Looking beyond A levels to improve diversity in HE

If we truly want to widen access to higher education, we must wake up to the fact that a school-leaver isn’t representative of all new university entrants, says Jonathan Wylie 

August 24, 2018
Acrobats spinning plates

For many school-leavers, this time of year is full of excitement and trepidation. Excitement at the prospect of starting a new chapter at university, and trepidation over the start of a time filled with new challenges and pressures.

But for many people, the chance to go to university also competes with the need to earn an income, support a family, or maintain a livelihood. It’s not the first image that comes to mind when you think about a university entrant and our higher education system tends to function with much the same mindset. It favours those who travel the traditional route from school and disadvantages those who have to take an alternative route that fits around their other commitments, which often means that only part-time education is possible.

If we are serious about casting the net wide and improving the diversity in higher education in England, we need to think about part-time students, too. 

The diversity argument

Official statistics show that part-time undergraduate entrants in England are more likely to come from disadvantaged areas, with 17 per cent coming from disadvantaged areas compared with only 13 per cent of full-time students.

Alongside this, part-time students have proven, unsurprisingly, to be more sensitive to fee increases. With the 2012 tuition fee hike in England, part-time applications fell across the higher education sector as Claire Callender and John Thompson’s report The Lost Part-Timers showed.

Overall, there has been a 59 per cent decline in the number of people accessing part-time undergraduate study in England since the funding reforms, which has led to a 17 per cent fall in the total number of entrants to higher education from disadvantaged areas – and there’s no sign of that number going back up.

The skills gap argument 

The proportion of young people in England who enter higher education by the age of 19 has hit 39 per cent but there has been a steady decline in part-time and mature students. A recent report by Universities UK highlights how we should seek to overcome a forecast talent deficit of between 600,000 to 1.2 million workers by 2030 by educating people of all ages and equipping them with skills that can be gained only through higher education.

The solution proposed in the report could very well be right, but if we are to meet these future challenges, we will first need to examine how well the English higher education system allows students of all ages to access higher education.

To give you some idea of the differences between the full-time and part-time elements of the system, 76 per cent of Open University students are in work while they study. If we are to demand greater skills from our citizens, we need to go beyond encouraging close links between employers and universities and start putting some tangible initiatives in place to support those already in work who want to upskill or who need to reskill.

How do we solve it?

One way that we might seek to do so is by offering more generous support for both full-time and part-time students. The recent call from the Russell Group for the reinstatement of maintenance grants in England is along the right lines but it does not go far enough when it comes to removing barriers for all.

Proposals for the reintroduction of maintenance support in England will help only if such support is also available to part-time and distance learners. 

One promising area of reform, which seems to be leading to an increase in the numbers of part-time students, is in Wales. There, after recommendations made by the Diamond review, revised student support arrangements will be available from September 2018 that apply to part-time and distance learners, as well as to full-time ones. New part-time entrants will be able to access maintenance grants and loans – and tuition fee loans – in the same way as their full-time counterparts, just proportionate to their intensity of study.

If we are to be truly serious about widening access to university, we need to take a critical look at the current barriers to higher education and give those who have to take a non-traditional route the flexibility and affordability that they need. In Wales, this may well be happening already.

Jonathan Wylie is the chief commercial and strategy officer at The Open University

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