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As the majority of providers in the English higher education sector focus on developing their new access and participation plans (APP), we have an opportunity to refresh our thinking about the barriers to equality of opportunity and outcome. With that in mind, I wanted to share a growing frustration of mine, regarding the way in which our sector approaches and discusses issues of educational inequality.

Under the new APP framework, providers are asked to reflect on risks to equality across three stages of the student lifecycle – Access, On Course, and Progression (ie graduate outcomes). With regard to On Course risks, the metrics we should be focused on are:

  • Continuation – are students remaining in higher education from one year to the next?
  • Completion – are students completing the qualification they signed up for?
  • Attainment – what proportion of students achieve a first class or 2:1 degree?

My frustration is that the only outcome gap which we regularly discuss is the attainment (or, as it is more commonly called, awarding) gap – to the extent we have regular, high-profile conferences and detailed reports about it. Now, these events and reports are, on their own terms, brilliant resources. But they also offer a very narrow window on the deeper educational inequalities we face as a sector, and are oriented around what I consider to be the most problematic of all the outcome metrics. While I wouldn’t dispute the importance of looking at the profile of first and 2:1 awards across student groups as a way of understanding inequalities of outcome, continuation and completion gaps seem even more important – do students actually stay on and complete their courses?

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