Inside Track | Accessing all areas

Louise Banahene, Director of Educational Engagement, and Kenny McDowall, Dean of Student Education (Portfolio and Curriculum), reflect on the University’s strong track record in widening access.

The latest in our series of Access and Student Success Inside Track features also assesses the challenges to improve the situation further at all levels of study at Leeds.

Reducing inequalities in higher education requires determination, concerted action and an understanding of what works and why. At Leeds, our well-established approach to widening undergraduate access has long been delivering strong outcomes for students – but there’s always more to do.

These outcomes are a result of well-evaluated programmes developed over time, dedicated and talented colleagues and an openness to innovation.

Access to Leeds is our undergraduate widening access programme. It recognises students’ achievements in geographic areas where school or college attainment is typically below average, and offers the chance to study an undergraduate degree with lower entry requirements than listed on our course pages. Students who participate in the scheme take a module to prepare them for their university studies. They receive support and attend events to build on their strengths and help prepare them for wider university life.  

Importantly, Access to Leeds also helps the University to continuously reflect on, and refine, our admissions processes to meet strategic aims and widen access.

On arrival at the University, students from backgrounds that are under-represented are supported by the Plus Programme. This helps equip them for university life, supports them to succeed in their studies, offers enhanced careers support and encourages them to consider postgraduate options. It also provides funding for personal and professional development opportunities, enabling them to enjoy a well-rounded experience. 

The Plus Programme is unique across the sector in terms of scale and impact. During the past five years, thousands of students have benefited from the Programme, and their continuation rate (students progressing successfully from one year to the next) has been higher than those who haven’t participated in the scheme. 

Meegan’s story is a great example of the differences these initiatives can make.

Meegan attended an IntoUniversity centre, where she was able to participate in mentoring, homework support and in-depth immersion programmes to support her decision making for her chosen career. As an estranged undergraduate at Leeds, this was particularly important, as she acknowledges.

She said: “Being estranged to me means having to cut off parental ties for your own wellbeing. It’s an awful decision for any young person to make – and something I question daily. 

“It’s not been easy for me, as I don’t have a traditional support network and live with my brother in university accommodation.”

Meegan progressed to Leeds studying in the School of Environment with a scholarship funded by our alumni community. Now graduated, Meegan has continued with her studies here, pursuing a Masters in Sustainability and Consultancy.

Her time at Leeds was supported by progression via Access to Leeds, participation in the Plus Programme and a scholarship.

Partners in raising attainment

And there are many more students who, like Meegan, benefit from multiple interventions before they even arrive at University. The approach is only possible thanks to the dedication of staff and students at the University who give their time and expertise to support work. This includes the hundreds of students who participate in opportunities such as Students into Schools, The Brilliant Club and Tutor Trust.

We know the importance of raising attainment and we’re committed to working in partnership with schools. In addition to our existing sponsorship of Leeds University Technical College, we’re excited to be opening the Leeds Mathematics School in September. This will open up educational opportunities for 16-19-year-olds in the Leeds City region to study A-Level Maths and Further Maths alongside an additional numerate science.

Progressing further

But challenges don’t end at undergraduate level, or even at postgraduate level. Barriers continue with students unable to progress to PhD study. It’s an emerging area of work, with changes to outreach, admissions processes, financial support and the on-course experience. A recent project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) looked at increasing progression to, and success in, postgraduate study. It has been developing ways to improve the student experience, engage them in co-creating interventions, inform decision making and improve students’ sense of belonging. 

This work has been extended to develop approaches to widen access at PhD level through Generation Delta and the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education.  

Our understanding of widening access continues to evolve. Research shows how important it is to increase demand from a wide range of communities, and to diversify the range of programmes and opportunities we offer. To do this, we’ve been building on the knowledge and insight from communities who’ve experienced social issues that have limited their access to higher education. In valuing their insights, we can design, innovate and continually evaluate what works. 

There’s a great deal already in place but we still have more to do to address equality of opportunity in access, including aspects of class, race and disability. 

How to get involved

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