Tackling the geographical disparities in higher education

It’s no secret that, in higher education, where you come from has a major impact on where you end up.

There are wide gaps in access depending on which part of the country you come from, with young people from some areas still over twice as likely to enter higher education as those from the lowest participation neighbourhoods, and more than five times as likely to enter the universities with the highest entry requirements.

We are now starting to gain a better understanding of the factors driving this and – crucially – how it extends across the whole student lifecycle, affecting not only whether you get in to higher education, what you study and where you go, but also whether you are successful in and beyond higher education; in other words, whether you get on.  

Although prior attainment is a key predictor of higher education participation, many of these gaps between local areas persist even once you take school attainment into account. There are a whole host of other factors at play, like your choice of subjects and qualifications, your expectations and those of your family and friends, and the accessibility of higher education where you live.

And the gaps also persist beyond entry to higher education. They are clear when we look at how likely students are to complete their studies, what grades they achieve, and particularly what kind of work they progress onto – especially if they do so in areas of lower productivity and growth.

Collective response

I am speaking today at IntoUniversity’s Geography of University Participation conference about the kinds of strategies that are required to address low rates of access and student success in particular communities. I know that there will be an appetite in the room for a collective response to these challenges, bringing higher education providers together with schools and colleges, employers and local agencies. 

The Office for Students (OfS) is very much a part of this effort. We are committed to supporting all students, whether they leave home for residential study and mobile careers, or they study and work where they grew up. And we are delivering on this both through the way in which we regulate individual providers and the support we provide for collaborative partnerships and effective practice sector-wide.   

Challenging individual providers

We are currently assessing the first round of access and participation plans, for which every provider needs approval if it wants to charge above the basic undergraduate fee.

We have higher expectations in this area than any other aspect of our regulation, requiring continuous improvement in the outcomes achieved for students and the relationships with schools, colleges and employers and evidence-led practice that are needed to underpin this.

Although providers vary greatly in the degree to which they recruit students within their local area and their students stay locally after graduation, it’s clear from the first round of plans that they are all now developing sustained and in-depth relationships with specific schools, communities and employers. And we want to ensure that this activity yields real benefits for students, so we will agree ambitious new targets for access, success and progression with every provider next year.    

Providing sector-wide support

Alongside this, we are working sector-wide to support the collective response that is needed to improve higher education participation in local areas and the take-up of graduate skills.

Through the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), we are supporting local consortia to improve choices and progression in areas where participation is low, and lower than expected given the grades of the young people who live there. We want to develop these collaborative partnerships further to tackle the unique challenges in different parts of the country, so that there is joined-up and sustained outreach for all schools and communities that need it.

Through the Addressing Barriers to Student Success Programme, we are supporting groups of providers to test innovative models of support for student groups who have lower than expected outcomes after entry to higher education. This includes students who commute locally rather than living in university accommodation, some ethnic minority groups who are more likely to study and work in the community where they grew up, and adults with work and caring responsibilities they need to maintain alongside their studies.  

The public eye is often fixed on improving access to a residential model of higher education for students who want to leave home. It’s important that we continue to make progress on this, but if we want the benefits of higher education to flow back into local economies and public services throughout the country, we need also to improve the opportunities for those students who want to study close to home or indeed return there after graduation.

Breaking through the barriers

Where you live affects whether you gain access to and succeed in higher education, and the outcomes you achieve beyond it. We need to tackle this if we are going to create equal opportunity throughout the country. Through a combination of regulatory pressure and sector-wide support, we want the Office for Students to play our part in cracking this issue, and thereby improving prospects for all students – wherever they start from and wherever they go on to live and work. 


This post was originally published by Wonkhe.

View Chris Millward's slides from the Geography of University Participation conference


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