On Saturday 8th July, Director of Strategy and Social Mobility at the Department for Education Emran Mian, opened The Brilliant Club National Conference, titled ‘Getting In and Getting On: The Whole Student Life Cycle’. Read his full speech below:
“Firstly, I want to say a little bit more about my title, Director for Social Mobility. It is the first time that the Department has had this position. I think it is significant. Sometimes bureaucratic titles don’t mean very much but in this case the title came about because the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, couldn’t have been clearer that social mobility is what she wants to drive the Department; and that she wants that to be focus of everything the Department does. What we are in the process of thinking about as a Department – especially now that she has returned as the Secretary of State after the General Election is: what are the areas across all that the Department does that we don’t currently focus well enough on, contributing to social mobility or challenging that link between where a young person, or in fact any person, comes from and their educational opportunities?
One area where we have done quite a lot on that front is higher education and what I want to do this morning is very briefly say some of the things, and some of them are changing at the moment, which I think are shaping the environment of higher education. I think we still have a real journey ahead of us to continue to improve social mobility.
I think the first set of things that comes about as a consequence of the Higher Education and Research Act isthe competition elements, what the act might mean for autonomy of institutions and a lot of public discussion is focused on the Teaching Excellence Framework.
In the end, there are some very significant things which shape the future for widening participation. The first is simply the fact that the Office for Students, the successor of the Higher Education Funding Council, will have a statutory duty to consider equality of opportunities for all students. This will extend to access and participation. I was racking my brain – I’m a lawyer by background so I’m the type of person who focuses on what the statutory duties of regulators are, I find that kind of thing very interesting – and I was looking at what other regulator statutory duties there are and I couldn’t find another regulator in any other sector that has equality of opportunity as one of its statutory duties.
The Office for Students will have that duty. Of course we need to wait and see how that works itself out, but the statutory duty is what they will have to report against every year. The statutory duty is what parliament will hold it to account for and what the Secretary of State will be held to account for. Statutory duties sometimes don’t mean very much but it does seem to me that if this is the first time, which I think it is, that a regulator has had equality of opportunity as one of its statutory duties that it is really quite significant. As we see that work itself out in the Office for Students, it will help to shape landscape of widening participation.
Alongside that, to get into the next level of detail, the Act does already introduce, before the Office for Students starts exercising its statutory duty, the Transparency Duty of universities, and that transparency duty is really quite wide-ranging. It requires them to publish application, offer, dropout and attainment rates of students broken down by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background. Some universities will say that they already publish that data to that specification but I think the fact that they will be under a duty to do so will mean a few very significant things.
First, it will focus the minds of university management on the detail and texture of those facts in a way that perhaps isn’t always the case at that moment, so I think it will increase the engagement of university management teams and academics in thinking about the issues that you think about. I think the other thing about this is that once this data is out there, it becomes easier for organisations like The Brilliant Club, and others that work with universities to support widening participation, to understand precisely how they can get involved in and improve widening participation.
I think it is difficult to design what the next frontier of widening participation should look like. And having much more textured data, that doesn’t just look at access but also student success at university, I think will allow all organisations that exist outside of universities and work in partnership with universities to develop their thinking and allow them to be more proactive to come forward to universities and think about what that next frontier of widening participation will look like. So the Transparency Duty both focuses the minds of university management and helps those outside universities to think about how precisely they can support pupils.
The third thing the Act does is widen the remit of the Director of Fair Access to go beyond just looking at access to take into account student success at university and preparedness for employment as part of the assessment. This takes the scope of access and widening participation work beyond the access point, much deeper into student success during the university course and preparedness for employment. So if we see access as just the first step in widening participation, if we also consider how the students coming from backgrounds that are typically underrepresented in higher education do at university and after it, the Director of Fair Access will have in future an increased set of responsibilities and powers to be able to think about that and work with universities through access agreements. Again, this is something new coming about that I think shapes the environment.
