Access and success: working together to eliminate inequality gaps

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Educational disparities are complex and entrenched. A student’s ability to stay on course, achieve a good degree, and secure a graduate level job relates to a complex interplay of institutional factors and intersectionality. Higher education institutions must acknowledge this and advance equality of opportunity on campus. This requires a ‘warts and all’ appraisal of performance, ambition, a commitment to change, and a plan to achieve this. The Office for Students’ (OfS) new strategic focus on access and participation is bringing staff, students, parents and employers together to discuss inequality and identify changes to institutional policies and practices.

At my own university, Derby, we are proud of our diverse student body and recognise the value that this brings to our learning community. However, our metrics, like all other institutions, disclose an unpalatable scenario – not all students have an equal chance of success. The publicly available Access and Participation Plans (APP) for post-1992 institutions reveal that many of us are seeking to close the same gaps for the same “target groups”. We need to work together. The OfS Addressing Barriers to Student Success Project demonstrates the value of partnership, providing test beds to try out and evaluate the effectiveness of new practices.

So how, individually and collectively, through shared values and endeavour, can we can eliminate these equality gaps? Do we understand the explanatory/causal factors that can create differential outcomes within institutions? How can we secure culture change, embed inclusive practice, and create a learning community in which all of our students can flourish?

  • Staff working in this space are taking a stand against inequality – as reflected in our language and approach. We are anti-racist, we are seeking to eliminate awarding (not attainment) gaps, and are tackling statements and actions that are contrary to equity and inclusion. We reject deficit models and recognise that it is our institutional cultures and practices, and not our students, which needs to change. The word “intervention” is itself problematic, as it can change the focus to students’ lack of understanding or knowledge (a deficit).
  • Inclusive leadership and collaborative working is crucial – securing maximum impact in eliminating gaps requires the alignment of APPs, equality, diversity and inclusion and other key strategies. All of our strategies, policies and services should be inclusive and accessible. At Derby, this philosophy is underpinning the development of our new Attainment and Learning and Teaching Strategies.
  • The number of students reporting mental health issue is at an all-time high, and is described as a crisis on our campuses. Positive mental health and wellbeing is intrinsic to academic achievement, career and life prospects. Institutions cannot replace services provided by the NHS, but can consider how their curriculum, pedagogies and assessment processes, signposting, inclusive services, and relationships between staff and students could improve student mental health and wellbeing.  
  • The curriculum is the only point of guaranteed contact between a university and its students. We should seek to embed our approaches within it. Our pedagogies are a barrier for some students, and we should consider how different styles could better support a diverse student body.
  • Our language, systems and processes can be a barrier to success where they are complicated or leave students to flounder. O’Shea (2016) utilised Yosso’s Community Cultural Wealth Framework (Yosso 2005) to consider what “first-in-family individuals bring to the university environment and how these types of capitals potentially enable them to enact success.” Our environments must be accessible to all students and challenge them to be critical thinkers who are passionate in their discipline
  • Many institutions are beginning to explore the use of learner analytics tools to capture how groups of students engage in their learning journey (teaching, online resources, library etc.) and to assess their risk of withdrawal. We need to consider how best to use this data, including how it is presented to students in a supportive manner, mitigating potential risks.
  • The student voice must be consistently included and heard throughout the institution. Our students help us to reflect on our strategies, policies, the content of the curriculum, our extra-curricular activities. They work with us to identify micro-aggressions in these areas, which can become a barrier to engagement and success. Work has begun to ‘decolonise the curriculum,’ and to ensure that our campuses create a sense of belonging for all students.
  • Individual characteristics do not define our students. Working with them during transition into and through university allows us to explore them as individuals – to understand what they want to gain from their higher education experience and the decisions they need to take to make the most of it. We need to recognise students’ wider experience and the intersectional factors that contribute to differential outcomes e.g. how they support themselves financially, and the impact that commuting has on their academic and social engagement.
  • External organisations play an important role in student attainment and success – notably graduate employability – but including other success factors such as health and wellbeing. Engaging with employers secures their support, insight, understanding and buy-in. All students should benefit from ever-deepening workplace experiences, including placement years, which are effective in closing progression gaps for some students.

Every member of staff in higher education affects the student learning experience. Understanding and owning the inequality gaps in our programmes and services allows us to make our own personal contribution. For this, we need access to student data, support to develop our own theories of change (evaluation practice), and mandatory training on the barriers to success across the student journey.

Working together, both internally, and across institutions, gives us the best chance to tackle inequality and injustice, and improve social mobility.

Blog by Dan West - Policy and Research Lead for Social Mobility at the University of Derby


O’Shea, S. (2016). Avoiding the manufacture of ‘sameness’: first-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment. Higher Education, 72(8), 59-78.
Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of Community Cultural Wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.

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