In 2015, the Prime Minister set the HE sector a series of significant challenges:

  • to double the proportion of young people in HE from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020
  • to increase by 20 per cent the numbers of students in HE from ethnic minority groups by 2020
  • to tackle the issue of the chronic under-representation of young men progressing to HE, particularly young men from our more disadvantaged communities.

All the evidence shows that, on current rates of growth, the earliest that the first challenge could be met would be 2027 (and that is based on the current rates of growth in participation being maintained – something that is uncertain in the light of changes to student finance and the broadening out of post-16 choices).

The second challenge is trickier still. The evidence shows that most ethnic minority groups already have quite high rates of participation in HE, but this participation is unevenly distributed across different types of universities and colleges and different parts of the country. And as with white students, socio-economic factors have a part to play.

The third challenge speaks to the long-standing gap in participation between young men and women that has been getting ever wider since the mid-1990s and has shown few signs of narrowing.

There are no easy answers to the challenges we have been set. But what is certain is that simply doing more of the same will not deliver the boost in participation rates required.

What is more, HEFCE’s work has revealed that there are up to 3,800 young people per year who are doing well enough at GCSE to consider higher education but who are simply not going. Why? And what can we do about it?

There are a number of things that need to happen.

What we can do

First, we need joined-up and coherent careers advice delivered to young people in schools and colleges, so that the post-16 options available to them are properly explained and not presented as mutually exclusive.

Apprenticeship routes, for example, should not be presented as an alternative to HE but also as a route into it in the form of higher and degree apprenticeships. This requires the departments for business and education to work together, but there is also an opportunity for the HE sector to position itself through the recently announced Degree Apprenticeships Development Fund.

Second, universities and colleges need to continue to deliver the high-quality, long-term progressive outreach to schools and colleges from primary age children through to the work they do with adults already in the workforce.

Universities and colleges invest millions of pounds each year through their access agreements and it is this continued effort that will ensure that future generations as well as older learners have the opportunity to benefit from HE for many years to come.

Third, in the student and public interest, the Government, through HEFCE, will focus public investment in particular areas. These are areas of the country which HEFCE analysis has shown to have low overall rates of progression to HE, but also lower than expected rates of progression given the GCSE attainment rates for those areas.

This will be a highly targeted and focussed programme that will require the combined efforts of many universities, further education colleges, schools, employers, charitable bodies and others working intensively in the school and colleges in these areas.

The National Collaborative Outreach Programme

Our £60 million per year investment in the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) will follow on from the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO), for which the coalition government provided £25 million across two years.

NCOP will build on the vast experience and expertise that has been built up in the sector through running national collaborative programmes since the early 2000s, from the early days of Partnerships for Progression and Aimhigher, through to the NNCOs.

HEFCE’s commitment to widening participation and supporting students through to successful outcomes remains undiminished and our conviction that a whole lifecycle approach is required remains unchanged.

But the way in which we invest to support this will. This is why we have announced funding for the National Collaborative Outreach Programme.

It is also why we have announced the doubling of our funding for provision for disabled students to £40 million and provided £278 million in 2016-17 as a student premium to support student success and progression.

This whole package of HEFCE investment, working alongside the investments universities and colleges make through their access agreements, will sustain the conditions needed to ensure that all students who can benefit from HE have the opportunity to do so.