I spoke at the HEFCE Annual Meeting yesterday about the ways in which universities and colleges are working to widen participation and support student success, and particularly the need to demonstrate the impact of this work.  

In his influential report on higher education, Lionel Robbins said that:

‘courses of HE should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’.

Due to the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report last year, a number of politicians and commentators have highlighted the continuing resonance of this principle: as Robbins himself said: ‘on the general principle as we have stated it, we hope there will be little dispute’.

Fifty years on, we have a couple of million, rather than a couple of hundred thousand, students, and although the availability of courses is important, we are more concerned with opportunity than availability.  This is a more dynamic concept.  It’s concerned with universities and colleges working actively to widen participation to their courses and supporting students to succeed, both through their studies and their progress in the world beyond.  In the context of social mobility, which is the lens through which this activity is now commonly viewed, the outcomes from higher education have become an increasingly crucial focus.

Universities and colleges have their own imperatives in this area.  They want to recruit students with the greatest potential and their standing rests on their ability to ensure these students succeed.  This work has also, though, been fuelled by considerable public funding from HEFCE over more than a decade, and that is now supplemented by the investments institutions make through their access agreements.

But what do we know about the impact of this investment?

Well, we know that HEFCE funding has changed the culture, ensuring that widening participation has become entrenched within university missions.  In the words of one senior manager, ‘it was only once we had the HEFCE funding that we were able to do what the institution had a commitment to doing’.

Alongside this, we know that the rate of participation by students from the lowest participation neighbourhoods has increased by around 50 per cent over ten years.  We also know that the sector has managed to improve retention – a considerable achievement and distinctive internationally – during the same period, and there is little sign that the increase in tuition fees will halt this.

We also, however, know that the gap between the lowest and highest participation neighbourhoods remains high.  You are still three times more likely to enter higher education if you come from a high than a low participation background.  This is clear from the graph below.

We are also developing an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the outcomes achieved by students from different backgrounds, in terms of their retention in higher education, their level of attainment, whether or not they gain employment or progress to further study, and whether their employment can be considered a ‘graduate job’.

This presents a worrying picture.  For example, as the chart below shows, there is a clear correlation between the achievement of the outcomes listed above and a student’s background, even once factors such as entry qualification have been taken into account.

If a similar approach is applied to ethnicity, there is more variation, but a striking difference, for example, between the outcomes achieved by white and black students.

Fortunately, just as we are gathering better evidence, we are identifying effective practice.  At the HEFCE Annual Meeting, I highlighted Queen Mary’s in-depth relationships with schools, Derby’s use of a recipe card of interventions to improve attainment and Brunel’s professional mentoring scheme.  I could, though, have highlighted similar initiatives in universities and colleges throughout the country.  The common features of each example were that they were evidence-based, with regard to identifying both the problem and the response, they were resource-intensive, requiring significant commitment by the institutions, but they produced clear results, in terms of academic standing and progress into work.

HEFCE will aim to continue to provide Student Opportunity funding in a manner that is flexible enough for institutions to work with their particular student and local constituencies.  We will also, though, need more forensically to focus on activities for which there is clear evidence that they make a difference, for example due to the level of innovation, the degree of collaboration between institutions and, crucially, the evidence on their outcomes for students, society and the economy.

We are working with leading economists and a group of pilot institutions to develop a new approach to understanding the benefits of our investment in this area.  We look forward to sharing this more widely during the coming year.