NADP works closely with our colleagues and partners to network, share information and support our members.
This episode finds Lynn Wilson from NADP chatting with Nicola Turner from UCAS. We find out about the current projects that UCAS are working on and their ideas for the future.
NADPVIC2021: Joining the dots of inclusive practice – what is the picture now?
Lynn Wilson in conversation with Nicola Turner from UCAS
Lynn: Welcome to the 10th in our series of NADP conference podcasts. These podcasts are a series of interviews where we aim to get to know our colleagues and partners and learn about their experiences working in our sector. Today I'm talking with Nicola Turner from UCAS. Welcome, and thank you for joining us today.
Okay, now the first question is a bit of a wide ranging one. We have an audience actually from across the world - because I've been looking at the stats and it's looking good! So, I'm hoping that you can tell us something about UCAS, what the initials stand for and what the organisation does.
Nicola: Of course, so UCAS stands for the Universities and Colleges Admission Service. We're an independent charity, and we're best known for handling undergraduate applications to UK. Higher Education. So, every year, we have about 700,000 students from the UK and internationally applying to universities - about 300 universities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. So that's what we're best known for, but to provide that, we also provide a lot of information and advice, through the UCAS hub that's personalised to students needs and interests, and we work with lots of experts, such as yourselves at the NADP, to make sure all that information is really inclusive, it's comprehensive, and that it's relevant to all the different students to make sure everyone can find what they need for their own specific needs. But it's not just higher education really, increasingly, we're starting to look at how we can support people who are looking at different pathways, such as apprenticeships. So, we've got a lot more about that now too.
Lynn: Oh, that's interesting I didn't know that about apprenticeships. I look forward to hearing some more about that in the future. So, what exactly is your role at UCAS?
Nicola: I'm a policy adviser and my specific role covers schools, careers, education and widening participation and that's quite an important part of what UCAS does really. It helps us achieve our charitable aim, which is to make sure that anyone who wants to go to university can do so, regardless of their background or their personal circumstances. So, lots of my work involves speaking to, again, expert organisations such as yourself and sector bodies across the higher education sector and the secondary sector, making sure that UCAS is doing everything it can to make that happen in the best and most inclusive way we can.
Lynn: So, is it just you on your own or is there a team of you?
Nicola: There's a team of us. There's now 11 people in our team and that covers not only policy but also strategy, public affairs, and also equality, diversity and inclusion.
Lynn: Okay, so is this fairly new for you? When did you start your career at UCAS and what were you doing beforehand?
Nicola: So I joined, about four and a half years ago, in 2016, and that followed a career in teaching. I was teaching for, I think it was 12 years. And so it's really interesting and very useful to have that perspective from both sides of the fence. Also, in between those two careers, I went back to university myself for a year and so I was a student as well. I did a Master's class so I've also got a much more recent experience with that perspective as well.
Lynn: That must really help add into to what you're doing, having that school experience from both sides, and also having the university experience.
NIcola: Absolutely yeah it does. It does make you realise that sitting on the other side of what you're saying are people whose time is very, very limited and their resources, in some cases, are quite limited too. So, doing whatever you can to make that easier for them, so that they can support their students, obviously that's the best that we could be doing.
Lynn: So, we know that we've joined with you on a few projects. What are your latest projects?
Nicola: Well, very, very recently (and I know this is something obviously we made contact with you about) is that we recently published a report on student mental health, and that's called ‘Starting the Conversation’ and that's what I've been working on mostly over the last couple of months. So this report looks at our applicant data over the past decade, and we're looking to see how many students are sharing a mental health condition with a university, and also trying to understand which students choose not to, and why that may be the case.
Mostly we found that there is a significant group of people who do not want to share that information. Mostly because they're holding misconceptions about what will happen to that information. So thinking it may negatively affect their chances of receiving an offer, or because they don't understand why we're asking about it. Not understanding that we ask that in order to make sure they're connected to support at university. We also saw a lot of students, not thinking that it's necessary to tell the university. Some thinking their condition was under control. Some wanting a fresh start. Some people just not wanting anyone to know.
Of course, it's completely the students decision about whether they tell us, or rather the universities through us, but we really don't want that decision to be made without having all the information at their fingertips. We want them to be fully informed, if they decide not to make that declaration.
So most, if we think about it, will be making quite a significant lifestyle change when they start their course. Especially young students who are moving away from their parents, their friendship networks and other support networks and the support they've had at school. They really need to be aware that having support in place as a safety net, can make a really huge difference, if the circumstances change. And, of course, if we think back to last year, it really did change for an awful lot of people because of the pandemic. Certainly the survey of students that we did, many actually cited the pandemic as being something that really, they wished that they'd asked for support sooner and had that in place so that when the impact hit, it would have been already there for them. So, they didn't have to go through the delays.
