NEON Summer Symposium Overview – Widening Access, Who Cares? – University of Sussex, June 21st and 22nd


Blessed with both gorgeous weather and the beautiful campus surroundings of the University of Sussex this year’s Summer Symposium had attracted over 220 researchers and practitioners to come together for two days to discuss widening access. This year’s theme, “Widening Access – Who Cares?” had ensured contributions from across the educational landscape.

After the usual introductions by NEON Director, Dr Graeme Atherton, we were privileged to have the shadow minister for higher education give this year’s first keynote address. Gordon Marsden MP ensured an excellent start to proceedings praising the work that is being done to widen access in, what he considers to be, an unfavourable educational climate. He pointed out the plight of older and part-time learners criticising the government’s focus on the 18-22-year-old age range and called for more longitudinal studies to show what is happening in the area of retention.

Professor Adam Tickell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex, then took to the floor to officially welcome us all to the University and give his views on widening access. His passion was obvious, and he gave some interesting perspectives on differential fees and the difficulties these could present to an institution.

After lunch delegates were able to choose from a range of laboratory sessions covering a range of issues that impact upon widening access. Deliverers included the Department for Education, upReach, the Medical Schools Council, UCAS, the University of Essex and Dyke House Sports and Technology College.

Kirsti Lord, Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, delivered the next keynote address to give further education colleges’ view on widening access. The message from her address was that colleges definitely do care about widening access and urged the audience to engage with learners on level 2 courses to enable them to start considering their educational journey at an earlier stage. After Kirsti’s address it was onto the paper sessions again offering delegates a diverse choice of topics.

Our final keynote address of the day was from the National Union of Students’ Ilyas Nagdee, their Black Students’ Officer. His description of his own HE journey, and his praise for the outreach projects he had been a part of, was inspirational and made us all realise the impact of the work we do as individuals. He reminded us all that the class background of students entering HE is still the biggest marker of success and that students must be enabled to be active participants in their education.

Whilst most delegates went back to their accommodation to prepare for the Symposium dinner NEON held its AGM receiving reports about the current year and hearing from the Chair of NEON, Steve Kendall, about the future work of the organisation.

As usual the dinner was one of the highlights of the two days allowing colleagues to network and share ideas and experiences. After dinner we heard from two current students, both from widening access backgrounds, about their journeys to higher education.

Everyone was up bright and early on the second day to hear from Sarah Howls, Head of Access and Participation Funding and Programmes at the Office for Students (OfS). Sarah’s welcome return to the Symposium line up, after missing last year due to ill health, highlighted the central stage widening access was taking at the OfS and the role that they will have. She reiterated the growing importance of a lifecycle approach with an expectation of a greater focus on student success, student attainment, succession and progression.

Our second day’s laboratory sessions followed with contributions from the OfS, Brightside and intoUniversity, Greater Manchester Higher, Keele University and the University of Greenwich and Dudley College. Delegates then went on to attend their choice of paper sessions before returning for the closing panel session towards the end of the conference.

This year’s panel was made up of: Katie Adams, National Senior Programme Manager – Widening Participation, Health Education England; Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive, Institute of Student Employers; NEON’s Director, Dr Graeme Atherton. The panellists reflected on the conference theme before entering into a lively discussion with the audience. Reflecting on the discussions and this year’s Symposium, NEON Chair, Steve Kendall, asked the audience to consider four key areas and how, as a community, we can address them:

  1. The importance of a diversity premium and a mechanism for delivering positive outcomes.
  2. The growing emphasis on both participation and success.
  3. The fact that we are moving towards period of fractious political uncertainty.
  4. The need for a focus on collaboration rather than institutional recruitment

Steve continued to thank everyone who had made this year’s Symposium such a success, especially our hosts, the University of Sussex.

Everyone at NEON would like to thank all our contributors and speakers as well as the delegates who attended. It is great that so many of you attended and, judging by the feedback, got so much out of the Symposium. We look forward to working with you all throughout the upcoming year and welcoming you back to the Symposium in 2019.

Martin Webster, NEON Operations Manager.