It’s far from the truth that students attend university from a level playing field

Published: 9 January 2018 at 11:27

In January we can reflect and look back on the year just gone and consider the one ahead.

From the perspective of both ARU, and the wider higher education sector, there is much to consider in these reflections. 2017 was one of the most challenging years for our university sector in our working lifetimes – VC pay, tuition fees and perhaps most significantly the 'value' of a degree.

For the first time I can remember in the last two decades, there is widespread public debate on whether we have too many school leavers entering university. Looking forward to 2018 we cannot ignore these public concerns but, at the same time, we must ensure we focus on promoting, advocating and delivering a high quality education for our students and the region.

Through our strategy we have committed to delivering a leading learning and innovation ecosystem that delivers an outstanding and inclusive educational experience, transformative research and innovation, and impactful community engagement and leadership. We are doing this because we know it will make a real difference to our students and the wider economic, social and cultural wellbeing of our region.

The discussion, which took place in 2017, suggesting too many students are attending university would perhaps indicate that we have now created a system that allows all students who have the desire and innate ability to attend university can now do so from a reasonably level playing field – unfortunately this is far from the truth.

The publication at the end of last year of the Social Mobility Commission's report, State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain, starkly highlights the inequity of outcomes across the country.

Across our region we have pockets of very good outcomes sitting alongside some of the worst areas in the country. At a time when at least 45% of students are attending university, only 15% of students in the East of England, who are eligible for free school meals, go onto university. It does not have to be like this – for London the figure is around 40%!

To take this further, you cannot accept a hypothesis that the ability to benefit from a university education varies with household income and yet national data shows a clear and stark relationship between the mean household income by local authority and university participation rates.

The authorities with highest decile of income have participation rates nearly 20% higher than those in the lowest income decile.

Diagram illustrating university participation rates by the mean household income of  local authorities

Education, as highlighted in the social mobility report, from pre-school through to university, is one of the most critical factors in ensuring that everyone in society has the opportunity to make the most of their abilities. As a university we cannot intervene at all points in the educational system, but we need to make sure that our efforts make the greatest possible difference to educational achievement across our region.

We need to look carefully at how we work, and work with our partners, to ensure we do whatever we can to minimise these differences. We have a proud tradition of widening participation and we must build on this to ensure we lead nationally in ensuring our approach provides opportunities for all who can benefit from a university education – from early engagement, recruitment and admissions through to graduation and beyond. This will be challenging but, ultimately, our future as a university will largely be defined by our success in delivering against this commitment.

2018 will be one of the most important for ARU, and the wider higher education sector for many years, and we need to ensure we meet this head on.

I wish you all the best for the New Year.