable, but actively encourage, students from all walks of life to participate in transformative HE experiences. Putting fairness first benefits us all.



No comments found.


*Your email address will not be published.



Contact us

Please fill the form and we will contact you as soon as possible.


Contact us

Please fill the form and we will contact you as soon as possible.