So, my next step now is to look at some of the next steps that we've highlighted in the report and to think a little bit about what resources we can provide for those teachers and advisers who are supporting their students. How we can bring people together in the sector to think about where the gaps are, where we can connect better together to improve that situation.
Lynn: I'm really pleased that you're doing that. I know, years ago, I was talking to teachers and finding that they were advising students not to disclose or apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances until they got to university. And I've had recently, in the last couple of weeks, an email from a parent saying that their child had been advised by their school, not to apply for Disabled Students Allowances until they arrived at the university. So, I think there's still quite a big education to do with schools to help students know what their rights are, if they choose to share their requirements at university.
Nicola: Yeah, absolutely. I think that picture is getting better, certainly from a survey that we did of advisers themselves, nearly everybody always advised their students to disclose a mental health condition, if they had one. And we know that there are concerns if a student decides they don't want to share that information. Whether the teacher has a moral responsibility for making sure that the university knows. Obviously caring, very much for the people that look they're looking after, should they be aware of their safety in the future and make that known. I think there's lots that we can be doing to help guide teachers and advisers in that space, as well. Helping them to know more about, again, the point of the question, what the benefits are of disclosure. They've told us they really don't understand exactly what sort of support the student can expect. So, they're not really able to give them much advice on that. I think that's definitely a gap we can we can fill.
Lynn: Yeah, we've had some presentations on week two of our conference about transition into university and transition from university to the workplace. We had some good video presentations with people working with incoming student. It is so important to help them be aware of what's available and how to settle into university.
The other thing we've worked really closely together on, is disability language and how it affects our students, and how it affects whether they feel included at the university. So the inclusivity aspect of it, what does that mean to you and your team at UCAS?
Nicola: Well, firstly, it's been really helpful to call on your expertise in this area because we know, obviously, that that language is quite fluid. And there are changing perceptions about how we use language as well. So, being able to understand what's currently good practice; where there may be tensions and challenges; that helps us to get things right. I guess at UCAS, the difficulty for us, is being aware that we've got different audiences. So we've got the student audience, obviously, but we've also got our teachers and advisers, again, the universities themselves; and then our contact with different stakeholders, including the sector bodies such as the Office for Students, Department for Education.
So, on one hand, we've got the language that we use when we talk to students. We've been talking very much about what words do we use to talk about sharing information in the application form. So, we've moved away from the word ‘disclosure’, again with your guidance. We've looked a little bit more at ‘declaration’ but for students, we're looking particularly now at trying to use the word ‘sharing’, because that's less intimidating. It's also, like you've told us, it's much more of a positive move and that very much informs our arena of trying to make that a more positive experience. But we also know that when we're talking to sector bodies, for example, it's important to use the word ‘disclosure’ because as long as the legalities around them, disclosure and what that means as well. So, it's just being aware about what we use, and when we use it and but making sure it's all tied up.
I think, Lynn, you've been really helpful for us and explaining the differences between the secondary sector and the higher education sector and the language which is used. Coming from the secondary school myself, I was using, I think, it was the medical model language that you've told us about and how that's very much used for disability and SEN in the secondary sector but then, the higher education sector is using the social model.
Again for us at UCAS, it's bridging those two different sectors and trying to get both of them to understand the terminology that each other uses. I guess that sort of role is to familiarise students with the terminology that they will become familiar with, or that they will need to become familiar with, in higher education but also for universities and colleges, understanding the terminology perhaps as it's being used in the secondary sector. So, being able to bridge that and I don't know if there's ever going to be a perfect solution to that, sadly, but as long as we keep talking to people about how we do that. How we can be as inclusive as we possibly can, we'll do the best job we can. That's a tricky one.
Lynn: It is a really tricky one. Yes, I think and for the young people too. It's not just the changing language as terms chang,e as language progresses, it's also the change for the young people concerned, in that they are growing up. They are forming their identities at the age many of them are coming to university at 18, 19, 20 and they're learning about themselves. They're learning about what they want to identify as; how they want to refer to themselves. So, as a disability adviser in University with many of the first and even second year students, they are coming in one week and saying, “I'm a dyslexic” and then in a couple of weeks time, coming in and saying, “I have dyslexia” and then, a few weeks after that, they might be saying that “I have a specific learning difference”. So, it's changing, as they become used to it.
