Emeritus Professor of Lifelong Learning
York St John University
Just about a decade ago I argued,
If we are to sustain the progress made so far and also meet the challenges which still remain with regard to patterns of participation in higher education, it is higher education itself which must change
Yet I was by no means the first to make such a point. For example, in 2005 Geoff Layer identified two broad notions of the role of higher education. One, a kind of “academic finishing school” for those prepared for such an experience; the other being to provide opportunities for a diverse range of people to gain higher-level qualifications. The first, he wrote,
…is very much focussed on students fitting in to an existing model of higher education, the other is about the extent to which higher education needs to change.
And in between, others have made similar and often more specific calls for institutional change. For example, in 2007 Thomas and Jones argued that “achieving more diverse patterns of participation” will require the development of “more progressive and responsive forms of HE”
So, of what possible relevance can all this digging around in history have as universities and colleges around the world grapple furiously with the risks and consequences of Covid-19 for their work and their students as academic years begin. Or, indeed, for their widening access policies and practices in this ‘new world’?
Well, it seems from the summary findings of a recent survey across UK higher education (Wonkhe, 7 September 2020) , into “hopes for the HE sector post Covid-19” that the issue of institutional change to achieve greater diversity of the student population remains high on the agenda of respondents. These included academic and professional staff, those working in student unions, students, as well as governors and heads of institutions. The survey findings are not considered representative of UK higher education overall, but are indicative of key issues which appeared again and again in responses.
Two of the six identified themes relate directly to our concern with widening access and successful participation: flexibility of provision and creating a more inclusive sector.
Flexibility of provision
This umbrella term is given quite concrete meaning by respondents. One of them is quoted as summarising it as “flexible learning that fits around students’ needs”, whilst another referred to a “step-on, step-off approach”. Other hopes were for more:
• Blended and combined on-line/on-campus learning
• Shorter courses to support lifelong learning
• Modular approaches in the university curriculum
• Opportunities for students to start their studies at different points in the year
• And better financial support for part-time study
• Credit transfer opportunities to support student mobility between universities
And one respondent hoped that Covid would “finally wean HE off the ‘lecture’ as the base unit of teaching” so that teachers could have time to develop more engaging learning and teaching methods.
A more inclusive sector
Under this broad heading, questions of how to promote more collaboration between institutions were raised, as well as finding ways to make accessibility to teaching for disabled students much easier and a higher priority. One issue which has become increasingly visible with the move to more and more on-line learning is the uneven access among students to appropriate technology – the so-called digital divide. Whilst not mentioned specifically in the summary of findings, it has become clear that the more institutions move to blended and on-line learning the greater effort they need to make to determine their students’ access to appropriate technology. Inclusivity means making sure all students can access the required learning technologies.
The summary findings by no means exhaust the many ways in which universities and colleges can look to change what they do, how they do it, and where they do it, so as to maximise diversity of the student population. For example, more of them might engage in community-centred, community-located, even community-led teaching and learning. And, there could be greater work with those marginalised groups who often seem forgotten in dialogues about widening access and participation – for example, the ‘homeless’, those estranged from families, or those with mental health issues; working with a diversity of funding bodies, including a wider range of charities, to enable provision for various marginalised groups. The message was, over ten years ago, “re-think how we ‘do’ higher education”. It seems that is still the message, and ever more urgent in the context of the pandemic.
It can be sobering and dispiriting to look back over a decade-and-a-half at what some of us were arguing for then, and at what those currently in higher education are saying still needs to be done in these regards. It seems as if little, if anything, has changed. On the other hand, there is much to be optimistic about when those working in higher education today – at least in the UK – are themselves arguing for the same change in such concrete terms.
Could it be that the pandemic will bring long overdue changes to higher education and help those in positions of influence see that only in these ways can we achieve the diversity and inclusivity so many of us crave? Could this virulent enemy turn out to be an ally in our battle for greater equity in higher education?