Bridge Group Conference 2017

Key Themes and Recommendations

Background

The Bridge Group held its second annual conference on 17 May, 2017. It gathered together more than 200 senior leaders and practitioners from across sectors to address some of the main challenges to achieving greater social equality. Schools, higher education, charities, employers, and government departments were active in defining both the barriers and the potential solutions.

It explored themes that were prominent at its inaugural conference – such as fair access to university and the professions – and re-examined them in the light of the latest evidence and activity. The conference focused intently on the need for greater collaboration, across and between sectors, and urgent action to promote social mobility. It was effective in shining the spotlight on a number of key areas where swift collective action could have a significant impact to improve the outcomes for many from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Outlined, below, are some of the primary topics of conversation and the most persuasive recommendations that will be informing the policy priorities of the Bridge Group over the next 12 months.

The debate continues and we welcome on-going conversations and collaborations with colleagues to ensure that ideas are translated into effective action.

Key Themes

  1. Access to Higher Education
  • Debt aversion is more common amongst those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, impacting participation in higher education.
  • Changing cultures of higher education. We need to challenge academic and public narratives that perpetuate institutional hierarchies to achieve greater parity of esteem across the sector.
  • League tables continue to have a negative influence, particularly on the most selective institutions. The latter need to take immediate action by lowering attainment levels for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Place matters. Place has a significant impact on university access. For example, entry to the University of Oxford is significantly over-represented by students from the South East of the UK. Those from the North are under-represented, even when controlling for attainment.
  • The university as place-maker. Greater emphasis needs to be given to the role of the university as anchor, providing high quality, diverse provision to appeal to local students and meet employers’ needs. A local model of higher education will ensure fairer access, overcoming the barriers of both place and mobility.
  • Building links between schools and universities. Widening participation activities require increased – and consistent – monitoring and evaluation to ensure students from across the country are able to benefit from them, not just those who live near an institution. Widening participation should be reconceived to place greater emphasis on the dynamic and collaborative relationship between schools and universities (often facilitated by third sector organisations), with widening participation expertise residing in schools and not just in universities.
  1. Rethinking definitions of student ‘success’
  • School-level attainment. The emphasis given by government to GCSE attainment as a measure of (school, teacher, and student) success was widely criticised. Such a narrow measure fails to recognise student potential and the diversity of talent.
  • Expanding ideas of graduate success. Speakers and delegates reinforced the need to move beyond narrow and value-laden conceptions of university student success that focused on financial achievement.
  • Increasing focus on ‘learning gain’. Universities need to attach more value to learning gain and should be held accountable, through league tables, for their capacity to stretch, challenge, and support all learners.
  • Increasing focus on potential. Challenging assumptions around ‘success’ should have an impact on the behaviours of employers, inviting them to widen their recruitment pool and rethink notions of talent.
  1. Reforming the practices of employers to support social mobility
  • A lack of transparency and openness about minimum entry requirements by firms creates barriers for candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are more likely to have lower attainment. Too often, low entry requirements are advertised when the average grades amongst employees are high.
  • There is insufficient clarity around internships for both employers and students. In particular, there is confusion over the boundary between ‘work experience’ and ‘internship’. When does a work experience placement become an ‘internship’ which is often accorded higher value by employers?
  • Improved dialogue between universities and employers, particularly to support sharing of good practice over data collection and monitoring.

Recommendations

1. Universities need to review their Access Agreement spend on bursaries considering evidence suggesting that debt deters some groups of students from participating in higher education.

2. The most selective universities should take immediate action to diversify their student population by lowering attainment levels for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

3. The higher education sector must work towards achieving greater parity of esteem by reducing emphasis on prior attainment, introducing measures of learning gain, and achieving more socio-economically diverse student populations.

4. Universities’ widening participation activities should be fully embedded in the wide-range of work that the institution is involved in to create graduate opportunities and generate regional economic growth.

5. Management incentives need to be introduced by universities to ensure that members of staff are accountable for the retention and progression of their students.

6. Improved data collection

In higher education:

  • Robust investigations are needed to better understand the relationship between university outreach activities associated with aspiration and raising attainment.
  • The evidence base for widening participation activities needs to be improved. OFFA’s work in this area needs to be both enhanced and elevated so that universities are able to access data to inform the design and delivery of activities.

Amongst employers:

  • All employers should collect information about the socio-economic background of applicants and hires (using best practice guidance published by the Bridge Group), including for internships (and where possible the background of students they engage on campuses) to understand better how attraction and selection strategies and contributing to diversity in the organisation.
  • Where possible, these data should be shared transparently alongside strategies to address any negative findings. At a minimum, larger employers should be able, and willing, to share data relating to individual institutions with careers services at each university, to help institutional colleagues understand better which students are engaging in attraction activities, and where students from different backgrounds are succeeding, or not, in selection processes.

7. All internships need to be paid, openly advertised, and competitive. We fully support the Social Mobility Commission in its campaign to raise awareness of unequal access to internships and to place pressure on government to introduce urgent reforms. In particular, we recommend that government provide clarity over the boundaries between work experience and internships to prevent employers from exploiting this loophole.

8. Collaborative action is required to reform league tables to remove their focus on prior attainment and introduce a range of measures to indicate institutional quality, such as learning gain.

9. Government must do more to enable the development of local solutions to educational inequality and progression that are responsive to local issues, and harness local expertise and knowledge, rather than imposing unilateral strategies.

10. Where employers are operating large internship programmes, they should ring-fence a proportionate number of places for students from under-represented groups, based on diversity data analysis.

11. A-levels were never designed to indicate how well someone would perform in a job, and attainment is strongly correlated with socio-economic background. Unless there are strong reasons for doing so (for example, specific skills acquired in an A-Level are a pre-requisite for the job), employers should not preclude students from applying based on A-Level attainment.

12. Employers should deliver more curriculum-based interactions with universities, to place less emphasis on ‘prestigious’ events at which students self-select to attend. These more inclusive modes of engagement: address the problem of student self-selection and reduce the likelihood of only speaking with those already aware of a particular employer; can showcase what is at the heart of the relevant role, rather than marketing about it; responds to universities’ needs for ‘real-life’ learning within the curriculum; and develops relationships with academic members of staff, who are key influencers on students’ career choices.

13. More fundamentally every employer is encouraged strongly to undertake a critical review of the way in which ‘talent’ is defined and identified, and to consider carefully how precisely these definitions reflect the requirements for undertaking specific roles, and how characteristics associated with these definitions might correlate with socioeconomic background.

The Bridge Group will publish its 2017/18 plan in August 2017: this will include details about how the Charity will pursue these recommendations.