England’s new university access tsar must be a “strong public advocate” for the widening participation agenda in higher education, a leading sector expert has said.
As Chris Millward was named as the Office for Students’ first director for fair access and participation, Graeme Atherton, director of AccessHE at London Higher, which represents universities in the UK capital, said that it would be crucial to have a strong voice from within the new regulator to stand up for efforts to increase the social diversity of students.
The appointment of Mr Millward represents a break from previous directors of access who have, since the creation of the Office for Fair Access in 2004, all been former vice-chancellors. Mr Millward is currently director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, where he recently oversaw the introduction of the teaching excellence framework.
Dr Atherton, who is also director of the National Education Opportunities Network, which coordinates university outreach and access programmes, said that it was important for the career administrator to be as vocal about access as current director Les Ebdon, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire.
“I would like to see Chris continue Les’ work as a public advocate for widening participation, which has also seen him engage with all parts of the sector,” said Dr Atherton. “It is also vital to make sure that Chris has the same resources [for access] as Hefce and Offa currently have in their student opportunity and access teams, so I will be interested to see the composition of his team.
“If anything, Chris needs to have greater influence than previous Offa directors because the director is only part of a much larger body whereas Offa is an independent body."
On the concerns that a higher education administrator might not speak out as freely on access matters as a former vice-chancellor heading an independent body, Dr Atherton said that Professor Ebdon’s evolving approach to his role showed the limitation of being too strident.
“Les continued to be a strong advocate for access, but I think he realised that you can only get so far by criticising the nature of some [selective] institutions,” said Dr Atherton.
Mr Millward’s role in the UK’s new super-regulator for higher education, which will be fully operational in April 2018, will be crucial because it will involve shaping the post-2020 targets for universities and the sector more widely.
“The targets to double the participation rate for disadvantaged students by 2020 [from 2009 levels] by David Cameron on the campaign trail unlocked considerable amounts of investment,” said Dr Atherton, who said that the issue of post-2020 funding would be a priority. “The new targets might not just be about entry, but retention, success and outcomes.”