A waste of talent and potential

Now they have their exam results in their hands, our hard-working young people can celebrate their success and turn their thoughts to their future in higher education and beyond.

But how many realise that their outcomes will be worse if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds or have particular characteristics, even if the exam results they have already achieved are the same as their more advantaged peers? And what of older prospective HE students returning to learning later in life whose HE outcomes can be even worse?

Recent reports from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Trades Union Congress echo HEFCE analysis and research. All show clear and persistent unexplained differences in degree attainment, progression to postgraduate study, and progression to graduate employment for particular groups of students.

These differences persist even when accounting for factors such as prior educational attainment.

What are the differences?

The groups most affected are:

  • students from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups
  • students from more disadvantaged backgrounds
  • disabled students not receiving Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)

HE outcome differences from sector-adjusted average, split by ethnicity

HE outcome differences from sector-adjusted average split by ethnicity

HE outcome differences from sector-adjusted average, split by POLAR3 quintile
(measure of disadvantage with Quintile 1 least advantaged)

HE outcome differences from sector-adjusted average split by POLAR3 quintile

HE outcome differences from sector-adjusted average, by disability status

HE outcome differences from sector-adjusted average by disability status

Our prospective students would, I’m sure, ask what universities, colleges and other HE providers are doing to sort it out.

Well, we could tell them that the issue has been studied for at least two decades. We could also tell them that very dedicated and committed HE staff and students have tried to tackle the problem.

But we would be forced to admit that despite these efforts, the differences persist year-on-year.

To avoid this waste of talent, much more needs to be done systematically to address barriers to success.

What needs to be tackled?

The HE system itself needs structural reform. Which is why, last year, we commissioned and published independent qualitative research into the issue at a sector-wide and institutional level.

The King’s College London, University of Manchester and ARC Network produced a report, ‘Causes of differences in student outcomes’.  This highlighted four key causes of differences in student outcomes:

  1. curricula and learning (including teaching and assessment practices)
  2. relationships between staff and students and among students
  3. social, cultural and economic capital
  4. psychosocial and identity factors

The research emphasised that these factors intersect. So ways to address them must link academics, professional service staff, and students.

In March 2016, we organised a conference to discuss strategic ways of addressing the problem. This brought together higher education providers in England, students, the NUS, and researchers. 

Delegates at the conference were clear that student experience and outcomes have to be tackled as part of a broader approach to equality and diversity across institutions.

Issues of unconscious bias can affect not only student experience and outcomes, but also staff progression. So it’s vital that equality and diversity is addressed holistically. 

By the end of the conference, a real sense of momentum had gathered. Some rallied to place these issues at the heart of their institution’s vision. Some called for a step-change in policy to address these inequalities.

And everyone agreed that, to make it meaningful, student involvement would be absolutely crucial.

What can the sector do?

To provide strategic support for institutions to address differential outcomes, we are offering funds to support innovations in learning and teaching, and to address barriers to student success.

The ‘barriers to student success’ aspect supports the scaling-up of approaches that have proven successful at institutions, and will be applied across a number of collaborative partners.

So the funding supports a more systematic and strategic response to combating the key barriers faced by certain groups of students in achieving successful HE outcomes.

Through this funding we will work together with institutions and students to make sure that in future we stop wasting talent and potential, and give all students the same opportunities to achieve successful outcomes.