Nicola Dandridge: fair access and good outcomes are not a zero sum game

Our chief executive, Nicola Dandridge writes for The Times.

Office for Students chief executive Nicola Dandridge has written for The Times Red Box on the need for universities and other higher education providers to support disadvantaged students to ensure they are able to achieve good outcomes. The full article is available below.

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still far less likely to go to university than their better off peers, far more likely to drop out when they get there, and less likely to get a good job when they leave. As the regulator for English higher education, we want to see this change: we are requiring universities and other higher education providers to recruit more disadvantaged students, support them so they do not drop out and get better jobs.

Some believe that achieving these outcomes simultaneously is too challenging.  One argument we hear regularly is that if providers recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds then it is inevitable that higher numbers will drop out.

We do not accept that argument.

Every higher education provider whose students access the publicly subsidised student loan scheme, must register with us and meet a number of conditions designed to create a common threshold. This means all students can have confidence about the quality of the courses for which they are applying and – so long as they study hard and fulfil their end of the bargain – the outcomes they are likely to achieve.

We do not accept that access for disadvantaged students, and good outcomes, are a zero-sum game. Research shows that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds make the right choice as to what and where to study, and are given the support that they need during their studies, they can end up performing just as well if not better than their more privileged peers.

Instead we see examples of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being inappropriately recruited onto poor quality courses, and not being given the support that they need. At some higher education providers, particularly those offering mainly courses below full degree level, one in five students drop out.

The argument that these levels should be tolerated because the students come from poor backgrounds is not acceptable. For these students to drop out having taken on tuition fee loans of up to £9,250 a year (plus loans for living costs), is a terrible waste for student and taxpayer alike. When the latest figures show that only 41 per cent of students in England feel their course offers good value for money, parts of the higher education sector can and must do better.

There will always be examples of students who drop out for personal reasons, and some students – particularly mature students or those who study part-time – may want to study in a flexible way given their personal circumstances. But we need to face the facts that some students are being inappropriately recruited to courses and left to flounder. That is not planned, flexible life-long learning. It is poor quality higher education for students who deserve better. 

By international standards, this country has an outstanding record of supporting students to continue their studies. There are many examples of students from disadvantaged backgrounds flourishing at university. We need to make that the case for every university and other higher education provider, and for every student, whatever their background.

The Times also published a news article reporting on Nicola’s piece.

Read article on The Times Red Box Read The Times news article

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