Universities carry the load of widening access – Experts

Despite the United Kingdom government’s stated commitment to widening access to higher education, its policies – such as high cost student loans and proposals for a minimum entry requirement for higher education – mean it is left to universities committed to social mobility to carry the heavy load of making widened participation a reality.

So claims Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), after presenting NEON’s Higher Education Institution of the Year Award to Sheffield Hallam University in South Yorkshire for its commitment to widening access to higher education and enabling social mobility.

Award for long-term commitment

Atherton, who also heads the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London, told University World News: “It is vital to recognise the work of universities such as Sheffield Hallam on widening access to higher education. They’ve shown a long-term commitment to supporting those from a diverse range of backgrounds to enter and progress through higher education and gone far beyond what is expected.”

The NEON award is the latest recognition of the work by Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) in building strong partnerships with its local community in northern England – an area hit in the last few decades by losing its former strong manufacturing base in steelmaking and coal mining.

“In particular the award recognises SHU’s outreach initiatives with schools, colleges and charities to inform those from working-class backgrounds about what university can offer and inspire them to reach for university as a goal,” said Atherton. “Our awards attempt to show universities that their work on widening access matters.”

The NEON award follows a number of recent wins for SHU, including University of the Year at both the UK Social Mobility Awards and the Educate North Awards. The university was also named Outstanding Entrepreneurial University at the Times Higher Education Awards.

Cuts in investment

Atherton told University World News it is a difficult time for those working in widening higher education access in England following “huge cuts in investment in collaborative regional programmes that bring together schools and universities to work with young people from low-income backgrounds to support them to progress to higher education”.

He said: “While the Access and Participation Plan remains one of the most pro-active policies in the world where equitable access is concerned, it is coupled with an increasingly expensive tuition fee regime for students from low-income backgrounds as repayment terms are tightened and attempts are made to limit participation for those with low entry qualifications.”

He added that attempts to open up access for older learners “remain unconvincing as they will be offered the opportunity to take on debt via the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement, despite it being widely accepted that they are very debt averse”.

Atherton claimed the current UK government “has shied away from championing the power of university education to address inequality and had left that to organisations like NEON and universities such as Sheffield Hallam”.

But despite what he called “attempts to limit university participation”, Atherton said NEON member universities, such as SHU, were still making progress in widening access – but it will be “crucial that they continue to work together as a national widening-access community if this progress is to be maintained”.

‘Fair access is in our DNA’

Anna Toyne, head of access development at SHU, told University World News: “Fair access and support for all our students is in our DNA at Sheffield Hallam and it is great for that to be acknowledged by the sector and our peers.”

She agreed with Atherton that it is a tough time for those working in widening participation to higher education.

“Alongside the changing landscape of policy, there is the legacy of COVID-19 and its impact on the most vulnerable and under-served.”

Some of these policy challenges were highlighted earlier this month by Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, who warned that a cap on student numbers and government proposals on minimum entry requirements would be “hugely limiting to those who cannot afford to move away from their home towns for university”, as University World News reported earlier this month.

Partnership strategy

Toyne said Sheffield Hallam’s widening participation strategy was based on partnerships, both regionally and nationally, and that the university’s widening participation team delivers targeted outreach sessions to more than 60,000 young people every year – helping to reach those underrepresented groups who might not have considered higher education.

“Through educational and broader regional and national programmes, like the Civic University Network, we’re able to cover more ground and learn from good practice across the sector.

“Our own Higher Education Progression Partnership with the University of Sheffield ensures impartial and high quality information is available to learners, parents and advisors,” she told University World News.

Toyne said Sheffield Hallam had become one of the UK’s largest and most diverse universities by following this approach. Among its student population of more than 30,000 students:

• 40% come from within 25 miles of the university;

• Over half are the first in their family to go to university;

• 97% are from state schools;

• 23% are from low participation in higher education neighbourhoods;

• Around 6,000 have reported they have a disability.

Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Chris Husbands said his university had been educating more students from underrepresented backgrounds than any other in the UK for five consecutive years and was the top modern UK university for the number of graduates in highly skilled jobs within 15 months of graduating.

“Around 65% of Sheffield Hallam’s 30,000 students carry one or more of the ‘widening participation markers’, such as being from a disadvantaged or underrepresented background or a vulnerable group,” he said.

Engagement despite COVID restrictions

Toyne said despite the COVID restrictions in 2020, SHU’s widening participation activities with disadvantaged and underrepresented groups had meant engagement with 24,845 under-16 participants and 1,962 parents.

Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students in the UK parliament, told University World News: “It’s excellent that Sheffield Hallam University has been recognised for its commitment to widening participation, and its sector-leading approach to access.

“The government’s proposals for minimum entry requirements, student number controls and higher loan repayments for lower-paid graduates risk making it more difficult for students from lower-participation backgrounds to access higher education.

“So, while we press ministers to think again about their plans and make student finance fairer, it’s critical that universities continue to invest and innovate in access programmes to ensure that regardless of where you’re from, you can attend university if you want to.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.