By law, if a university or college wants to charge around £6,000 in fees or more, they must have a clear plan to promote equal opportunities. Access and Participation plans aim to do this by getting underrepresented students into higher education, giving them support while they’re there, and helping them to access the best opportunities when they leave.
What's the big issue?
At the moment, there are some pretty big gaps between underrepresented groups and represented groups when it comes accessing and progressing in higher education.
An underrepresented group is one that is disproportionately small within a given sample. If you took a sample of forty students from Hogwarts, for example, you’d expect there to be an equal number (around ten) of Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs, Slytherins and Gryffindors. If there were in fact only two Hufflepuffs, you could say that Hufflepuffs were underrepresented in that sample.
In education, an ‘underrepresented group’ might refer to students from a state school or college, students from an ethnic minority, disabled students, students from a family with low income, or students from a low-participation neighbourhood (one where there’s a low progression to higher education).
To give you an idea of some of the gaps that exist between unrepresented groups and represented groups in education, here are a few statistics taken from the Office for Students:
- 24% of students from the most represented groups go to the most prestigious universities and colleges, compared with just 4% from the least represented.
- 7% from the most represented groups discontinue their studies, compared to 12% from the least represented.
- 81% of white students get a 1st or 2:1, compared with 57% of black students.
- 78% of non-disabled students get a 1st or 2:1, compared with nearly 75% of disabled students.
What are universities doing to fix this?
Universities are trying to reduce these gaps so that future generations of young people have equal opportunities to access, succeed and progress in higher education.
Their Access and Participation plans set out how they will do this, and how much they will spend on achieving their targets.
Plans are reviewed and published by the Office for Students and include how much of the higher fees income that a university receives (anything charged above the basic fee) will go towards Access and Participation. You can easily find this information on Unifrog by using the Access rank on the UK Universities tool. Initiatives might also be available on the Special Opportunities tool, so make sure you check it out!
Here are a few examples of what these plans might include:
The University of Manchester runs a ‘Gateway programme’ targeted at local school pupils from underrepresented backgrounds. It helps them to find out more about university life, explore a range of degree courses, and develop a range of skills that will help them to be successful at GCSE and beyond such as team-working, independent enquiry, and reflective learning.
Some universities offer extra support to students who have been in care or helped to provide care to others. This support is to help make their transition to university as smooth and straightforward as possible. It includes help with their university application, access to accommodation, and additional resources both before they arrive and whilst they’re there.
Oxford University’s Careers Service is piloting a new Alumni-Student mentoring programme targeted at undergraduate students from family income of £16,000 - 25,000. This programme will be expanded in 2018-19 to all students from families with £0 – 16,000 annual income.
How can you benefit from Access and Participation?
If you’re from an underrepresented group, a university’s Access and Participation plan might be already be able to help you. It’s worth speaking with the Student Services team at any university you’re considering applying to and asking them what their Access and Participation plan can offer you. They’ll be able to put you in touch with someone who can help.
Even if you’re not from an underrepresented group, it’s reassuring to know that your chosen university is doing what they can to level the playing field for young people accessing higher education. Once you’re at university, you’ll also have the opportunity to get involved by taking part in the Access and Participation activities, such as outreach projects with schools.