Redefining access to higher education?

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At QAA’s Access to HE conference in May 2022 Shakira Martin, Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College and former NUS President 2017-2019, presented the keynote. She shared her journey into and through education and explained that in preparing her speech she had had cause to look at the definition of access to higher or further education. The definition she shared with the conference was “means[1] or opportunity[2] to approach or enter a place” She noted that the focus was on OR not AND, and challenged us to think carefully about what we actually meant when talking about access to education. As someone who has worked within education for many years, most of them championing ways to increase the number of adults progressing to higher education it caused me to stop and think. I make the statement regularly, but what do I actually mean? From an ethical perspective, I absolutely do mean means AND opportunity, but in reality when I talk about my work am I just looking at one or the other?

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According to the Cambridge and Collins online dictionaries the noun “access” means an individual is able or allowed to enter a building; see or use information; see or meet another person. I wondered if this had changed over time and looked at an old hardcopy dictionary, again, while there was more narrow range of elements included, the focus remained on OR. As a verb, “access” is defined as succeeding in finding or obtaining something; again a focus on OR. As we know OR is a conjunction used to define alternatives; my old 1974 Readers Digest dictionary (10th reprint) defines OR as “introducing the second of two alternatives, all but the first, or only the last of any number , the second of several pairs”. This older definition bolstered my ego for a short while as it reinforced my internal rationalisation. But the words of the keynote kept coming back to me, why one OR the other, why not strive for both? Today, it should be possible to offer a way of getting into education, specifically higher education, and make it possible for an individual to do this. However, while for many of us offering a way into higher education is our bread and butter (be it through delivering outreach programmes or specific programmes leading to progression qualifications, or providing information about ways of getting into higher education) the means, that is making it possible for students to do this, is often more challenging. When the means are time or finance, this can seem insurmountable. For many adult students giving up an income is a challenge let alone finding the time for study while juggling family life. We do not have the resources to fund courses for students or to provide all the equipment they may need. We certainly cannot provide any more hours in the day. Some students do not believe they have the right or ability to study at a higher level, for them this is their means barrier; research by King’s College London has considered belonging and self-efficacy[3]. The importance of education is not a new concept as can be noted in a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Upon the subject of education…. I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in.” I am governor for a secondary school where many students do not think they have the right to go to university, or that attending university means travelling far from home which makes them uncomfortable. They do not see themselves, or people like them, in places of higher study. In many cases this is because of community or family expectations and experience, and there are extremes in viewpoint ranging from “I did well enough without qualifications” to “you have to do better than me so you can get a good job”. In some cases the societal expectations, and/or religious or cultural rules, mean individuals lack the agency to continue their education. It takes a strong individual to go against the wishes of their family to pursue their education. And then there are the physical means to study, for example a lack of suitable equipment or space, that create barriers to learning. Many of these physical barriers have been highlighted most recently throughout the pandemic. We have become better at providing equipment to support these physical needs. Yet despite a range of supports, a lack of means presents tangible barriers to education, learning and developing skills. The ways we think and work can help to make sure that we provide both an opportunity and the means for students to progress to higher level study. I recognise that some students may need or want only one or the other, but in all cases surely the services we provide and information we make available ought to focus on the AND rather than the OR. So, in closing I am going to extend the challenge, put to participants at QAA’s Access to HE conference through Shakira Martin’s keynote, to you. How do we make sure that access to higher education is defined as more than “ [the] means OR opportunity to approach or enter a place”? so that we can provide to students and potential students both the means AND opportunity to benefit from higher level study.

Blog by: Ann-Marie Karadia, Access Officer, QAA and FACE Executive Member

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