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Help disadvantaged students get jobs, Willetts tells universities

Universities have been told to improve job prospects for graduates from poorer backgrounds in a new strategy for widening access to university.

Announcing the plan, David Willetts, the universities minister, said that more could be done to get students from less privileged backgrounds into high status occupations.

Speaking at a Universities UK conference, Mr Willetts said that a study published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) showed that state school pupils got better degrees than their independent school counterparts with the same grades. However, this advantage did not follow through into the job world.

“The uncomfortable evidence we are now focusing on is that however well you do at university your employment prospects differ according to your background,” he said. “We know that students who have attended private schools are more likely to have crucial professional networks. They are also more likely to have the soft skills that employers say they need more than ever – and the ability to demonstrate them at interview.”

Employability is one of the key themes of the long awaited national strategy for access and success  (See HEi-know Briefing Report 144).

The strategy, written by HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), said concerns about “unexplained differences” in outcomes for students with different characteristics had to be addressed.

Encouraging student start-ups, increasing work placements and internships and providing financial support to students undertaking work experiences were all measures that should be used, the report said.

On admissions, the strategy stated that highly selective universities should make better use of contextual information and “critically examine their entry requirements, polices and processes to ensure that they are not unduly disadvantaging certain groups of students that have the potential to succeed”.

Mature learners, as well as younger children, should be targeted to raise aspirations and widen the potential pool of applicants, the report said.

It also recommends that funds are shifted away from providing financial support to students, which research suggests has little impact, to vital outreach work, providing clear access routes to university and flexible study options.

In the wide-ranging speech at the UUK conference, Mr Willetts also announced a push, led by the HEFCE, for more higher education campuses in areas of the country with little or no provision, although no new funding was announced.

He said so-called HE “cold spots” such as Shrewsbury, Yeovil, parts of East Anglia and some coastal areas, should benefit from the lifting of student number controls which would see an extra 30,000 higher education places next academic year, rising to 60,000 by 2018.

He cited the transforming effects of universities such as Lincoln and Worcester, where the Hive, the first joint university and public library in Europe, was boosting reading and pulling young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the university environment.

Mr Willetts praised universities for fuelling growth and for building even stronger links with businesses, allowing them to diversify income sources and become less dependent on the public purse.

His comments coincide with the publication of another HEFCE report, Knowledge exchange performance and the impact of HEIF in the English higher education sector, which describes universities as “anchors of the economy and society”.

It revealed that for every £1 of Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) given to universities over the period from 2003 to 2012, £6.30 was earned in gross additional income and the total benefits to the economy and society are likely to be even greater. Another report published at the conference by UUK also shows that universities contribute £73 billion to the UK economy (see HEi-know Briefing Report 143).

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has now asked the National Centre for Universities and Business to draw up an “innovations map”, showing which universities have the best links with business and enterprise.

The research excellence framework (REF) will also be looked at again with a review of research metrics, Mr Willetts announced.

He acknowledged concerns about the impact assessment but said it had sent a powerful reminder to researchers to “think about how their research might be used” and that it had encouraged much greater engagement with industry.

The review, to be led by HEFCE, will look at the robustness of metrics across different disciplines and assess their contribution to research excellence.

James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, will chair the review  which will report in spring 2015. In an interview with Times Higher Education he suggested that a metrics-based “mid-term review” could allow the time interval between REF assessments to be extended to once a decade.

Mr Willetts has also asked HEFCE and the funding bodies to consider whether to extend the REF to other countries.

“There is considerable interest in the REF internationally and there may be benefits to offering parts of the exercise to overseas institutions or entire nations,” he said.

But he acknowledged that there were “costs, additional burdens, and potential risks to the effectiveness and integrity of the national process”.

A consultation for a sharia-compliant alternative to student loans to ensure that prospective Muslim students are not put off by current loan arrangements will also be launched by BIS.