Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds the best chance of success
Les (pictured above with Professor Ieuan Ellis and Professor Phil Cardew) delivered the opening keynote address and then stayed to listen to all the morning presentations which set out our strategic approach to widening participation and reviewed our current progress towards our targets for access, student progression and student achievement.
After the morning conference sessions, Ieuan caught up with Les to discuss the government's new targets for fair access and to seek his views on the opportunities and challenges for supporting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage and succeed in Higher Education.
Ieuan: The Prime Minister recently made a commitment to doubling the participation rate of students from low participation backgrounds by 2020 in comparison with 2009 levels. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities for universities to deliver on this ambitious target?
Les: The challenges will be different for different universities… some will be challenged to take in a type of student they haven’t taken in before, to begin to create those links within those communities. But at Leeds Beckett, you’ve already got those links, you already connect with 150 schools in target areas to recruit students. You’ve got a strong and thriving activity in the HEART network. Your challenge is ensuring success for those students, and you’re not alone in that. Across the country, disadvantage doesn’t stop at the front door of a university, it stays with you throughout your course. We need to recognise the additional needs these students might bring, so it’s very important that you have pastoral support, you have mentoring, you have buddy schemes, all kinds of things to help those students who bring that disadvantage with them. You want them to be successful, to get a good class of degree, a good professional job. It’s seeing the students through the whole of that life cycle, that’s the challenge.
Ieuan: In the budget statement of June this year, the Chancellor removed the maintenance grants for students from low income families, which generated quite a lot of press coverage at the time. Do you see this presenting a further barrier to fair access for students?
Les: Obviously I am concerned that this might be seen as a barrier. I got a grant myself and it made a big difference to me and it’s made a big difference for many generations of students from poorer homes. So I will look carefully at the impact it makes. However, the removal of grants would be more of a barrier if, at the same time, we hadn’t had the government increasing the amount that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could draw down for loans. The maintenance grant has been frozen for a number of years and that amount of money was meeting less and less of students’ needs. So I’m pleased that there will be that extra £800 available to the poorest students.
Ieuan: So how best can universities respond to make sure that these changes in funding don’t act as a barrier to poorer students accessing higher education?
Les: It all comes down to universities explaining to students and their parents and carers that there is a loan available, that the loan is bigger now than the combined grant and loan was before, that it will be a favourable terms loan that you only pay back after you’re earning £21,000 or more and that it will be at a low interest rate. That’s part of the exercise we have to do – explaining to students what the system is now.
Ieuan: Of the approaches to access widening and participation you’ve seen at other institutions, are there any particular examples of good practice that we can learn from here at Leeds Beckett?
Les: I see much more targeting from institutions now. So where universities have more of a challenge to get a diverse student body, they’re investing more and more in outreach activity. Those universities that already have more diverse student bodies are investing more money in activity to promote student retention, and this is where your challenge lies at Leeds Beckett. We all have to work hard as institutions to reinforce that somebody’s success does not depend on where they come from, what race they are or whether they’re male or female. There are some institutions that have a very strong focus on that differential attainment. At some universities the board of governors have set the vice chancellors a target to close that attainment gap, and that’s a very powerful incentive.
Ieuan: As you heard in this mornings’ conference presentations, our Leeds Beckett strategic approach to improving access, progression and success is ensuring an institution-wide coordinated approach across the whole student-life cycle. You saw this morning some of the examples of the outreach work we’re doing. Have you got any reflections on our current activity here?
Les: I am very heartened by the presentations I’ve seen at Leeds Beckett today. Firstly I was impressed with the honesty of the presentations which showed a real understanding of the scale of the challenge. I was also impressed by the examples of existing good practice and the new projects that are being taken forward. We were shown a fantastic video about the impact that the summer school work had on a group of students, which was very encouraging and informative. I’m struck by the way that you’re seeking to join up the interventions that you make. The multi-sectoral approach that you’re employing here is a really good one.
Ieuan: Les, thank you for joining us for this important event, which will help inform our continuing commitment to improvement in Access and Student Success in our new five year strategic plan. Thank you also for taking time out to speak with me and share your thoughts and words of support for our future work.