Today the Office for Fair Access announced its decisions on access agreements for 2015-16 – the second set of agreements that we’ve negotiated under my directorship.
The most striking development in these new agreements is the smarter way in which universities and colleges are planning to spend their access money. Overall, they estimate that they will spend £80 million more on activity engaging with students across the lifecycle – firstly, reaching out to disadvantaged students pre-application to raise aspirations and attainment and then, once these students are at university, supporting them in their studies and helping them prepare for employment or postgraduate study. This represents a greater than 30 per cent increase in activity spend.
We’ve also seen a rapid acceleration of the trend for universities and colleges to tailor their expenditure according to their own progress in recruiting and retaining a diverse student population. What we’re seeing is that universities and colleges with low proportions of under-represented students – typically highly selective institutions – are planning to spend more on targeted, long-term outreach work such as summer schools, mentoring and masterclasses. At the same time, universities and colleges that already have more representative student bodies are planning to increase the money they spend helping disadvantaged students engage with their studies and settle into university life. This is clearly illustrated in the graphs shown.
Note: ‘Access’ expenditure refers to the outreach activity universities and colleges carry out to raise aspirations and attainment among those with the talent to benefit from higher education.
We’re encouraged by this development because it shows that institutions are listening to our guidance and taking an increasingly strategic, evidence-led approach, basing their investment decisions on where they as an individual institution need to make most progress.
This is important because if we’re to make further, faster progress in improving fair access to higher education, particularly at our most selective universities where the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students remains unacceptably wide, then we need to make sure that universities are spending their access agreement money on activities that are likely to have the greatest impact – basing their decisions both on sector-wide evidence and on evaluation of their own activities.
Of course, in order for universities and colleges to do this, then there needs to be a robust evidence base in place across the student lifecycle which practitioners can readily translate into practice on the ground. Currently the evidence in some areas is patchy and that’s why in the national strategy for access and student success which OFFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) developed at the behest of Ministers, we made an improved evidence base and a robust approach to evaluation key to our strategy.
OFFA has a role to play in the development of this evidence base and in due course we’ll be publishing a research strategy showing how we intend to use our limited resource for carrying out or commissioning research to inform access agreements. One area in which we definitely want to develop our understanding is around the impact of financial support. We’ve already published analysis showing that, under the old fee system, the precise amount of bursary awarded by a university or college did not have an observable effect on either a student’s choice of university or the likelihood of them continuing with their course. Now we’re keen to develop a fuller understanding of the impact of bursaries under fees of up to £9,000. In particular, we will be looking at evaluation of the impact of financial support at an institutional level – including how institutions are aligning their financial support with the rest of their work across the student lifecycle.
Our guidance to universities and colleges (based on our existing analysis of the impact of financial support) has already led to changed practice. Although students remain well supported under access agreements, we’ve seen a reduction in overall financial support, with spend redirected to activity spend as outlined above. We’ll be seeking to ensure that further improvements to the evidence base (either as a result of our work or research by stakeholders) feed back into access agreements in the same way, so leading to continual improvement and refinement of the work that universities and colleges do across the student lifecycle to improve access.
For now, though, we’re encouraged by the signs of increasingly evidence-based practice in this latest round of access agreements. It’s not exactly a rollercoaster wave. But it’s definitely a wave that’s gathering momentum.
Hepi is grateful to Professor Ebdon for contributing this important guest blog to our site.