Widening participation to higher education is a nationally important challenge, but it’s just as important to ensure that students succeed in their studies and secure graduate jobs.

We need greater access to higher education – but student success is just as important

The challenge

The Government has made clear its commitment to ensuring that higher education is accessible to all who are qualified and wish to study, in particular students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In his first speech to the sector at the beginning of this month, the new Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, challenged his audience ‘to do all you can’ to realise the Prime Minister’s goal to double the proportion of those from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education by 2020 (from a 2009 baseline).

Johnson also emphasised the importance of outcomes, within the dual contexts of social mobility and the drive to increase UK productivity: the need to ensure that, having cleared the hurdle of entry to higher education, students succeed in their studies and progress into good jobs.

The good news

First, the good news: things are heading in the right direction. Access into higher education has improved significantly for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. HEFCE analysis has shown that the young participation rate was 4 percentage points higher than the trends in GCSE attainment implied in 2009.

And more of those students are completing their courses: the non-continuation rate for full-time students has improved from a rate of 14 per cent in 2003-04 to 10 per cent in 2013-14.

The bad news

We all know the bad news. Participation rates for disadvantaged students continue to lag far behind those students in the most advantaged groups.

You are still three times more likely to enter higher education if you come from a high than a low participation background. And HEFCE analysis clearly shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, certain groups of disabled students, and students from certain ethnic groups, do significantly less well in terms of degree attainment and progression to postgraduate study or employment than other student groups.

Latest research

The independent reports we are publishing today add to this growing evidence base.

They provide a detailed insight into the work that universities and colleges are doing to increase participation in higher education, and the challenges they face in terms of supporting their students to succeed.

A number of themes emerge from the reports:

  • There is a need for more targeted, evidence-based approaches to improving access and student success. For example, our own analysis points to a clear need to focus outreach activity at those areas of the country where rates of participation in higher education are lower than might be expected given prior GCSE attainment rates.
  • Excellent learning and teaching is crucial to addressing differential outcomes. A student’s experience of and engagement in their higher education learning, and their relationships with staff and other students, are key factors in explaining such outcomes. This theme links to the review currently being undertaken by HEFCE and the funding bodies in Wales and Northern Ireland of quality assessment, and the work with Government and the sector to develop a Teaching Excellence Framework.
  • Pressure on resourcing of support for disabled students is coming at a time when demand for services is increasing, particularly from students presenting with mental health problems. Institutional support is now disproportionately reliant on tuition fee contributions for all students. There is a pressing need to develop sustainable approaches with a demonstrable positive impact on student outcomes, and a clear desire within institutions to continue to develop their support for disabled students within a social rather than a medical model.
  • A theme across all the reports, and one that is recognised by institutions, is the need to develop more robust evidence of the impact of their work in this area. There is much good work going on, but little evidence of interventions and approaches being systematically evaluated in terms of their effectiveness and impact. The inability to say with certainty ‘what works’ in delivering progress on this agenda is increasingly untenable.

What HEFCE will do

HEFCE’s long-term investment in widening participation activity has yielded significant returns for individuals, the economy and society by delivering sustained improvements in access to higher education and student retention. Clearly, however, there is much more still to do.

These reports establish the basis for HEFCE’s strategy for student success during the next five years. We will develop our future programme of work with Government, universities and colleges and sector bodies.

We anticipate this will be shaped around four key areas:

  • We will work to improve the evidence base. This should demonstrate the effectiveness and impact of the work institutions do to widen access, improve retention and student success, and support progression to postgraduate study and graduate employment.
  • We will support the development and take-up of systematic approaches to addressing what students from different backgrounds achieve. We will embed this work within the evolving landscape of quality assessment and teaching excellence.
  • We will develop our approach to future funding and support for disabled students. This will aim to ensure that the models supported are efficient, effective and balanced in terms of public investment and private funding through tuition fee income.
  • We will focus any future access funding where it is able to add most value through targeting those localities where there are known to be unexplained gaps in higher education participation.