Summit Commentary: Managing Change and Unlocking the Future

In this guest blog, Andrew Rawson, Principal of Action on Access, provides a thoughtful commentary on this year’s summit.

Access HE SummitEvery year the Summit provides the latest information and practical support enabling delegates to address directly their own policies, processes and practice with regard to current issues in access, participation and enabling successful students.

Excellent speakers, committed and enthusiastic delegates, and valued, exceptional workshops gave clear direction, maximum traction and coherence to the main themes of the day:

  • the impact of myriad recent – and imminent – changes in the policy landscape
  • the raising of attainment in secondary education, of BAME students in HE
  • demonstrating evaluation, evidence and impact across WP activity
  • the intersectionality of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and WP with focuses on adults, on estranged students, on BAME students, on mental health, on entrepreneurship, preparing students for employment and exploring unconscious bias.

Seven practical, worked-through, evidenced tool kits and frameworks presented practice that delegates could use; with valuable offers of further support from presenters. Networking opportunities, as always, were high and greater space this year was given to networking, sharing practice and, from conversations I heard, collaborative opportunities and bids.

The key messages from keynote speakers: John Storan (Summit chair) concisely summed up the volatile policy landscape with its opportunities. Dominic Herrington (SE Regional Commissioner for Schools) detailed DfE core commitment to WP and access; and developing relationships between HEIs and schools with HEIs often offering leadership support but he stressed it was ‘the alignment in values of aspiration, inclusion and collaboration’ which was delivering raised standards across the sectors and driving access, participation and success. Professor Les Ebdon (Director, Fair Access) summarised and evidenced how much access and WP had improved over the last ten years, not least through access agreements. He highlighted long-term sustained outreach programmes and student lifecycle approach as two highly critical contributory factors. He emphasised that part-time and mature student recruitment and BAME attainment need to be seriously addressed.

Echoing Dominic Herrington on HEI-school partnerships Les Ebdon pointed out that the DfE have stressed repeatedly that WP would be at the heart of the Office for Students and reminded us that the new organisation would be lead by a Director of Access and Participation’. He encouraged us all to respond to the current consultation on the Office for Students to ensure professional and practitioner viewpoints were clearly represented http://bit.ly/2yzdISQ.

Professor Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor, University of Lincoln, spoke on student retention and success and her notion of institutional responsibilities to provide and incorporate ‘comfortableness’ (similar but not equivalent to engagement/belonging); the encouragement of persistence in students through appropriate support; and a responsive and flexible curriculum. Institutions must develop their enhanced understanding of the importance of ‘place’ and their role in preparing students for a volatile and non-stable job market.

Following recommendation of the Social Mobility Advisory Group last year Chris Hale, Director of Policy UUK, explained how UUK were developing an ‘Evidence and Impact Exchange’ to help institutions develop and share evidence and data to inform and evidence WP and student success. Priorities for development were; understanding the evidence base, comprehensive data mapping, identifying and closing gaps, dissemination. The overall aim – knowledge mobilisation. Two main challenges for the Exchange were to ensure independence and yet be properly a part of the sector; and to ensure sustainability.

Ilyas Nagdee, Black Students’ Officer, NUS, spoke of a sector with embedded persistent racial inequality undermining HE as a public good and force for social inclusion, citing: significant poorer attainment; poorer representation in higher tariff institutions; poorer employment outcomes; and lack of BAME progression to positions of power and influence. He reminded us of the role that (BAME) students should play; contributions to the development of curriculum design, of extra curricular activities, of teaching practice, as well as supporting programmes such as mentoring. BAME students are active in HEIs but keen to be more involved. Ilyas is gathering case studies and exemplars of SU/NUS projects and research, especially on BAME attainment. The NUS is working nationally with the Equality Challenge Unit to promote the race equality charter.

Finally, Stephen Isherwood, CEO, Institute of Student Employers highlighted that ‘graduate’ employers, rather than solely recruiting graduates, are recruiting students with lower qualifications and as apprentices. He reflected that 50% of graduate jobs each year do not get filled – often due to unpreparedness or lack of desired skills. Nevertheless, it is a very competitive market. Stephen surprised us with the assertion that one of the top drivers for employers in recruitment was diversity – together with the information that a practice of contextual recruitment was developing derived from HEI contextual admissions practice. He left us with messages of a broader recruitment practice from employers and the critical importance of work experience and other real exposure to the world of work whilst in study.

These Summits are invaluable.

About Tony Hudson

Currently undertaking doctoral research at the University of East London focusing on the learning career and academic identity of Access HE teachers.
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