Wider participation is important, but so is ensuring that existing students graduate, argues Liz Allen.
Week after week, the headlines are filled with initiatives to help open higher education to non-traditional students, the latest involving several universities - including Warwick and Nottingham - lowering their entry requirements. But is there an argument for shifting the emphasis of our access strategies towards achievement and retention, rather than focusing so much energy on entry barriers?
United Kingdom dropout rates are frequently held up as an example of the higher education system's efficacy at retaining students, but we should not be complacent. In 1999, a fifth of students failed to graduate. This is an unacceptable level of waste - economic and human. It also raises difficult questions about where higher education may be going wrong in terms of retaining and supporting non-traditional students. At a widening participation conference last week, speakers from both academic and policy camps argued it was time to rethink the participation issue.
Latest research suggests that higher education can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated, with its culture seen as both alien and intimidating, especially for those coming into the system from the relatively supportive cocoon of further education, where small group working and one-to-one support are still the norm.
The induction process - which should be a welcoming and inclusive experience - is all too often the first indication non-traditional students get that higher education fails to cater for their needs. Freshers' week, for example, with its emphasis on leaving home and becoming independent, is hardly a sensitive, inclusive introduction for mature students, many with families of their own. Then there is the difficulty of getting reading lists and timetables early enough, both of which can be crucial for students juggling study with family, home and work commitments.
Disability access is also an issue. Small changes, such as clearly laid out overheads, benefit all students, not just the visually impaired. More flexible teaching via home-based laptops for students with mobility problems, some flexibility with deadlines for dyslexic students or provision of extra technology support could all contribute to making the study experience more rewarding.
In addition, many non-traditional students have greater support and teaching needs - particularly in the first year. Natfhe members have been told for some years that they "over-teach", but many feel profound frustration at not being able to offer these students the support they need and deserve.
Casualised employment models hardly promote a pastoral environment. Staff employed on temporary contracts by the teaching hour are not paid to be available outside class time to provide the sort of informal support that is so important to non-traditional students who, unfortunately, can find themselves in the "Yoyo" (You're On Your Own) situation.
Staff development in relation to widening participation needs to include part-time casual staff, as must the overall staff development strategy in relation to teaching and learning.
Underpinning all of these issues is the need for some joined-up thinking about widening participation. Access strategies need to be integrated into an institution's overall strategy, not regarded as an "add-on". The practice of employing temporary project workers on widening participation initiatives reinforces the idea that access issues operate on the higher education periphery.
Institutions might have a number of initiatives relating to widening participation: use of technology; learning and teaching; provision for disabled students; staff development and human resources - but they might not take account of each other. New guidelines from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, relating to good practice in widening participation strategies and teaching and learning strategies, stress this point.
No one is denying the importance of improving recruitment practices, but this alone is not enough to solve a multi-faceted issue. There is a need to spread good widening participation practice across higher education and reward those institutions that have changed their curriculum and delivery to support and retain non-traditional students.
Liz Allen is a national official in Natfhe's universities department.