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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

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Helping disadvantaged students to access and succeed in higher education

Universities must deliver on plans to improve access and participation for disadvantaged students and put an end to the high rates of students dropping out of courses, the Education Secretary has said today (26 September).

While the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has risen, new data from the Office for Students shows that mainstream state school pupils from the most advantaged areas are 2.4 times more likely to go to higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas.

There also remains a stubborn disparity in drop out levels with students from less well-off backgrounds more likely to drop out of university. Data published earlier this year showed that in 2016/17, disadvantaged students were more likely to drop out of university in their first year (8.8% of full-time first degree students under-21) compared to their better off peers (6.0%) – a figure that slightly widened from the previous year.

Ahead of a visit to Kings College London, which offers a range of initiatives to help disadvantaged students, and the publication of new statistics on access and participation by university regulator the Office for Students, Mr Williamson has underlined his determination to take action and ensure every student choosing to go to university – regardless of background – is supported to get the most out of the experience.

Mr Williamson will write to Universities UK to acknowledge the work being done in the sector but to say that more needs to be done to make progress on access and participation at our world-class institutions. He will urge all universities to follow in the footsteps of institutions like Kings College and improve their offer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Gavin Williamson 100x100Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“It is not good enough that white working class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others. We cannot let this wasted potential go unchecked any longer.

“I am pleased to see the work that some universities are doing. It was a privilege to address vice-chancellors on this important issue at the recent UUK conference, but disparity remains a problem.

“I want all universities, including the most selective, to do everything they can to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education, but they also need to keep them there and limit the numbers dropping out of courses. My message is clear – up your game and get on with it.”

Chris Skidmore 100x100Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said:

“Progress is being made to ensure that more disadvantaged young people are going to university than ever before, but it’s not enough to get students through the door – they must then get the right support to complete their courses too.

“Dropouts will be a key focus of mine as Universities Minister and I will be watching carefully to see how universities respond to this challenge. I fully support the OfS in taking action if providers fail to do all they can to deliver their commitments.”

Dr Graeme Atherton 100x100Dr. Graeme Allison, Director of NEON (the National Education and Opportunities Network), said:

"It is welcome that he has focused on inequalities in access for white students in particular from lower socio economic groups and that he is visiting universities to learn about access work.  

"However, as our NEON report produced earlier this year showed it is further education colleges who are most likely to offer opportunities for such learners to enter HE.

"It is crucial going forward that any policies to increase participation in HE from this group focus on all HE providers and in particular those colleges delivering HE."

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, said:

“Universities share the government’s desire to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education and ensure that all students are supported to succeed during their studies.

“Progress is being made, with 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England more likely to go to university than ever before. However, we know there is more work to do and universities are redoubling efforts to improve access and support retention.  Universities have recently set themselves even more ambitious targets to improve equality of opportunity in their new Access and Participation plans in England. Universities UK has also published recommendations on how universities can address gaps in attainment for BAME students as well as drop-out rates.

“Universities are also calling on the government to prioritise policies to quicken the progress by reintroducing maintenance grants for students most in need, helping reduce drop-out rates and financial barriers to university.”

DfE have published statistics today showing that a record 50.2% of 17-30 year olds participated in higher education in 2017/18 – this is the first time the number has ever passed the 50% mark, up from 49.9% last year.

The gap in female-male participation remains at 12.5 percentage points. In 2017/18, 56.6% of women in the population went into higher education, compared to 44.1% of men in the population.

Mr Williamson’s challenge follows a recent speech he made at the Universities UK annual conference, where he addressed vice-chancellors from across the country, and called for more to be done to ensure wider access to universities for students from all backgrounds.

The latest UCAS figures show that a record rate (21.2%) of disadvantaged English 18-year-olds are starting university this year, up from 19.9% at the same point last year.

The Government’s wide-ranging reforms to higher education has led to the publication of access and participation plans for 41 universities so far. The remaining providers which are required to have plans and have not yet published them will be asked to in due course. The OfS will closely monitor all these providers to make sure they follow through on their plans.  

The Education Secretary welcomed the plans set out by universities and wants all institutions to deliver on the commitments they have made, with the support of the ongoing work by the Government in driving up standards and closing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at school to make sure students are getting the grades they need to go on to university.  

Mr Williamson praised Kings College London for blazing the trail through a number of projects to widen participation for under-represented groups, such as the K+ Attainment Raising programme which offers intensive revision sessions for disadvantaged students.

It also partners with charities like IntoUniversity which aims to raise aspirations among young people who may not have thought university was for them, and Parent Power which educates parents about their child’s post-18 choices so they can help them choose the best option for them.

The Office for Students (OfS) is today (26 Sept) due to publish associations between characteristics of students’ (ABCS) data, which looks at access and continuation for intersections of characteristics like gender, ethnicity, and disadvantage.

Gavin Wiliamson's letter to Universities UK in full:

Professor Julia Buckingham CBE Universities UK
Woburn House
20 Tavistock Square London

25th September 2019

Dear Julia,

I wanted to thank you and your members for the warm welcome I received at last week's Annual Conference. It was excellent to engage with colleagues from across the sector and to begin the dialogue on our priorities for higher education.

As the new Secretary of State for Education, one of my priorities is to ensure that we can make greater progress in ensuring that those from disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups can access and succeed in higher education. Whilst I note that progress has been made over a number of years, as I said in my speech at your conference it is simply not good enough that white working class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others. These inequalities have been around for far too long and should be addressed as a priority. Higher education providers should continue the focus on these inequalities as they now begin to implement their new access and participation plans.

Data issued this week show once again the scale of the problem still to be addressed. New data released by the Office for Students (OfS) shows that mainstream state school pupils from the most advantaged areas are 2.4 times more likely to enter Higher Education than those from the most disadvantaged areas. I also welcome the new experimental access and continuation measures published by the OfS that should improve understanding of how outcomes vary for groups of people with different characteristics. This data should help identify and target groups of students who are under-represented in their access to higher education or who experience lower continuation rates than other student groups.

We have given the regulator for higher education, the Office for Students (OfS), a key role in driving progress on access and participation. I'm aware that a range of reforms have been introduced over the past year aimed at securing the greater, faster progress we want to see. The Access and Participation Plans now being agreed by the OfS for 2020/21, are the first opportunity to look closely at how ambitious higher education providers are being in addressing these inequalities. I will be asking the OfS for a view on how the sector has responded to the challenge it has been set and whether there continue to areas that continue to need addressing.

One of the areas where I do expect to see a major improvement is in understanding what works in improving access and participation. I know that this is something that the OfS has placed great importance on as it agrees Access and Participation Plans. In England, the sector plans to spend around £1billion this year on access and participation activities. It is vital that there are effective evaluation plans in place to assess their effectiveness. Higher education providers must be sure that the initiatives they finance and implement have maximum impact and offer value for money.

I am also looking forward to seeing the role that the new "what works centre" (known as TASO - Transforming Access and Student Outcomes) can make in using evidence and evaluation to demonstrate how higher education contributes to social justice and mobility. This should be a valuable asset to providers in helping to ensure they can show the impact of their access and participation initiatives.

I will be watching carefully to see how the reforms to access and participation develop and will fully support the OfS in firm action if providers fail to take all reasonable steps to deliver against their commitments. It is vital that we make substantial and quicker progress in this important area.

Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP

Secretary of State for Education


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