University leaders must make tackling inequality a core part of their mission if government wishes for higher education to improve life chances are to be realised, according to a report.
In their Supporting Thriving Communities: the Role of Universities in Reducing Inequality report, the University Alliance notes that universities are “often accused of doing little to tackle this inequality and even of supporting the status quo”, but the study identifies strategies for success, based on evidence garnered from across the higher education sector.
“The purpose of this report is to demonstrate that universities can play a positive role in supporting social mobility, if they make a meaningful strategic commitment and adopt sustained strategies for access, retention and graduate success,” it states.
“Government also has a role in supporting universities to do this, through policy and through the work of public bodies in the higher education (HE) sector.”
The report highlights “collaborative outreach”, working in partnerships with schools, as the most effective way to support under-represented pupils in applying to university. It reiterates the importance of a continued “strong role” for the Office for Fair Access (Offa) and the reinforcement of the National Collaborative Outreach programme, when the new Office for Students is established.
Other aspects the report considers beyond access include retention, progression and graduate success. To improve retention, it says “strong senior leadership” is necessary in driving “effective activities with an institution-wide focus on belonging and inclusion for all students”.
Besides buy-in from senior university leaders, the report recommends embedding objectives throughout institutions, saying it might lead to widespread changes in current practices and processes.
Universities should “move away from a deficit model where a student is assumed to be ‘lacking’ certain skills or attributes to a model where the skills and attributes they bring are recognised”. Interventions such as “unconscious bias training”, developing an “inclusive curriculum” and “increasing staff diversity” were beneficial in changing institutional cultures, it adds.
The report also states that universities' work does not end at the student body.
In his foreword to the report Steve West, chair of University Alliance and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, calls on universities to “reach out to our communities to ensure the benefits of higher education are felt beyond our student populations”.
“Universities will only be fully supporting social fairness when everyone with the ability to benefit from a university education has the opportunity to do so,” said Maddalaine Ansell, the University Alliance’s chief executive.
“This must go beyond 'access' to include ensuring students are supported to complete their studies and progress to further study or a good job.
“As powers and budgets are increasingly devolved from Westminster and Whitehall, our universities stand ready to work with schools, businesses and local leaders to make cities and regions fairer places where everyone has the chance to succeed.”