This area of JohnnyRich.com is devoted to issues raised in the process of his work as a specialist in higher and further education, sixth-form options and graduate careers. Everything here is written by Johnny Rich and is his personal view and not those of any organisation he works for or which he might represent from time to time.


April 2013: Widening participation: Who gains?

Over the past few months, I've been involved in setting up a group to explore ways that employers and the private sector can become better engaged with widening participation into university.

    I've been working closely with Graeme Atherton of NEON and AccessHE, Jenny Shaw of the Unite Foundation and some others, including recently Louis Coiffait of the Pearson Think Tank. They're all very wonderful, able and committed people who want to see fairer access and opportunity.

    Last month we held our first public event, a round table discussion attended by an impressive array of individuals including Professor Malcolm Gillies of London Metropolitan Uni – who chaired most ably – Professor Les Ebdon of OFFA and a good number of other senior HE representatives, employers and third sector organisations..

    I gave a presentation outlining, as I see it, the case for employers to get involved. Read it here.


Why should employers care about widening participation in higher education?


The answer depends on how we see the role of HE in society. Among other things, it is a training ground for the workforce, many of whom work within the private sector. Even if they don’t end up as private sector employees, having a larger supply of graduates is a cultural and economic resource that drives regional, national and global prosperity which is good for business.

    So, if we fail to have the widest possible participation is HE, it’s like trying to water the flower beds with one foot on the hosepipe.

    Let’s forget social equality, that a fairer society is intrinsically better and that all parts of society benefit from a better whole. There are, I would argue, three clear and distinct commercial benefits

  1. 1.WP in HE allows social diversity in business, particularly at higher levels. That in turn also means other types of diversity: ethnicity, age, gender, disability, etc. This creates companies that look like their customers, greater empathy, broader experience, etc. I remember hearing an HR Director from a high street bank telling a conference she wasn’t interested in diversity, she just wanted the best people for the job. I’m glad to say she was taken to task for failing to recognise that she would not have the best people for the job unless they were diverse, because her customers were diverse and as a business they would fail to understand them if they were not representative of them.

  2. 2.Where do we find talent? Does privilege exactly coincide with ability? If so, then no, employers don’t need WP. If not, however, then fishing in a talent pool that includes the disadvantaged means more fish with more talents and a greater probability of a greater number of employers catching the right fish for the job.

  3. 3.How do you retain and strengthen your existing workforce? Does it not make sense to keep upskilling your staff, ideally with recognised qualifications taught by institutions that are educational experts? In other words, why don’t more employers work with universities to provide courses, particularly part-time, to their staff? This is the really tough battlefront in WP. Some of the greatest barriers are the need for people to keep working to pay the bills and the fact that people feel they’ve “missed their chance”.

Even if we can all agree that these are real and significant benefits, what can the private sector do about increasing and widening participation?

We need to follow the pipeline back to find out why individuals do not participate.  Pretty soon you get to schools and colleges. There is a moment – or many moments – when someone – we – could step in and influence a key decision at just the right time.

In fact more usually, it’s not that people decide not to go to uni. It’s that they don’t make a decision at all and are left with a socially determined default option. For the advantaged, that means they do go to uni. For the disadvantaged, it means they don’t.

So, who can intervene? Teachers and parents – but they’re just another step back in the pipeline. How do you engage, inform and – using a word David Willetts seemed disturbingly keen at a meeting I attended a couple of days ago – “nudge” them?

Then there are careers advisers. Sadly, the Government has virtually dismembered the careers profession in England, hacking away like a metronome with an axe.

I think it’s a scandal that there’s no funding, no national body, no requirement even that ensures that the words ‘career’ or ‘university’ are even spoken to students in post-16 education, let alone actually giving them impartial, high-quality careers support.

We need to make up for this careers advice vacuum. If someone is stuck in a hole – and being in the hole is the only thing they’ve ever known, and they have no ladders or grappling hooks – then you can’t wait for them to magically rise up out of it just because you make things ever more attractive outside the hole. You need to reach out to them to help them up.

And what do we call this reaching out? We call it outreach. Timely interventions that get in the way of their normal daily business – in their schools, their homes or their place of work – and which strike a chord with them.

Outreach is not cheap though. It’s rarely worth it for a private sector organisation to go into a school, say, at a cost of hundreds if not thousands of pounds to talk to maybe 50 students. Any cost-benefit analysis will torpedo that one.

But what if 50 organisations were willing to chip in and what if it weren’t just one school, but hundreds?  Suddenly the cost is spread, the benefits are increased and the reach is widened.

We need collaborative outreach between all parties with an interest in WP: universities, Government and the private sector. Collaboration has other benefits too:

•The outreach gets better because quality assurance is easier to manage;

•The resources can be allocated more effectively through coordination. That means better geographic and demographic coverage at lower cost;

•The whole exercise becomes more measurable, therefore more evidence-based and therefore, in the long-term, ever more effective;

•And follow-up activities can reflect a wider range of options (whether it’s an invitation to a uni summer school, a mentoring project or an invitation to apply for a sponsored degree scheme or a school-leaver programme).

There are many examples of good collaborative outreach projects, but not enough and without enough collaboration. Many are funded by HE. For example, although AimHigher was ‘discontinued’ by the Government, regionally collections of universities have decided to keep some similar arrangements going. There are other third sector initiatives such as Future First, Into University, The Access Group, MyKindaCrowd, Brightside, etc, many of which are engaged in some form of outreach.

Most of the private sector however hasn't seen this at its responsibility. So far.

Without wanting to make this look like a plug, what I’ve been talking about is the reasoning behind another outreach initiative which my own organisation runs: Push Talks. Please forgive me for telling you a little more by way of illustration of how, I believe, collaborative outreach can work and how we’re putting what I believe into practice.

We took a National Careers Award-winning programme of schools outreach that we’d been doing for nearly 20 years and decided to get private sector businesses and universities to support it as a focus for some of their outreach. We received backing from the Association of Graduate Recruiters and a number of key employers. Along with support from various other stakeholders and universities means we now reach nearly 400 schools a year, amounting to over 30,000 students.

We gather contact details which means that it can be just the first step in a ongoing process of ever-mounting engagement with choices about which options suit them best. This is run as a social enterprise which means that the more organisations we involve, the more backing we get, the wider the reach and the more students and the supporting organisations benefit. It’s all based on a win-win strategy for everyone.