But yes, I think you've got a vital role to play there, in helping students realise the changes in terms because I've banged into students at university and they've said, “I'm here in Freshers week and I don't know what to do. I'm looking for the Senco office, and it's not in the directory anywhere. I don't know where to go.” So, if they actually get used to the university-style terms, through working with you, I think that that's a brilliant process to really help them out.
Nicola: Yes, it's just getting the right information to the right people at the right time, I think, and as much as we can do that, I think the better.
Lynn: The other term we're hearing an awful lot about is intersectionality. It's certainly helping us at NADP, talk to people and increase understanding that it's not a one size fits all. As the autistic community often say, “If you've met one autistic person, you've just met one autistic person.” Everybody's different. Can you tell me how you think about intersectionality, at UCAS?
Nicola: I mean it's very much our bread and butter, really, in many ways because of all the data that we collect on our applicants. So, our data scientists are incredibly skilled at being able to understand how different characteristics interact. So, in the cycle data, all the resources that we publish are really enlightening in this way, really. Particularly regarding widening participation. So, understanding how things like age, where you live, ethnicity, gender, school type, qualification types, for example, how they can all affect your likelihood of going to university.
That's key in helping the sector understand where improvements are needed and where to target interventions and what to do with outreach. Of course that carries through to data such as HESA who then look at the outcomes and at the success rate and continuations and things. So we can really start to understand, you know, if there are issues for anybody and where those issues might be and how those characteristics intersect to create greater barriers or lesser barriers, in some cases.
Increasingly we're also looking at other characteristics such as care experience, mental and physical health conditions, impairments, LGBT. And how all these can play into that. That's where we really start to see some interesting and more nuanced pictures really.
So, thinking about the mental health report, we found that some groups were very much less likely to declare a condition. And then when we looked at national statistics, those groups actually could be very much more at risk of poor mental health, and those included certain groups of men, and students from Black and Asian ethnicity groups.
We also started to look at how socio-economic disadvantage then played into those groups as well. Some of the results are quite surprising about how the pictures can change. So, you can't just make assumptions, I suppose, based on ‘’I think this group connected with this group connected to that group’ - who will be more or less likely to declare, it just doesn't work as easily as that.
Certainly, for us, it's made us really think about, number one, ‘A’ how important it is to be intersectional in the way we think about those circumstances and addressing barriers but ‘B’ that a lot more work is needed to engage with people who are more hesitant about sharing an impairment or condition. Their needs are likely to be invisible to those who can offer support. And, also, they may miss out on being able to access the full range of support or experience delays in getting what they need.
Again, this came up in the report, as well as in the survey that we did, that students who have more than one personal characteristic that they think leaves them vulnerable or makes them more different, for example, (amusing bunny ears with the word different there, because we are all different) but if they certainly feel that they feel more visible, or more at risk perhaps of discrimination, then they may be less inclined to talk about their circumstances because they feel like they're being extra visible. So it can be quite a stressful process to make yourself that obvious.
So, our work is trying to create a culture of positive disclosure. So, that people feel very comfortable with asking for support. That it's empowering. That it's actually putting me in the driving seat of finding your own success.
Lynn: That's fabulous. Thank you. The other thing I wanted to ask about is how COVID lockdown has affected you because I'm presuming like many people you've been working from home, and how has that affected some of the research on the projects you've been doing.
Nicola: Yes. Well as the pandemic hit, we were all about to start our annual student events. Back last March, that's where everything starts to kick off. So, that was for UCAS a really big deal. Obviously, they had to just stop and then we had to do whatever we could online. And with other events - our conferences, for example, but actually, like with many things, we found within this lockdown period, actually there have been new ways of doing things that are actually really positive. So, we've actually moved our events online at the moment. Our new discovery days, and lots of these are themed. And there's much more information. So, students can get still get to visit universities, get information about apprenticeships. They can listen to talks about accommodation, do taster courses and sessions, and speak to students who were doing those courses. It's actually enabled us to diversify a bit perhaps with other things we couldn't always do in our physical events. Really just thinking that more people will probably be able to access those, because they don't have to physically go somewhere. Thinking about email conversation here as well. That probably means students who find the noise and bustle of some of those physical events difficult. We're aware that for some students that's not a great experience. So, this is probably a much better way of doing that for them.
