By Dan West, University of Derby

Educational disparities are complex and entrenched. A student’s ability to stay on course, achieve a good degree, and secure a graduate level job relates to a complex interplay of institutional factors and intersectionality. Higher education institutions must acknowledge this and advance equality of opportunity on campus. This requires a ‘warts and all’ appraisal of performance, ambition, a commitment to change, and a plan to achieve this. The Office for Students’ (OfS) new strategic focus on access and participation is bringing staff, students, parents and employers together to discuss inequality and identify changes to institutional policies and practices.

At my own university, Derby, we are proud of our diverse student body and recognise the value that this brings to our learning community. However, our metrics, like all other institutions, disclose an unpalatable scenario – not all students have an equal chance of success. The publicly available Access and Participation Plans (APP) for post-1992 institutions reveal that many of us are seeking to close the same gaps for the same “target groups”. We need to work together. The OfS Addressing Barriers to Student Success Project demonstrates the value of partnership, providing test beds to try out and evaluate the effectiveness of new practices.

So how, individually and collectively, through shared values and endeavour, can we can eliminate these equality gaps? Do we understand the explanatory/causal factors that can create differential outcomes within institutions? How can we secure culture change, embed inclusive practice, and create a learning community in which all of our students can flourish?

Every member of staff in higher education affects the student learning experience. Understanding and owning the inequality gaps in our programmes and services allows us to make our own personal contribution. For this, we need access to student data, support to develop our own theories of change (evaluation practice), and mandatory training on the barriers to success across the student journey.

Working together, both internally, and across institutions, gives us the best chance to tackle inequality and injustice, and improve social mobility.


O’Shea, S. (2016). Avoiding the manufacture of ‘sameness’: first-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment. Higher Education, 72(8), 59-78.
Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of Community Cultural Wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.

Dan West is Policy and Research Lead for Social Mobility at the University of Derby

Image credit: Suad Kamardeen

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