Thoughts at the end of a year, 2021
We certainly continue to go through interesting times. The government very recently highlighted changes coming up next year which will affect all of us who work in the access, wide participation, engagement and student progression communities – whatever our role or sector. A new Director for Fair Access and Participation has been appointed to commence in January which always creates some unease, particularly alongside the imminent departure of two highly experienced and committed senior OfS staff. The appointment of John Blake as Director of Fair Access and Participation; the 23 November government letter to vice-chancellors; the University Minister’s speech to THE Campus Live event on the 24 November; Brexit-induced change from Erasmus to Turing with transfer of proprietor from British Council to Capita — all sketch out some of the new changes facing us. We must not forget, however, that these are merely setting out direction of travel and it will be for the OfS and the new Director of Fair Access and Participation to produce the concrete details: guides, maps, instructions etc for how we travel and, indeed, our specific destination.
The committed and the quizzical might pause to reflect on both the pleasingly rapid, yet sometimes disappointingly slow, pace of upward social mobility effected through higher education. As an example, just when institutional Widening Participation 5 year-plans are becoming nicely embedded (despite the disruptions we have all experienced over the past two years) continuity is once again threatened. And, currently, it is unclear as to the Ministers’ comprehension of distance already travelled; the simple realities of how institutions work; or indeed, all the social forces that operate to hinder upward social mobility. The new Director’s perspective comes primarily from a schools’ policy background which, with increased Ministerial attention on school prior attainment, will undoubtedly lead to changes of approach but I hope will not lose sight of the fact that the responsibility for school attainment must lie primarily with schools (supported by HE providers of course). This must not lead to refocusing resources on HE provider outreach at the expense of the work ongoing inside institutions to improve all student engagement, attainment and progression (and a government recognition that student success is not just about big salaries). The Minister has reiterated the government plans to give learners of all ages the chance to gain skills and experience via Lifelong Loan Entitlement through a new funding and access system to develop a culture of lifelong learning – a “fair and inclusive” system supporting individuals to reskill and upskill delivering some of their levelling up agenda, as well as asking universities and colleges to develop an increased focus on various higher technical qualifications. It is not clear yet how this will sit alongside a redistribution of the balance of funding between higher and further education budgets but it is high time that lifelong or lifetime learning is proactively removed from the backburner. Attention to supporting the government’s levelling up policies only serves to resonate with the focus we have had with Uni Connect and NCOP programmes to spread HE opportunity to areas of the country which, for various reasons over the years, have been neglected. And ministerial focus on “not just getting in, but getting on” we must presume vindicates the direction of travel in the continuation and the development of greater institutional emphases on student retention, success and progression in recent years. Ministerial assertions that the new approach will mean less bureaucracy is very welcome – although significant change, as we know, often brings increased bureaucracy and the concomitant expectation that providers can then deliver “material efficiency benefits from this less bureaucratic approach.” It is more difficult to put a positive spin on, for instance, the apparent Ministerial perspective that institutions are self-interestedly recruiting through their Widening Participation work (the letter of 23 November) especially as since the time of Aimhigher and before, institutions have largely guided and supported the progression of school and college pupils into the best courses and institutions for the individual student – and continue to do so. And the challenge very clearly remains in problems in monitoring and recording the results and tracking outcomes of these “altruistic” interventions – and how to do this within a government-driven increasing marketisation of Higher Education. Equally, if the government does introduce a new entry threshold for a place on university courses (students ineligible for a student loan unless they have at least a level 4 ie. the equivalent of an old grade C in maths and English at GCSE) as a means of reining in its rising student loan debt, then this could negatively affect the admissions of a large proportion of all disadvantaged pupils in England (adversely affecting the north more than the south). We certainly continue to go through interesting times.