In terms of the staff, we were working towards already a more flexible way of working at UCAS. So, we actually made that transition, quite smoothly and quite quickly. Certainly from my point of view. It was very odd to have confirmation and clearing online last year, and doing that remotely, because it's always a really busy time. It's very noisy, lots of visitors who are coming round, lots of sweets and coffee (obviously missed out on that one!). But, of course, it will be different again this year, and it's been quite hard for people to lose that daily contact with colleagues but the offices now have been open for a little while. So, we can go back if we want to. Everything's really compliant and safe. So, that's great but honestly I've been really humbled by all the amazing work that people have done to make sure it's all run so smoothly actually and we've been really well supported. So yeah, it's nice. It's nice to be able to start seeing people again I will say that.
Lynn: I was talking to a lady in Australia yesterday who was saying that she really misses the office. She likes the encounters over the coffee area and the chats and finds them really quite energising, whereas it's not quite the same over Zoom. So she's really looking forward to going back but other people I've spoken to, have said, “I get my energy from wandering around the garden at lunchtime or taking the dog for a walk or a quick cycle ride at lunchtime and a decent shower, rather than a university shower”. Do you think you'll be going back part time or full time or staying at home?
Nicola: Well, at the moment, I'm usually going in one day a week. I think we'll be looking to go in, probably, when we're moving towards a more permanent arrangement, probably two, three days a week. So, a quite a flexible approach really. And, yeah, so I will say though it's been really lovely to meet everyone's pets, and let children see their spare bedrooms, we’ve got to know each other in a way we wouldn't necessarily have met each other before which I think is actually been really lovely.
Lynn: Yes, it's not been bad at all but we have been hearing that some students are really struggling with it. We were talking to some students who were saying that because they're quite a poor student at a university which usually has quite a high level of private school entrants, they were a little ashamed of their home backgrounds and were struggling with that, but the fact that you can now put an automatic background has helped a few of those, as well.
So, we've not been able to get away much in the last year and that's led to some great new hobbies, for some people. Did you take it up anything new?
Nicola: Nothing new but I have learned lots of new skills in the garden. Last year I dug out a new veggie patch and I did a pond, planted a wildlife hedge, and I'm currently learning about how to make a concrete shed base, after finding a whole load of concrete buried in the back of the garden that I can't get up. So all sorts of things and I've also learned lots about the wildlife in my garden, I'm getting really good at recognising birdsong. And I've sort of made friends with a pigeon that we call ‘Pig’ and Pig spends a lot of time in the bird bath on hot days. It must be up to 20 to 30 minutes he’s been in there. All the other little birds sit on the fence waiting for it to go. So, I feel like I've got new colleagues in some ways
Lynn: I will have to consult you! We've been doing very similar. We've done a wildlife wildflower patch in the front garden which is just coming into bloom now because we're in Scotland so a little bit further north. And we also have a veggie patch and a new greenhouse, but the bird recognition is going quite well apart from all the little things that look like sparrows. So we have arguments over whether it's a hedge sparrow, house sparrow, dunnock field fare. And, of course, at the moment when they're all moulting and there's little fluffy babes around. It's not easy to distinguish between them.
But back to the work situation. What's your biggest challenge you have with your role right now? And do you have any ideas on how you may overcome it?
Nicola: It's always time isn't it? I've got lots of ideas about things I'd like to do, but finding the time to do them is often the difficult point. So, I guess it's understanding how I can work with colleagues, internally and externally to get things off the ground. That's really useful, I think. Something that UCAS are doing a lot more lately is working with students themselves, and sharing their lived experiences, which is really helpful if you're considering University yourself. Actually seeing people like you, with your certain , can be really helpful in making you feel as if it's okay, you can do that. You know there may be challenges but you can overcome them. So, I think that's really, really valuable. And using those student voices themselves and that they're so creative and coming up with ideas about how you can do that. So I think sometimes just finding the right person to actually take some ideas for what's the best approach with them.
Lynn: Here's an idea for you! I was working with a blind student in his first year at university, several years ago now, and he was making an audio diary of his first few weeks at university and what was working and what wasn't working and how he was settling in. I think that would be a lovely resource to do again. I know they're still available online, but they're quite old now. So to do again to find out how things are going, that would be really nice. Add that one on the back burner.
Nicola: Thanks for adding to my ‘to do’ list!
Lynn: So how can our listeners find out more about you and your work, things like website address and things like that. So that people know where to go and find out what you're doing?
Nicola: Yeah, absolutely. So, the UCAS website is www.ucas.com, and we're over on the social media platforms. I think it's UCAS_online on all of them. That's Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and we're also on Tik Tok as of the last couple of weeks, I think as well. And also we're on LinkedIn. So do obviously come along and follow us.
Lynn: Okay, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon for this conversation. I'm sure a lot of our listeners will be learning a lot about what you do. So yeah, I really appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Nicola: Thanks for having me.