Despite genuine effort over the past 15 – 20 years, Universities have significantly increased participation, but only marginally widened participation. While more and more students are going to university (definitely a good thing in my view), they are not necessarily a more diverse community of students.

I criticised bursaries as being nothing better than prizes for disadvantaged students who have worked hard and made the difficult choices to get to university, but offering no incentive to able potential students who are not even considering higher education. In an earlier post, I said that universities sponsoring academy schools might help widen the options and raise the aspirations of school pupil. Today I’m thinking more of those who will have left full time education for whom a traditional education is just impossible.

So, while the number of young people entering Higher Education increased by over 20% between 2002/3 and 2009/10, the percentage of those from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’ dropped from 13.3% to 10.3%. HESA have the statistics HERE. This is quite a startling set of numbers that make it quite obvious that new thinking is required on WP.

Why not offer tax-breaks for employers who offer opportunities for their staff to gain qualifications in the workplace, without having to sacrifice their jobs and all that goes with that?

When I worked at the QAA, one of the most enjoyable bits of work I was involved with was a research project that explored how universities engage with employers to deliver higher education in the workplace. What it highlighted to me was the fact that the traditional model for delivering higher education (i.e. 3 year undergraduate programmes delivered on campus, 9am – 6pm, Monday to Friday) has reached saturation point. If we are going to draw more people into HE, from non-traditional backgrounds, then we need to develop radically different ways of delivering that education.

After this QAA report was published, I recorded a podcast with a couple of academics from the University of Derby. I was inspired by what they had to say. They have basically got on their bikes and found employers who want to work with them to deliver HE courses in the workplace.

They have reshaped their internal quality assurance, teaching, learning and assessment regulations so that an employer can approach them to talk about a skills or qualification gap that might exist in their workplace. The University will see if they have the expertise internally or can work in partnership with another university to deliver an accredited course for that employer. Often the employees will already be demonstrating the knowledge and skills required but need support to apply academic theory to their practice, to be assessed and to gain accreditation.

The most important part of the deal is that the University breaks with convention and does not expect students to come on to their campus, they go to their workplaces and deliver the classes there, in an environment that is comfortable and familiar to them and does not require sacrifices to family life etc. study and academic writing and research skills are taught to them.

These students were people working on factory and shop floors who would never in a month of Sundays consider signing up for an HE course off their own back because they could not afford the cost or the sacrifice to family life etc. that would go with it. When you talk to the students who have taken these courses, you get a glimpse of the impact it has; greater pride in their own work, higher ambitions and self-confidence, but also and possibly more important they see that HE is relevant and accessible to them and they will pass that message on to their friends, family and children.

This is the sort of activity is that genuinely widens participation and should be actively supported by the Government if it is serious about opening HE up to non-traditional groups of students.

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