The challenge of increasing access

6 September 2017

It is welcome to see Reform highlighting the London School of Economics (LSE)’s work in their report Joining the Elite: how top universities can enhance social mobility. The news is undoubtedly positive – our work to attract and admit talented students from a range of backgrounds is paying off. Good news aside, there is no ‘silver-bullet’ for widening participation and access to highly selective institutions. LSE’s achievements to-date are based on our long-standing commitment to this agenda. Our contextual admissions process is just one piece in a larger jigsaw. I firmly believe that an evidence-informed and robustly-reviewed programme of work – such as we have at LSE, ranging from early pre-entry outreach to on-course support and beyond – is vital to addressing the challenges to widening participation, many of which need our continued action and attention.

We need to remember that unequal access to higher education, especially to highly selective university courses, reflects deep-rooted societal (in)equalities, wrapped up in complex issues such as identity and power. The word ‘complex’ is key. We remain committed to understanding and addressing the complexity in these issues, to continue leveraging change across the sector.

Looking specifically at access to university, the ‘complexity challenge’ comes from myriad variables. Which data do we have access to, and can we use them effectively? How shall we define success? Where do we have control and influence, and how does this interplay with the other influencers of an individual’s education trajectory? When do we make the biggest demonstrable impact? Is higher education genuinely the best or only option to achieve desired outcomes?

The aim of Reform’s second recommendation speaks to some of these points by highlighting the need for all universities to consistently measure and recognise their contribution to improved outcomes overall. This is alongside, but separate to, the current focus on individual institutional intakes. To address such challenges institutions need to continue to work together and utilise expertise from across the whole education sector, innovating our practice where necessary, especially in the current unstable policy environment.

One specific case is the headline measure used as evidence of the sector’s progress; the proportion of undergraduate students from the “lowest participation neighbourhoods defined by POLAR3”. Whilst one tool to measure our success, POLAR3 is a higher education-specific dataset, with language that does not easily translate elsewhere. Additionally, POLAR3 can mask other indications of deprivation, especially in London. To this end we need to find more shared language and understanding across the whole education sector, along with more sophisticated tools, to continue to address these challenges and make further demonstrable progress.

Kirsty Wadsley, Head of Widening Participation, The London School of Economics

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