Dr Graeme Atherton, the author of our latest research, explores what we can learn from the way universities and countries around the world have responded to the Covid-19 crisis, and how they have tried to support low-income students. 

While few countries display the same commitment to extending access and success for learners from low income and other marginalised backgrounds as the United Kingdom, there is still much to be learnt from looking at how other countries approach these issues. The two reports released by the Sutton Trust today – Room at the top: Access and success at leading universities around the world and University Access, Student Success and COVID-19 in a Global Contextshow that even though the UK is in many ways at the forefront globally in terms of access, in some key areas – especially in our response to COVID-19 – we may be lagging behind.

Broadening the intake of our most selective universities and ensuring those who do make it there from low income or marginalised backgrounds achieve their potential has been a long-standing concern in the UK. Room at the top: Access and success at leading universities around the world looks at how universities in 10 other countries are also approaching this challenge.

But comparing who is or is not making progress here is very hard. Most countries are not collecting anything like the level of data the UK does. Nevertheless, there is some evidence of practice that has yielded results and other work that appears to have the promise to do so in the future. In the US in particular, there has been significant progress in increasing the numbers of low income students entering world leading universities such as Princeton and Yale over the 2010s. Combining targeted outreach and admissions work, backed by funding and ambitious 100% financial aid packages appears to be having an impact.

These universities are also prepared, unlike their counterparts in the UK, to invest in specific initiatives targeted explicitly  at first-generation students that create physical/virtual communities in the institution for these students. As the number of students from different backgrounds attending selective universities here in the UK grows over the 2020s, this is an area where we will have to be increasingly pro-active and the US experience may be very instructive here.

The profiled access and success in higher education enjoyed in the US, especially within more selective universities, is unrivalled. However, the report shows leading universities in other countries are also engaged in innovative work. In South America, Universidad de Chile and Universitas Campinas (UNICAMP) are both delivering sustained pre-higher education support programmes that focus on the development of cultural capital as much as academic potential.

Closer to home Sciences Po in France and Trinity College Ireland both have long standing programmes that support students both at the pre-entry stage and through their university studies. Trinity in particular has a strong evidence base showing the impact of their work. These programmes and others in Australia and the Netherlands for example, share the core goals of the extensive outreach work undertaken by UK universities but approach these goals in different ways. Moving forward, there could be great value in creating opportunities for the global sharing of practice across the world’s most prominent universities in the field of access and success work.

While the first report published today looks at how long-standing issues are addressed, the second focuses specifically on how 45 countries across the world have responded to the challenges for access and success created by COVID-19. The report shows that in both low and higher income countries digital divides are a huge issue for learners from low-income and marginalised backgrounds. The evidence of governments tackling this issue head-on is patchy. Examples of significant investment in this issue in particular are rare. Ireland is a notable exception having put 15 million Euro towards providing IT equipment for low income students.

More concerning from the English perspective is that of the 21 countries in the OECD who participated in the survey, only two had not provided some financial support for students that either included or was targeted specifically at low-income students. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have provided additional support for their students but England has not. Nor is it only wealthier nations who have recognized the extra financial burden that low income students face as a result of Covid-19. The survey showed that Indonesia, the Philippines and Colombia for example had all provided some form of financial support.

In terms of how countries in the survey were providing support it was mainly in the form of tuition fee relief although Canada stands out with its policy of doubling student grants for low-income students. Aside from financial support the survey identified further examples of how other countries where access and success are high up the policy agenda are recognising the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on students from low income and marginalised backgrounds. In Australia educational disadvantage is being taken into account when assessing the performance of students in their upper secondary examinations which define higher education entry and in California a higher education ‘Recovery with Equity Taskforce’ has been established bring together experts from within and outside the state.

Much is made of the leading role that UK higher education plays on the world stage. Access and success is an area where we are the forefront. But there is also much we can learn from what other countries are doing in this area. Where the impact of COVID-19 is concerned, access and success looks like another area where performance looks strikingly weak compared to other countries. This needs to be addressed, before it puts our position at the forefront of addressing inequalities in higher education participation globally at risk.

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