A successful society means success for all graduates

HEFCE recently published a series of research reports to evaluate the ‘state of play’ for diverse student groups, their access, outputs and outcomes. Using this evidence the Council has now set out its strategy for student opportunity and success.

As a Vice-Chancellor of a university with a fairly diverse student body, and as an academic who came into higher education late, I developed a research career in the area of student diversity. So, naturally, I was interested to see the results of the research. What lessons can we, in institutions, learn, and how are HEFCE’s plans for the next five years going to affect our practice?

‘Excellence’ and success for all

It is a particularly interesting time to examine student diversity and outcomes for different groups. For the first time, issues of teaching practice have risen up the agenda.

The concept of ‘excellence’ in teaching is complex. The wider international higher education sector disagrees over what on earth it can mean. Still, finding a definition is important.

The definition must, for me, recognise the success of different student groups. Hence, HEFCE’s work is timely and important.

The Government recently published its report on productivity and growth. This highlights that a skilled workforce is key to productivity. So we need to ensure all graduates can contribute to the development of our economy.

And, beyond the economy, graduates make a considerable contribution to wider society and social integration. So, again, ensuring all our graduates have had the best chance possible is vital.

This is why HEFCE’s reports matter. They examine the issues that affect different social groups, and address many of the questions the sector has been struggling to understand for at least ten years.

Understanding success

The research highlights significant success in widening access as well as improving retention of students from lower socio-economic groups. This is a real achievement. Most other countries have not cracked both access and retention.

Beyond the basic statistics, we still need to understand what we are doing right. We need proper comparable evaluation inside institutions to inform improvements across the sector.

This requires us to develop a robust framework from input, to output, to outcomes. The research recommends a way forward, which HEFCE is looking to use with the sector, to develop our understanding of our students’ levels of success.

I really welcome this approach as it is clear each institution, each group of practitioners, and each research group has used its own measures. So we have not been able to compare like with like.

A framework would, of course, need to include quantitative and qualitative measures. The combination would respect the context of the institution and its students, and would provide more robust evidence of at least ‘good’ practice, if not ‘excellence’.

The newly commissioned learning gain projects, and work on ‘social capital’, will obviously inform this work.


One of the real challenges facing institutions has been the continuing differential outcomes for some black and minority ethnic students compared with white students. Having done some work on this area myself in 2007 as part of an ESRC project, I am particularly concerned to see that practice is still patchy, and outcomes are still unequal and unexplained.  Clearly, there is more to do.

Many of the findings, however, are not that dissimilar to my results from 2009.  Within institutions we need, as standard practice, to track our students’ success, comparing outcomes at each stage of their study. We also need to check outliers, and develop interventions based on the study’s recommendations. Ensuring success for students from minority ethnic backgrounds is crucial and a top government priority.

Each institution will need to address this in relation to their own mission and student body. But it’s crucial to provide an environment where all groups of students flourish.

Mental health

Challenges to mental health in 21st century Britain are seen as equal to industrial accidents of the 19th century. By that I mean it is a major issue for our society, and the response has to be societal.

Higher education, as part of wider society, is facing this challenge. The reports highlight that the caseloads for staff working in this area are mounting, student needs are more complex, and levels of provision are unequal at different institutions.

This is, of course, not unlike the rest of society, but as a sector we need to learn from the case studies of good practice highlighted in the research. HEFCE has a key role to play: to share these studies and help institutions systematise good practice.

Disabled students

Funding for disabled students is changing, and this challenges institutions to even maintain the provision they currently offer. The sector is noticeably concerned, and my institution is no exception.

So, with less resources available, HEFCE must work urgently with institutions to help them understand how they can enhance provision in the way they need to.

Beyond tradition

Institutions also use a range of tools to address access. Supportive partnerships and offers, motivational activities to encourage progression to HE, and attainment-raising with schools and colleges – all are important. But, in the next phase of this work, we need to focus on areas where there is low participation in HE.

Beyond admission, we all need to work on similar sophisticated approaches for different groups once they are studying with us. We should not just assume traditional methods will take care of success.

I welcome the emphasis on outcomes and outputs into wider society through the review of quality assessment, the TEF and the Learning Gain pilots. But, as with access work, we need to ensure we evaluate success in context. This needs to take a sensitive approach to metrics, which recognises the diversity of our student body, so we don’t just value the traditional approaches and exclude innovation.

This is a real challenge, but it is one that I believe the sector will embrace, if handled with an understanding of different institutions and their different student bodies.  It is going to be an interesting few years.