UCL News


Provost's View: Widening participation and fair access

22 January 2015

From our very beginning in 1826, UCL was open to all irrespective of religion, race, and (albeit a little later) gender.

Widening participation I wonder what our founders might have thought of the modern day desire and need to demonstrate 'fair access' and 'widening participation' (WP), with the requirement for us to report on both annually to HEFCE and the Office of Fair Access. I expect that they might have been mortified by the regulatory requirements, but I hope that they would have been seriously impressed by the importance we attach to this issue and by both the breadth and the depth of our efforts.

There are many different views about what WP seeks to achieve and what really constitutes fair access. For some it's about levelling the playing field to give students the opportunities that others have had. For some sections of the media, it's about lowering academic standards in pursuit of a rather simplistic sense of equality. For some in government, it's about getting state school students in to 'elite' universities. For others it's about inspiring the next generation. But, do we at UCL have a shared understanding of what we mean by WP and fair access and what we hope to achieve by our efforts? We put an enormous amount of time and resource into widening participation activities, currently £1.88m in 2014/15, rising to £4.38m in 2018/19, and it is important that we collectively and as individuals know and understand what we are seeking to achieve.

A shared understanding

As an institution, we are clear about our shared vision. WP is about targeting the 'most able, but least likely' to go on to university. We don't want to cherry pick the middle class students from the most challenging schools. Instead, we want to work with the hardest to reach students from schools that find it hard to engage with the university sector. It's for this reason that we don't use the generic category of 'state school' for any of our project work; it's misleading and, to a large extent, allows universities to play the system. UCL's target groups mirror those recognised nationally by OFFA and HEFCE:

  • Students eligible for free school meals;
  • Socio-economic groups 4-8;
  • Those from areas with relatively low levels of participation in higher education (POLAR 1);
  • Looked after children and care-leavers;
  • Those from black and minority ethnic groups that are under-represented at UCL;
  • Students with disabilities;
  • Mature students.

Doing what's right, not what's easy

The most effective WP work tends to be time-consuming and involves engaging with students over a longer or more intensive period of time. The image of an inspiring lecturer giving an assembly to a hall of 16 year olds and convincing them to pledge their lives to education is a stirring one, but it's not realistic. We know that most young people's aspirations are set by the age of 14; if university isn't on the agenda by then, it's unlikely that it will ever be. In fact, we can go further, and say that aspiration tends not to be the thing that holds students back, it's attainment that's key. But, supporting students' attainment is long-term and expensive work. One-off talks and visits have their place amongst a programme of engagement, but we need to be conscious of what works. In this area, we are one of a handful of universities leading the way in our use of evidence and demonstration of impact.


Given that UCL has a long way to travel in terms of changing its intake and demographic, it's easy to think that our WP work has a long way to go too. This is far from the case. We invest more in outreach activities than any other London institution and we have one of the largest WP teams in the country. UCL's long-term engagement work with early secondary students is innovative, award-winning and shapes national direction. In 2013, UCL was awarded a grant to develop a long-term engagement programme for highly able 12-15 year olds from WP backgrounds. Early results from this programme have been positive and from 2015 it will be rolled-out at four universities across the UK.

The merger with the Institute of Education opens up further opportunities and has led to the development of an additional WP team with a primary focus on teacher engagement. This will allow us to contribute to and shape provision of information, advice and guidance to WP students nationally. In 2015, we hope to be part of a small group of universities running a programme of teacher summer schools.

Since 2009, UCL has run a year-long Saturday School for 14-16 year olds. Over the last six years, more than 1,000 students have taken part in the programme. 80% of students leaving this programme gained 5+ A*/A grades at GCSE. Nearly 30% of students saw an improvement in their expected Maths and English attainment between Key Stages 3 and 4. Post-16, our work is equally strong. 65% of student who take part in our most successful programmes (residential summer schools, short courses, advice clinics) go on to make an application to UCL, with 465 applications from all projects in 2014. This compares well with similar programmes nationally, and we have seen our intake begin to change (see the chart below).

2011/12 2013/14
Lower socio-economic class 3.3% 4.9%
POLAR 1 16.3% 18.8%
State School 64.7% 69.8%

It's not just about the feel-good factor

We're not ready to be self-congratulatory yet. To change UCL's student profile through outreach activity alone is slow and hard. We need to be determined about the desire to change ourselves; raising aspirations around higher education is a nice thing, but the end goal has to be the need to make UCL a place open to all those with the potential to succeed. This means thinking about our admissions processes and engaging in an academic debate to actively consider amending our offers of admission for WP applicants. We need to stop being swayed by the media portrayal of WP. There is a perception that widening access means lowering academic standards and admitting students with C grades or lower at A level. In truth, it means admitting students with academic profiles that demonstrate the potential to succeed and thrive at UCL, but who may not, as yet, have the polish or grades of other candidates. Such admissions schemes must include methods of assessing potential that are owned by UCL, as and when such additional evidence is necessary.

The future

As well as continuing with our most successful projects, we are introducing a research strand to our work, as befits one of the country's top research-led institutions. We will also be investing more in support for department-led activity which will allow departments to be sophisticated in their targeting and address their specific issues.

There are many challenges that face us over the coming years, not least because WP has always been subject to the whims of national politics. UCL is committed to changing its student profile and has set itself stretching targets. To succeed, we need to keep a strong sense of what UCL wants to achieve in WP, and to be in a position to shape rather than respond to the national agenda.

Professor Michael Arthur

UCL President & Provost

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