Why go to university? There are as many answers to that question as there are students, because for each one the motivation is different.
For many, the point of going to university is to start on, or move along, the road of a successful career, and everyone should have equal opportunity to achieve this ambition.
But the reality is that people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or certain ethnic groups, have markedly different chances of getting a graduate-level job after graduation compared to their peers.
Essentially, what the evidence shows us is that disadvantage doesn’t vanish when you enter university. It can follow you through study and into the search for a job.
This is partly explained by some employers’ habit of recruiting only from a small group of universities, and thus missing out on a large proportion of the excellent, skilled graduates that are to be found throughout the whole higher education sector.
But there are other factors at play too, which universities can address by ensuring that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported across the whole student lifecycle: not just when they’re applying to higher education, but also during their time at university and as they prepare to move on to employment or postgraduate study.
Whole lifecycle approach
Working in this way, across the whole “student lifecycle”, is now widely accepted as underpinning a successful approach to fair access. It is a key theme in the national strategy for access and student success and OFFA encourages higher education providers to take this approach in the access agreements they draw up with us.
Many already do: Nottingham Trent University’s 2014-15 access agreement, for example, takes a clear whole-lifecycle approach that starts with outreach to raise aspirations and attainment in potential students of all ages, and continues after enrolment with support that helps students to feel part of the university community, stay on course, and gain the skills that employers look for.
In the guidance we issued to universities and colleges on drawing up 2015-16 access plans, we were very specific that we wanted them to consider measures that will help disadvantaged students progress into employment, collaborating with employers where possible.
That could include, for example, careers advice and funding for internships in professions where social mobility is low, as this can help make undergraduate courses more appealing to disadvantaged groups by providing clearer pathways to employment after graduation.
Working in partnership
As University Alliance’s report says, working in partnership with businesses is a very effective way to help students develop the skills that will enable them to progress to successful careers.
It is also important to remember that not all students are 18 and 19 year-olds looking to step onto the first rungs of the career ladder. Many are mature learners who are studying because they want to change jobs, or because they want to progress with their current employer. In some cases that employer is even contributing financially, recognising that developing and retaining talented staff is key to the success of their business.
Those students may need to fit their studies around continuing work or family commitments, so I to encourage universities to collaborate with employers in creating courses that meet businesses’ needs and are sufficiently flexible to be accessible to students of all ages and backgrounds.
Of course, for effective partnerships to be built and maintained, businesses must buy into the idea as well as universities, so I am very pleased to see individual employers and the CBI expressing such enthusiastic support in the University Alliance report.
Scope for more partnership
I am already aware, from previous access agreements and from my visits to universities all over England, of the amount of collaboration between universities and employers that already exists, as showcased in University Alliance’s report.
However, as I discussed in OFFA’s latest annual report earlier this week, there is scope for this to increase still further. So I will continue to challenge and support all universities to look at how they might forge more, better partnerships with employers, so helping disadvantaged students realise their full potential – both for their own benefit, and for the greater good of our society and economy.
Professor Ebdon has been Director of Fair Access to Higher Education since 1 September 2012. He was previously Vice Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire.