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A couple of months ago at a conference, I was talking to a young black graduate who told me that while at university, she challenged her tutor on the diversity of the curriculum and was told that ‘there just wasn’t room’ for black authors on the reading list.

The higher education (HE) sector in England is diverse and becoming increasingly so with the emergence of new providers. In the same way there is a diversity of students, many of whom are from a range of backgrounds that may not have traditionally entered HE.

A diverse student body requires a flexible HE system that will adapt and tailor practice so that it’s more inclusive for all students.

Inclusion is improving in some areas

The HE sector has not been standing still – there are a number of providers that have been doing excellent work to address inequality in HE. Proactive institutions are trailblazing new and inclusive courses, curricula and learning and teaching environments that recognise diversity and the specific needs of different students.

But much of this work is taking place in small pockets within HE providers, and to date there has not been enough emphasis on driving strategic change across the sector.

What’s the issue?

In my last blog post, ‘A waste of talent and potential’, I wrote about how students from certain backgrounds are statistically more likely to have worse degree and progression outcomes than their more advantaged peers, even if they have the same prior educational attainment.

The students most affected are:

  • black and minority ethnic students
  • students from relatively deprived socio-economic backgrounds
  • disabled students
  • mature students.

We have evidence to show these issues have existed for some time, and further research has highlighted some of the potential causes of differences in student outcomes.

What’s HEFCE doing about it?

To get serious about tackling this very complex problem, significant buy-in and investment are needed. Our new Catalyst Fund programme, ‘Addressing barriers to student success’ has been developed to do just that.

We’ve been committed to exploring differential outcomes for a number of years through our research and analysis and are now investing £7.5 million to support the sector in addressing the problems and driving systemic, national change.

We want differential outcomes to become a mainstream conversation that all senior leaders at HE providers take part in.

What is the programme?

Seventeen collaborative projects are being funded by up to £500,000 each under the ‘Addressing barriers to student success’ programme. The partnerships involve 64 HE providers and 23 other stakeholder organisations like charities, employers and local enterprise partnerships.

The kinds of interventions the programme will support turn the teaching format on its head – so that, for instance conceptual learning takes place outside the classroom and instead, group work and student-led discussions explore the key issues, using a range of new technologies. Or resilience training is rolled out to teach all students to be proactive about mental health and wellbeing, rather than just reactive when a crisis situation arises.

Differential outcomes occur for certain students not only while they are undergraduates but also when progressing to postgraduate study and employment. To address the lifecycle issues faced, the programme will cover a broad range of areas, including: inclusive and active teaching and learning practices and well-being for students in HE; progression to postgraduate study; and graduate employability.

How will this make a difference?

The evidence generated from the projects will tell us how, and under what conditions, good practice and interventions can be replicated and embedded across a wider range of providers.

Making sure robust evaluation is a critical aspect of the programme will mean the outcomes and impacts of individual projects will be evidenced and will provide valuable insights for all HE providers. An independent programme-wide evaluation will also ensure that strategic lessons can be learned and shared on a national level.

Through this programme we aim to amplify the debate on differential outcomes and make a real difference to the students affected by these inequalities. All students should have the same opportunities to achieve successful outcomes, and this programme should help make that a reality.

To find out more see Addressing barriers to student success on our website. Is there more that you and your institution could do to break down barriers to success for all students?