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Access to HE: supporting widening participation

Speaker key

AW: Ashley Westwood
NF: Professor Nick Foskett


AW: My name is Ashley Westwood, and I am on a student placement here at QAA. So we are here at the Access to Higher Education Conference. Could you just explain who you are and what you do?

NF: Thanks, yes. I am Professor Nick Foskett. I am the Vice-Chancellor at Keele University but I am also Chair of QAA's Access Recognition and Licensing Committee, which is the overall acting body for approving Access awarding organisations in the UK. 

AW: Could you just sum up, very briefly, your presentation?

NF: What I tried to do is to present an overview of where we are in the Access world at the moment, so I have described some of the contextual circumstances: changes in government policy, some of the wider economic and social issues which reflect on FE and HE. I have looked also at some of the history of Access and noted particularly the progress that has been made in the UK since the Dearing Report in 1997, where we have made real progress in terms of widening participation in Access. But I have also made the point that there is still a long way to go and there are still many groups who don't participate as much as we would like them to do. What I have then done is to pose some of the key challenges, to FE institutions and HE institutions, about what they might want to think about in terms of Access in the future.

AW: What is your opinion of widening participation; do you think it still matters to government and society?

NF: Well I think widening participation is overall a very good story for the UK, and there are significant numbers of students who have been able to enter higher education, take full advantage of what that offers, and progress into careers on the basis of that. We have traditionally had a very narrow pathway through higher education; providing opportunities for late starters, or those who are handicapped in some way by their social or personal circumstances, is a really important issue of equity and opportunity, so it is very important we seek to do that.

AW: Talking about widening participation, what do you see is the difference between government rhetoric and reality?

NF: If you look at most government documentation around education, you will see a strong commitment to social mobility, to ensuring that people can achieve, whatever their background or circumstances. I think that is a view that most people would sign up to as a good ethical and moral stance, but then when you start to look at some of the detail of policy and practise, you begin to realise that it doesn't match up. So issues around, for example, the access to funding for mature students in FE and how they can support going on an Access programme - that is quite contradictory to supporting the notion of Access. Similarly, all of the emphasis on universities focusing on recruiting AAB-plus students takes away the focus on what we might be doing for students from other backgrounds and origins, who will gain equally well from higher education but get squeezed out of the consideration by those sorts of policy perspectives. Similarly, all of the furore around the appointment of the new Office for Fair Access Director: one would assume that government would wish to have a Director of the Office for Fair Access who was very assertive about alternative routes into education, and yet his appointment was followed by an orchestrated campaign to question whether this was all needed, and that this was bad for education and might we have somebody in that role who was questioning government policy and strategy. So there are all sorts of contradictions in there.

AW: OK, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. And thanks for listening to this week's podcast.