Make year one free for first-in-family students, says report

Proposal one of several put forward for higher education to bridge post-Brexit divides in UK

February 27, 2020
Unfinished Forth Road Bridge
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Students whose parents did not go to university should have free tuition in their first year to boost participation and retention for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, says a report on how to bridge educational divides in the UK after Brexit.

Such a policy would signal “the importance of overcoming this barrier to educational attainment” and form part of a package of measures that would enable universities to help bridge social, economic and regional divides in the country.

The proposal is put forward in a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, co-authored by Lord Kerslake, chair of governors at Sheffield Hallam University and former head of the Civil Service.

According to Making Universities Matter: How Higher Education Can Help to Heal a Divided Britain – co-written with Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam, and Natalie Day, the university’s head of policy and strategy – “there is a serious danger that universities continue to be out of step” with the political direction of the country in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union.

As a result, policies need to be found that involve them in solutions that “reach out to parts of the country who have felt left-behind by education and economic opportunities”, the report says.

Recommendations in the report, which was published on 27 February, target three key areas, including better “partnerships” with institutions such as further education colleges and improved “progression” in higher education for disadvantaged groups.

On progression, the report says some ground had been made in the past few years, but “recent work has made it clear that there is a long road ahead to eliminate inequalities in higher education”.

In particular, issues around widening participation had been “disproportionately focused on outreach and access, with too little emphasis on how to retain and ensure success and progression for students once they are at university”.

The report suggests that making the first year of a degree free for any student whose parents did not go to university would tackle a “major influence on educational progression”.

“Once in study, the onus would rightly then be on universities and colleges to nurture, challenge and inspire these students,” it adds.

Another recommendation of the report related to widening participation is for the government to put £25 million a year into the national outreach programme in England, now known as Uni Connect, a figure that should then be matched by compulsory contributions from universities.

Elsewhere, the paper calls for the establishment of a National Skills Council for England that would involve leaders from further and higher education in driving “collaboration and encourage locally focused partnerships to address skills shortages and educational disadvantage”.

There is also a recommendation for universities to help create a “civic index” to help institutions “measure and monitor their engagement activity with their local area”.

Lord Kerslake, who has been leading the UK2070 Commission on regional inequality, said involvement in the “fundamental” reshaping of the UK’s economic and social model was universities’ “civic responsibility, and it needs to become core to our institutional values”.

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