The end of 2013 saw the country battered by high winds and hit by floods that struck many of our communities, including our universities, hard. But a new year brings with it opportunities of new beginnings, and a chance for us to feel inspired and motivated as 2014 begins. Education can be a transformational experience – for learners, for their communities, and for wider society. Every person, regardless of their circumstances, should have the opportunity to experience higher level learning, and this inspires and motivates us for the year ahead.
In recent years, we have seen significant changes to tuition fees and university funding. Despite these changes, in employment terms alone, it still pays for the student – whatever their background – to invest in higher skills at university. Employment can offer a route out of poverty, and universities have a central role in developing high level skills, enabling graduates to access employment. 91% of graduates from full time first degree courses in Wales are employed within six months of leaving higher education – higher than the UK average.
At the end of 2013, Wales’ Education Minister Huw Lewis AM announced the Government’s intention to prioritise tackling the link between poverty and poor academic achievement. This is to be welcomed. The idea that an individual’s social circumstances can prevent them from pursuing higher education is out-dated, but evidence does suggest that the very idea of going to university being a valid option sometimes needs to be planted early.
Getting a place at university is not just about UCAS, A-levels, and leaving home. The landscape is far more diverse – today’s university applicants hold different qualifications, have different life experiences, and are at different stages of their careers. Universities not only have a role in promoting their specific offer, but they can also promote the very idea of higher education to our communities. Universities, schools and colleges, working in partnership with government, local authorities and other agencies, are all playing their part by helping students understand how higher education can help them. High level skills are key to improving chances of securing good quality employment, helping to break the cycle of poverty.
Over the years, Wales’ universities have worked hard to improve performance in widening access to higher education. Universities continue to work towards encouraging more students from under-represented groups to enrol, and to support them through their studies.Figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales in 2012 show that Wales is doing better than in the UK as a whole across a range of indicators. The proportion of university entrants from state schools or colleges to Wales’ universities is also higher than the UK as a whole. The proportion of young full time undergraduate entrants to Welsh universities from low participation neighbourhoods is higher than the UK as a whole. The proportion of part time entrants with no previous higher education experience, and from a low participation neighbourhood is greater than the proportion for the UK as a whole. The number of full time, undergraduate students in Wales’ universities in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowance continues to be greater than the proportion for the UK as a whole. These figures are good news for Wales, and are recognition of the hard work and commitment shown by staff at our universities. However, whilst our universities are performing well, we know that there is still work to do and we are exploring new ways of engaging with all those who might benefit from higher education.
Widening access to higher education should not be a numbers game, nor should it solely be about potential students from a particular community. Widening access should not be about ‘how many’ or ‘what percentage’, of communities can be enrolled onto higher education courses. It is much more than that. Wales’ universities are committed to ensuring that everyone with the determination, ability and desire to access higher education should be able to do so. The new year is an opportunity to embrace new opportunities, expand our horizons and ensure that our education system is delivering social justice for Wales.
Professor Colin Riordan
Chair, Higher Education Wales