Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.
During my time as a Minister in the Department for Education I have spoken a great deal about what I call ‘real social mobility’ – the idea that a blind drive to get bums on seats in university helps no one.
What does help students is ensuring they have the information to make informed decisions, in order to get on to courses with good outcomes and actually complete their course.
That is why I am ensuring universities change their focus to getting on rather than just getting in.
Because getting in, is in reality, just the first rung on the ladder. What moves people up that ladder is a system that supports them the whole way up, rung-by-rung if necessary, until they get to where their talent and ambition can take them.
The ladder also has to be leading somewhere – it is unacceptable that at 25 higher education providers, and on many more individual courses, fewer than 50 per cent of those who start end up in graduate employment or further study. We must also not forget that those who suffer the most are from disadvantaged backgrounds – data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows clearly that disadvantaged entrants are less likely to continue after year one; less likely to achieve a first or upper second-degree classification; and less likely to progress into highly skilled employment or study.
So today, I am announcing that we are refocusing the entire Access and Participation Regime to shift its measure of success in social mobility from intakes to outcomes – real social mobility. As Conservatives we all believe in a meritocracy – my own conservatism is based on a strong belief in the individual: that if you give them the tools they need then they will flourish. Sadly, some courses don’t give students the tools they need to get skilled work or the support they need to help them complete – and that’s not real social mobility. I will always defend university autonomy but I will not stand by and let some of our young fail to reach their full potential. After all, real social mobility is at the heart of levelling up.
As of today, we have appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, John Blake – an experienced educationalist from one of our top Multi-Academy Trusts. His task will be to embed the culture of good outcomes and high standards that have transformed opportunity within our school system since 2010 into our university sector. The first thing that I have asked John to do is to rewrite the national targets on Access and Participation, to ensure they properly reflect our levelling up ambitions, including a greater focus on addressing regional disparities and promoting degree apprenticeships. The OfS will then be asking every university to in turn revise and resubmit their Access and Participation Plans to refocus them on equality of opportunity, raising aspirations and standards in education.
This change will mean universities spend more time delivering for students – whether that is raising standards in local schools, delivering high quality teaching or supporting disadvantaged students into real, worthwhile careers. We are ending the need for novel-like plans – which require massive university resources to develop. Plans should be accessible for a student, parent or teacher who wants to pick them up and see. They should not take large teams endless hours to produce.
All access and participation work will need to be demonstrably aimed at helping students achieve the highest possible grades, and provide a path for them to walk after. We do not just need universities to accept students from local schools, we need them to actively work with and support their local schools to raise aspiration and attainment so that local students who arrive every year have the abilities, the skills and the confidence they need to excel in their courses.
There should be a shift away from marketing activities that benefit universities but let down students – and toward tangible results for students. That means every university working with schools and Further Education colleges in their area to improve attainment – and better transparency, too, so that students can make really informed choices. I am also making sure there is a real focus on the expansion of degree apprenticeships which offer students the chance to learn and earn debt-free, whilst gaining tangible work experience. We do already have some world-class degree apprenticeships on offer but the choice is limited and it is time we changed this.
Gone will be the days where universities recruit students onto courses that lead to dropping out, frustration and unemployment. A student’s outcome after university needs to be as important as a student’s grades before university.
So, just as the Russell Group has become used to having to set ambitious targets for recruiting state school pupils in order for its plans to be accepted, from now on universities with poor outcomes will have to set ambitious targets for reducing drop-out rates or improving progression to graduate employment. If the targets are not ambitious enough, then the plan will not be accepted by the Office for Students, meaning the university will not be permitted to charge full tuition fees – and if a university makes a plan but does not keep to it, the Office for Students will be able to impose sanctions, including fines.
We often hear how university is the springboard to social mobility and it can be – but right now, for too many people, it isn’t. Further education and apprenticeships can be an equally good choice.
However, we need to focus on the fact that it matters what you study and where. When young people go to university they make a substantial commitment of both time and money – they deserve to have the information to make informed choices, to have the confidence that they will be supported to complete their course, and a good chance of getting a skilled job at the end of it. This Conservative Government is a government that is focused on actions, rather than words. That is why I have set out these reforms today, to deliver real social mobility and to level up opportunity across our whole nation.