Chris Skidmore is Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, and MP for Kingswood.
Since being appointed Universities Minister last December, I have sought to focus attention on which groups in society are not getting the chance to benefit from Higher Education, demonstrating the clear inequalities that still exist and the barriers that certain students face in applying or considering university.
In defining disadvantage, much still centres around income and family background. The establishment of the Office for Students and the Office for Fair Access is providing a renewed focus on improving access and participation at university: registered institutions now need to establish access and participation plans, with conditions placed upon certain universities to improve their access measures. Universities are spending around £860 million on ensuring that more disadvantaged students can access Higher Education, but there is still much more that can be done.
Last month, I set out my own views how we can go even further. In a speech at Nottingham Trent University, I highlighted the work we intend to take forward to spread best practice in the sector, through the creation of the Evidence and Impact Exchange, to eradicate unacceptable inequalities. In addition, we need to start moving from just thinking about getting students to go to university, but to take a whole systems approach that links the student experience, including improving student mental health and student accommodation, to the debate on access and participation. By refocusing our efforts on a ‘student transition, experience and progress’ journey- what I termed a ‘STEP change’ in a speech at the Royal Institution last month – we can ensure that we extend our efforts to ensuring disadvantaged students are given the relevant support throughout their university career.
This approach recognises that there are many groups of students who need extra support and additional interventions if we are to succeed in giving them the chance enjoyed by most. I’ve focused attention on what universities can do to improve the access and experience of disabled students, care leavers and young carers. We have also taken forward measures as a government in the past few months, including raising the Disabled Student Allowance for postgraduate students from £10,500 to £20,000, while Nadhim Zahawi, the Children’s Minister, and I also published a set of ‘Care Leaver Principles’ which provides universities with a template for improving access for care leavers (currently, just six per cent reach Higher Education).
When it comes to going to university, the children of forces families can also face more barriers than most. Not only are young people from military service families less likely to embark on Higher Education than those from civilian backgrounds. Once there, the stresses and strains of having one or more parents in the military can bring about poor mental health and wellbeing, as well as have a detrimental effect on academic performance and overall student experience.
I want to see universities thinking about what they could do to support military personnel and veterans themselves. Serving personnel require a high degree of flexibility and portability in their learning, so they can stop and start a course if deployment calls, or perhaps even resume their studies at another institution should a future posting take them to a different part of the country.
For ex-service people, Higher Education can be the gateway to a new career. Yet the costs of tuition can be off-putting for those already having to readjust to civilian life. And those without prior qualifications may also struggle to find providers, which recognise the experiences and skills gained while in service.
Yesterday I announced that Department for Education is pledging £5 million in continued funding for two separate armed forces projects. The first of these projects, the Service Leavers Scheme, pays the tuition fees for ex-service people who have not completed a Higher Education course before. And the second project, the Armed Forces Bereavement Scheme, provides university scholarships for the children of military personnel killed in duty. Support such as this can go a long way to giving people the head start in life they deserve.
But I also want to do more to ensure that universities reflect upon their civic role in their communities, and to support the armed forces, veterans and their families. The Armed Forces Covenant exists specifically to support serving personnel, service leavers, veterans and their families and remove barriers faced in accessing public services, including education.
Yet, to date, only 57 out of 136 universities have become signatories to the Covenant, including just three from the Russell Group of universities.
Clearly, the Higher Education sector can do more support those who have given the most to our country.
That’s why yesterday I have written a joint letter with my colleague Tobias Ellwood, Minister for Defence People and Veterans, to encourage universities to sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant and establish armed forces champions within each institution to better support military personnel and their families.
It’s clear that some universities are already leading the way. Providers like the University of Winchester, which has long been leading by example in this area through its dedicated action and outreach work among the armed forces community, or the University of Central Lancashire which has honoured its commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant through the College for Military Veterans and Emergency Services (CMVES). This has achieved national acclaim for helping service members resettle, whilst providing them with specialist advice on course funding, suitable training and civilian careers.
I want this to be just the beginning and, with more universities pledging to support military personnel and their families in the future, we can together create a force for good and honour those who have sacrificed so much.