Blog: Access to Success and Social Mobility – A global issue

04/09/2018 | News

By Stuart Billingham, Professor Emeritus of Lifelong Learning, York St John University

How to increase and widen access to post-secondary – further, higher, and maybe especially university – education are not new questions. There have been many initiatives around the world, and a great deal of money spent, to try and change patterns of inequality in access to, and success at, university. Yet despite the growth in the number of students going to university around the world – which is roughly double what it was in 2000 – the fact of unequal access to success and social mobility through studying at university will not go away.

Global commitments

The matter of access to higher education was considered so important that, in 2015, the 193 members of the United Nations voted unanimously to include the following target in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “that, by 2030, countries should provide equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and higher education, including university”.

Despite that clear commitment from the UN, a study published in 2016 looking across 23 OECD countries, found that:

[A] child’s chances of participating in tertiary education are twice as high if at least one of their parents has completed upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education. If one of their parents had a tertiary education, their chances of participating in it themselves are over four times as high. (Atherton, Dunmangane and Whitty, 2016)

In the UK, the most recent evidence shows continuing skewed patterns of success at university. So, for example, “the proportion of students who get a 2:1 degree is 10 percentage points lower for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds than for their wealthier peers” (Millward, 2018).

Clearly, what we have been doing to change this historic inequality in successful participation in higher education is not enough or not what will deliver real and sustainable change. We need to do more and/or we need to do different.

Moving forward with access and social mobility

Access to Success and Social Mobility through Higher Education: A Curate’s Egg?, recently published by Emerald Publishing, includes chapters which consider current and past approaches to these issues and what we should do going forward to change them. There are examples of what is happening in Northern Israel, in Tasmania and New Zealand, in South Africa and in the USA. And even in those chapters primarily focused on the UK situation, there is often cross-referencing to what is happening in other countries around these themes.

Whilst reflectively and critically analytical, the book is far from pessimistic. For example, it includes description of the highly successful initiative in one university to involve those who use mental health services in university study, which is now expanding to other universities in England and the USA. There is a chapter on the problems relating to policy on part-time study and how to overcome them; another about a major new initiative to establish a university campus in a coastal resort – an access to higher education ‘cold spot’ – many miles from its parent university. There is also a case study of how a specific type of staff development can expose the challenges which many distance learners from less advantaged educational backgrounds experience and how to ‘design them out’ and a chapter about how contextual admissions can produce real change in patterns of ‘access to the elite’.

This new volume closes with a chapter by Dr Graeme Atherton on the need for World Access to Higher Education Day. It is more than just a rallying-call to get engaged with this movement but, when you read it, you will have no doubt that joining World Access to Higher Education Day will be one of the best decisions you ever made.


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