Access to HE Summit 2024: Social Mobility in Adult Life: Is Access the Solution?

30 May 2024

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On a sunny Monday, May 13, 2024, the Leicester Marriott Hotel became the epicentre of an inspiring event aimed at transforming lives through education. The inaugural Skills and Education Group Access to HE Summit 2024 brought together passionate educators, policymakers, and students to explore a crucial question: Can Access to Higher Education (HE) be the key to unlocking social mobility in adult life?

Setting the Scene

Paul Eeles, CEO of the Skills and Education Group, kicked off the event with a welcome speech, looking back over 25 years of life-changing impact through Access to HE Diplomas.

Paul celebrated the organisation’s contributions and the powerful role of the qualification in enhancing social mobility and gearing up for the upcoming Government’s Action Plan for Careers and Lifelong Learning Entitlement.

Paul set an inspiring tone for the day’s discussions, by asking:

"Nearly five years since the Auger Report recommendations, we are asking: What solutions can Access to HE provide and how can we highlight its impact on social mobility in adult life?" 

— Paul Eeles, CEO, Skills and Education Group


Keynote Insights

The keynote speaker, Rob Stroud from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), provided valuable insights into the importance of Access to HE.  He began by explaining QAA’s historical role, which involved taking on regulatory responsibilities for Access courses in 1997.

“QAA’s commitment to Access is part of its DNA, not a commercial endeavour,” he emphasised, underscoring their foundational support for Access courses. He highlighted how the Access to HE Diploma is pivotal for social mobility, allowing adult learners to step into higher education. “The Access to HE Diploma changes lives,” he stated, noting how the courses promote diversity and address inequalities, with many students declaring disabilities or coming from disadvantaged areas. “Access students add diversity and address inequalities,” he added.


Reflecting on an April 1987 Government White Paper, Rob emphasised the long-recognised significance of Access courses. “The Government asserts the importance of this approach to increasing participation in higher education and, in particular, raising the number of mature entrants.” He also celebrated a key milestone, marking the millionth Access to HE Diploma learner since 1997.

Rob recognised challenges, such as declining student registrations and the struggle to attract enough students due to the cost of living. However, he also highlighted opportunities for international expansion and regulatory reforms to drive innovation. “We want to give AVAs and providers the space to innovate and offer contemporary and exciting opportunities for learners,” Rob declared, emphasising a future focus on vocational outcomes, especially in fields like health and public services, where Access students make a big difference. He wrapped up with a powerful call to action:

"QAA would ask – how is Access working for you, and what ideas do you have for its future?"

— Rob Stroud, QAA.


Inspiring Panels

The summit included two insightful panels that took a deeper look into the role and future of Access to HE.

The Student Views Panel, chaired by Yultan Mellor, brought together an all-female group of Access to HE students, past and present, to share their experiences and insights on what it’s like to be an Access student. Each student regaled personal stories about the amazing support and guidance they have received from the tutors, how their confidence has grown and the profound personal changes they have experienced.  Taking questions from the audience, the discussion highlighted the importance of the Diploma in adult education, gathering valuable feedback on what works and what could be improved – although the student panel were all very happy with Access to HE just the way it is!

The Future Focus Panel: Partnership Working for Social Impact, led by Paul Eeles, featured a collaborative discussion among representatives from Higher Education (HE), Further Education (FE), Access Validating Agencies (AVA), and QAA. They explored the benefits of working together to enhance outcomes for Access to HE students and stakeholders, both now and in the future.  Once more, panellists answered insightful questions from the audience.

“It’s been really useful to hear from the AVA and in particular QAA and it is reassuring to know that the Diploma still has a special place in adult education going into an uncertain future”

— Access to HE Summit Delegate

Engaging Workshops

Another highlight of the Summit was the series of thought-provoking workshops, each addressing different aspects of the Access to HE landscape. Workshops included Online Delivery and Assessment, Embedding Study Skills to Support Student Success, Exploring AI for Transformative Teaching, Supporting Adults to Study in Post-Pandemic Times and Collaborative Working with Access Centres and HE Partners to Maximise Student Progression.

A Vision for the Future

The summit wasn’t just a celebration of the successes of the Access to HE Diploma; it was a call to arms for the future. “Access to HE is life-changing. The support from tutors and peers in FE colleges helps students prepare for HE and for their long-term future,” said one delegate, capturing the sentiment of many. The event underscored the importance of community, innovation, and proactive support in adult education.

The insights and collaborations fostered at this summit will help drive forward the educational and social mobility agendas, especially with the Government’s Action Plan for Careers and Lifelong Learning Entitlement on the horizon. Summit attendees left with a renewed sense of purpose and a variety of tactics to continue positively impacting the lives of adult learners.

Here’s to a future where Access to HE continues to create transformative learning experiences and greater social mobility, empowering individuals and communities towards a brighter, more inclusive future.