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In a week when the government reshuffled its cabinet, HE issues that made headlines gave the newly-appointed universities minister a taste of things to come, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers .
The past week’s events and news are a sign of turbulent times for UK universities, warns Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University.
Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reflects on issues emerging from a packed week of higher education news.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has reported almost a 21 per cent rise in the number of complaints it received from students last year – rising to their highest ever level at 2,371.
Les Ebdon, the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, examines the implications of research showing that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are failing to gain their fair share of good degrees.
All around the country, new undergraduates are settling into university. Ahead of them are some of the most exciting years of their life. The benefits higher education can bring can be life-changing, and among this year’s cohort of new undergraduates some will go on to be our future doctors, business leaders and politicians.
This year’s undergraduate intake seems set to include a greater rate of students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before. Behind the figures are people who have worked incredibly hard, often against the odds, to secure a university place - people who are the first in their family to enter higher education, young people who’ve had to juggle study with caring for a disabled parent or younger siblings, others with no quiet place at home to do homework.
While it’s excellent that the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are getting through the front door at university it’s increasingly clear that some are missing out on a first or 2:1 degree. A HEFCE report published last week showed that different groups of students experience significantly different degree outcomes, even when you take into account the other factors that may affect attainment. The report makes for sobering reading. Stark, worrying and unexplained gaps exist – for example between full and part-time students, between students from different ethnic groups and students from the most and least advantaged neighbourhoods.
At OFFA, we have long taken the view that fair access is not meaningful if it’s just about getting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education – it’s also about their experience and attainment while actually in higher education. That’s why we’ve made improved retention rates for disadvantaged students one of the things we use to measure the success of our own work at OFFA.
In the access agreements that universities and colleges draw up with us, we’ve encouraged them to do even more to support disadvantaged students through their studies and as they prepare to progress to employment or postgraduate studies. Universities are doing really interesting work in this area – for example some have introduced buddying programmes to support new students, or provided help with interview techniques for those about to graduate. Universities or colleges predict they will spend over £200 million through their access agreements on such activities by 2019-20.
I am confident that this range of innovative activities – further examples can be found in the new topic briefings section of our website – will make a real difference to the experiences and achievement of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will continue to ask universities and colleges to take a ‘whole lifecycle’ approach to their work, and we will also continue to do all we can to help further understand what approaches and activities are most effective in helping every student truly to fulfil their potential. As a sector, we have to address these disparities in degree outcomes if we are to ensure that where you come from does not determine where you’ll end up in life.
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