The Crucial Role of the Access to HE Diploma in Improving Social Mobility for Adults

With the increasing focus on arresting the decline of mature learners in higher education (HE), not least from the Office for Students, it’s vitally important the sector recognises the key role Access to HE Diploma courses play in improving social mobility and transforming the lives of thousands of adult learners each year who progress on to HE. “Decline” doesn’t really adequately reflect what has happened since there has been a 53% fall in mature entrants to HE between 2009/10-2017/18, due in large part to tuition fee changes in 2012, which has affected part-time HE in particular. In contrast, numbers of Access to HE Diploma numbers have largely held up, albeit with a 3% decline in registrations since 2016.

Going back to basics, the Access to HE Diploma is designed for adults who have been identified as having the potential to achieve at HE-entry standard. They are aimed primarily at adults who may have few, or no, formal qualifications and are designed to provide both the skills and academic subject knowledge to progress to HE. They are offered in the main by further education (FE) and adult colleges and are typically studied over one academic year on a full-time basis. In the context of HE progression, in the 2018 UCAS cycle there were 29,080 UCAS applicants with an Access to HE Diploma, accounting for 5.7% of all applications. Focusing on the capital, London HEIs attract the largest number of Access students, with over 7,000 accepted applicants (7,195). Access students are more likely to stay in their local area to study. In 2017 77% of HE entrants progressed on to universities, or to HE in FE, in their local area.

When we look at the profile of students studying Access to HE Diplomas it’s clear that these qualifications play a vital role in improving social mobility for older learners.  While the number of younger learners starting Access courses has increased, the vast majority are over the age of 21 and most will have significant experience outside formal education before they join the Access to HE course. Drawing on statistics produced by the QAA, Access students entering HE in 2017 were more likely to be female (73%), be from an ethnic minority background (29%) and have a disability (19%). They are also far more likely, when compared with applicants on other level 3 qualifications, to live in a disadvantaged area. 23% of Access entrants to HE were from a disadvantaged neighbourhood, compared with 11% of entrants on other level 3 qualifications. When looking at London Access learners, using the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) as a metric for disadvantage, over three quarters of London Access students were classified as living in the top 40% most deprived neighbourhoods: IDACI Q1 and Q2 in the period 2013-14.

Focusing on HE achievement, Access learners obtain similar numbers of 1st class honours degrees compared with learners who entered HE with other level 3 qualifications (25.6% v 26.4%). However, while Access learners are more likely to complete their HE qualification than other mature learners, 9.6% of entrants with an Access qualification were no longer in HE the following year. This is higher than the overall average of 6% of HE learners who drop out of HE. While there is a lack of research available to explain this disparity it is likely that for many, “life” gets in the way, in terms of financial and family pressures, for example. A more flexible HE model, allowing learners to step on and off, as well as gaining recognition for learning achieved to date would be of particular benefit to mature students. Interestingly, one of the recommendations of the Augur Review, which was recently published, was that HE institutions should develop more flexible learning to include interim qualifications for all students who are on an undergraduate degree.

While completing background research for this article I was struck by the proportion of Access learners who do not progress on to HE following their Access course. The recent OfS report Preparing for Degree Study, which focuses on and compares Access to HE Diplomas and Foundation Years, states that the proportion of students who progressed to a degree programme in the four years following an Access course was 62%. What happens to the other third who do not progress needs to be looked at in more detail, including why they have chosen (or were not able) to progress on to HE. It also suggests that providing outreach support which includes information and advice on making the transition to HE and the support available once there is important. The use of role models and alumni might also be useful in this context.

Here at Linking London we recognise the important role that Access to HE Diplomas play in improving the life chances of adults and are committed to working closely with our partners, including OCN London, to ensure that these learners are supported into and through HE and onto successful graduate outcomes. If you would like to find out more about our work in this area, including our well established Access to HE Diploma Practitioner Group, please contact us at

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