Stepping slightly away from fair access specifically, I think there are broader things in the Act as well which seem to me at least could be very beneficial for the environment that you work in. I think one of those is simply that, in a broader sense, the act changes the pathways for new HE institutions to come in and offer provision. What we’ve already seen is that some of the new institutions that have come into this space to offer higher education have chosen to compete on what they have chosen to do in terms of widening participation.
They are looking to recruit students from backgrounds where perhaps students aren’t going into higher education as commonly elsewhere. A second dimension to this is about place. We know there are some parts of the country where the provision of higher education is less dense than it is for example in London. If the Act succeeds in making it easier to come into those parts of the country where provision isn’t that widespread, that will widen participation simply in the sense that we know that often students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are not so willing to travel for higher education. So if we can increase higher education in areas more local to them, that in itself may have positive impact on their participation rates. So I think the way in which the Act shapes the environment for people to offer new provision of higher education means that we may see more and more providers have a widening participation mission and we may also see more providers in parts of the country where currently higher education provision is less dense. I think if we see both of those things happening we will have some really significant opportunities around widening participation.
The final one that I want to mention in terms of the environment that the act creates for higher education in the future is slightly more uncertain in that it is not obvious at this stage how much impact it will have. This is more about potential at this point. We think the Act will make it easier for higher education institutions to offer two-year courses. I think the proof of that will be in whether institutions decide to offer that provision and whether students demand that provision. But I think there is a respectable argument to be made that if you offer a two-year accelerated degree, if the maintenance cost associated with twoyear degrees is generally less than that associated with three year degrees, that might appeal to particular groups of students. For example it might appeal to older students more and it might appeal more to students from underrepresented backgrounds.
I think this is where I would say this is slightly more uncertain I think there is potential there that accelerated degrees might help us on our journey to widening participation They may not but I think if we see them being offered extensively over the next few years we can observe its impact on widening participation.
We also think that the Act helps to shape the environment so that it gradually becomes easier for students to transfer from one institution to another and transfer their credits from one to the other. We know that there is quite a lot of scepticism about this in the sector. I think the government has been talking about making it easier to do credit transfer for quite a long time. We do think that there is a genuine step change in how much easier that could be in the future and I think if that happened you could see some quite interesting possibilities for widening participation.
To give one example, , you could imagine that a student coming from a more disadvantaged background, with lower school attainment, hasn’t caught up to the level that a more selective institution might be looking for. Perhaps the student hasn’t benefitted from a programme like The Brilliant Club because these programmes don’t have universal reach yet, and at the point at which they leave school and go into university they’re only able at that point to go into a more local institution or a less selective institution.
If they do very well there in their first year, if they’re very well suited to being in higher education, perhaps more suited in some ways to being in higher education than they were to being in secondary school, what if there was a greater opportunity for them to pass from that institution to a more selective one? Or simply if they were more able to pass from a course that they may have picked based on imperfect information to a course that they can see after a year of being at university is better suited to them?
I think there are lots of things about our current system that inhibit people making those changes once they’re in higher education but if we can make it easier then I think there are lots of possibilities for students, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, going into a more local university and then stepping up to a more selective institution or perhaps going into a better course for them.
What is happening at the moment is that a lot of these people drop out of higher education, whereas perhaps in a system where transferring is easier maybe wouldn’t drop out but would instead move to a course that’s better suited to them. I think if we can genuinely get the credit transfer thing right there will be a lot of opportunities in that space as well.
That is my pitch as to how I think the Education and Research Act will impact the widening participation space. I wanted to draw it out in that kind of detail because I think these are aspects that don’t get talked about as much as some others but they do seem to me to make a really big change to the landscape in which universities are working in, in which you are working in.
Obviously there’s going to be a period of time during which these changes come in and I don’t think we’ll see the full impact of these changes for a period of time after that. Any time that you change the regulatory structure for example as I talked about the new duty of the Office for Students on equality of opportunity – it will take a bit of time to really reflect on what that duty means to then become quite ambitious on what it means to translate that duty into practice.
So I don’t think some of these changes will necessarily have an immediate impact but I do think that they shape the environment in a really positive and optimistic way for the work that you do.”