School outreach staff have failed to communicate the importance of getting more pupils from poor backgrounds into higher education, a university access chief has argued.
Accusing universities, schools and outreach practitioners of talking primarily to each other about improving higher education participation rates, Graeme Atherton, head of AccessHE – which organises outreach projects for London universities – urged staff to talk to those outside the “access bubble”.
Speaking at a Westminster Briefing event in London on 7 November, Dr Atherton said he also wanted to see more businesses and students’ unions involved in access initiatives.
“If we continue to speak just to higher education institutions, schools and colleges, I do not know how far it will take us,” he said.
“There has to be an element of risk-taking,” he added, noting that the outreach landscape had changed significantly since the government abolished the national Aimhigher programme, which closed in 2011.
Dr Atherton said the sector’s success in improving the life chances of young people through university was not understood by society at large: “We need to take responsibility for the story of our success – it should be about telling stories, not so much recounting facts and figures.”
Referring to the 50 student case studies in a report, titled Access All Areas, published last month by Universities Scotland, he asked: “That is a powerful piece of work but why don’t we have something like that for England?”
Also speaking at the event, Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, unveiled new processes to consolidate both Offa’s access agreements and widening participation reporting to the Higher Education Funding Council for England into a single submission.
By April, universities will have to submit a Strategy for Access and Student Success, which they will have to use to justify receiving widening participation funding from Hefce and to gain Offa approval to charge fees above £6,000.
A new Hefce-Offa joint strategy on access was submitted to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last month and is likely to be published in early 2014, Professor Ebdon added.
The new strategy would not require universities to spend more on access, Professor Ebdon indicated. “I’m not looking for a further increase in expenditure, but smarter use of institutions’ money,” he said.
Nor would it stifle innovation by prescribing set ways of supporting school pupils to apply to university, he added. “I’m all for institutions trying different things, but they need to evaluate what they are doing.”