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National challenges and local solutions to inequalities in higher education

Published: 03/11/2016

First blog post in a new series from Senior Policy Adviser Chris Brill on the underrepresentation of particular groups in higher education and how these inequalities should, and are being tackled.

ChrisB website newA national commitment to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds entering higher education is welcomed by ECU.

The recent HE White Paper outlined a range of proposals relating to ‘choice, teaching excellence, social mobility and transparency.’ Among these were two important Government goals; ‘to double the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university in 2020 compared to 2009, and to increase the number of BME students going to university by 20% by 2020.’

A recent EHRC report ‘Race report: Healing a divided Britain’ highlights how nationally only ‘6% of Black school leavers attended a Russell Group university, compared with 12% of Mixed and Asian school leavers and 11% of White school leavers.’

The level of underrepresentation of particular groups ranges across different institutions, and within them. ECU’s statistical reports continually evidence that particular groups, such as disabled students, are underrepresented at a sector level. Our 2015 statistical report highlighted how the representation of women at subject level ranges from 16 per cent in engineering and technology to 80 per cent in subjects allied to medicine. A higher percentage (10%) of undergraduates have disclosed as disabled, compared to postgraduates (6%). 53 per cent of research postgraduates are male, compared to 41 per cent of taught postgraduates.

Recent research looks at explanations, and institutional responses, to underrepresentation. UCAS’s ‘Through the lens of students’ asked undergraduate applicants their views on why they applied to HE, and what they saw as the barriers to progressing into HE (tables, with breakdown by sex and ethnicity, can be found here). HEA Scotland’s research ‘Whose job is it anyway? Analysis of approaches to tackling gender imbalances at the subject level in Scotland’s colleges and universities’ found that institutions focussed activities on ‘changing infrastructure,’ ‘influencing the influencers,’ ‘raising awareness and aspirations,’ ‘encouraging applications’ and ‘supporting success.’ Working in partnership: enabling social mobility in higher education – the final report of the Social Mobility Advisory Group released last month recommends institutions develop their links with schools, increasing outreach work focussed on improving attainment at school.

National challenges, local solutions

What works for an individual institution will depend on their individual context, informed by factors such as subject mix, local demographics and whether an institution recruits predominantly from the local area or nationally. ECU has been working with institutions in England, Scotland and Wales on specific, subject level approaches to tackling underrepresentation. Teams are currently undertaking local quantitative and qualitative research to develop their understanding of local barriers to access for potential students, and will be using this evidence to develop, deliver and evaluate initiatives.

Although local context is key, we can all learn from the strategies other institutions are undertaking (see Harvey Mudd College  for an approach to increasing the number of women in computer science). Over the coming weeks I will be highlighting the range of barriers that these institutions are exploring, from course content to information gaps, and the challenges and approaches to researching which factors are key at your institutions.