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New Insights on WP: Good practices in fair access

  • 21 August 2017
  • By Anne-Marie Canning

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Since last week, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the fifth in the series, features the chapter written by Anne-Marie Canning, Director of Widening Participation at King’s College London, on good practices in fair access.

Finding the keys: Good practices in fair access

Anne-Marie Canning

In 2029, King’s College London will celebrate its 200th birthday. Vision 2029 articulates King’s College London’s strategic vision in the years leading up to our bicentenary. At the heart of this strategy is an ambition for King’s to become the Russell Group university with the best record on fair access. For us, widening participation is not a government regulation, it is a core part of our mission and values and essential in ensuring our classrooms are vibrant, the professions are diverse and that we contribute to the common good. We have made decent headway with our ambition already.

Our undergraduate state school intake stands at an all-time high of 77 per cent. Our first-year students are 44 per cent Black and Minority Ethnic (up from 41 per cent the year before). One-quarter (24 per cent) of our students come from homes experiencing financial hardship or urban adversity and over 30 per cent of our students receive means-tested bursary support. One-in-twenty (5 per cent) of our learners come from low-participation neighbourhoods: no mean feat in London where ward-level datasets like the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification mask hyper-local pockets of deprivation and low educational progression. In the most recent Office for Fair Access monitoring round, King’s College London hit all its institutional intake benchmarks for 2015/16.

The figures did not always look like this. King’s is the Russell Group university with the most rapid growth in state school and low socio-economic students and I am often asked how we have achieved these levels of participation. One of my favourite sayings is: ‘old ways won’t open new doors’ and this has informed our strategy and approach to widening participation at King’s. A willingness to try new things combined with high-quality delivery and robust evaluation have been critical to making accelerated progress in opening up our institution.

King’s has a strong tradition in addressing educational inequity. Our Extended Medical Degree Programme (EMDP) has now been running since 2010. The EMDP splits stage 1 (year one) of the conventional medical degree across two years (stage 1A and stage 1B), enabling additional academic and pastoral support throughout the early years of the course. Over 50 students benefit from this programme each year, which offers a route into the medical profession for under-represented learners from less-advantaged educational backgrounds. The model has been used to provide a similar degree programme for aspiring dentists.

Crucial to making good progress has been our development of a full lifecycle model of widening participation (see Table 1 below). Our programmes range from primary-school level interventions through to labour market outcomes and ensure a joined-up talent pipeline.

A contextual admissions system acts as a gateway from outreach to enrolment and has secured what is often a missing connection in many universities. Students from widening participation backgrounds who apply to King’s receive additional admissions consideration. Applicants who trigger particular contextual flags are ‘locked’ in our admissions portal and can only be rejected with the personal authorisation of the Director of Admissions and myself.


This process was identified by the Quality Assurance Agency as a feature of good practice in our most recent institutional review. The system takes the model of Harvard admissions and adapts it for a UK context. A team of trained ‘readers’ assess any widening participation applications at risk of rejection to identify mitigating circumstances and put in place additional support or alternative offers if appropriate. Students who have participated in high-intensity programmes, for example K+ and Realising Opportunities, are eligible for variable offers – offers are made at both the standard level and at a two-grade lower point. This acts as a powerful safety net for students who have engaged with these multi-intervention, two-year programmes and completed summative academic projects as part of their time on the respective schemes.

Good practice in fair access sometimes exists outside of the higher education sector. The past five years has seen a remarkable rise of third-sector organisations involved in fair access. At King’s we were early adopters of partnerships with third-sector organisations – most notably the Brilliant Club and IntoUniversity. If a charity or social enterprise is more effective in adding value, universities should throw their weight behind it through meaningful partnership. Third-sector organisations can be more nimble in responding to the challenges of widening participation. For example, the Brilliant Club’s mobilisation of PhD students or IntoUniversity’s community education centres have secured reach into social mobility cold spots. Working with charities can be galvanising and drive a faster pace of change within the widening participation ecosystem, as they act as trusted connectors between schools, businesses and universities.

In 2014, King’s College London and the University of Exeter became the first universities to open free schools specialising in Mathematics. King’s College London Mathematics School (KCLMS) aims to improve access to high-quality mathematical education at sixth-form level. Universities can and should be more imaginative in thinking about their role in supporting schools and raising attainment. The prospect of compulsory university sponsorship of schools has not been generally well received in the higher education sector. The University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, responded by saying: ‘We’re very good at running a university. But we have no experience of running schools, so I think it would be a distraction’. King’s doesn’t run KCLMS, but our infrastructure, widening participation resource and academic expertise have enabled headteacher Dan Abramson to develop a remarkably successful school in Lambeth. Every KCLMS student has secured an A or A* in A-Level Mathematics but, perhaps more importantly, the school is in the top 0.5 per cent of value-added scores in the country. This means, for each A-Level a student takes, they secure half a grade more than their Key Stage 4 results predicted they would achieve.

Bringing fresh approaches to stubborn problems can yield promising results. Reading Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein sowed the kernel of an idea that eventually developed into our collaboration with the Behavioural Insights Team (formerly the No.10 Downing Street’s so-called Nudge Unit). The project explores whether behavioural economics can be used to shape and improve the experiences and outcomes of widening participation students at King’s. This is the first thorough application of behavioural insights in a UK university context. Through randomised control trials we have demonstrable evidence that behavioural science can boost engagement and social belonging for undergraduates from widening participation backgrounds. We have also explored widening participation student experiences of moving into higher education via a pulse-point panel study. By surveying students about their lived experience at key points across the first year we have built a rich picture of student mindsets and emotional journeys. This allows us to develop sympathetic interventions that will be of most help to our non-traditional students at King’s.

Behavioural insights could have the power to transform how we deliver fair access, just as they have done in the United States via the Better Make Room campaign, masterminded by Professor Ben Castleman. The campaign brought together behavioural insights and digital technology to provide social support and encouragement for students enrolling at college. Here in the UK, the Department for Education recently published the results of a trial in which high-achieving students received personalised letters about university options. The trial was successful in improving Russell Group applications and enrolments with 222 extra learners studying at these institutions as a result of the intervention.

Embracing innovation also means embracing formative evaluation in order to drive programme development. In the early days of establishing our multi-intervention K+ scheme, we commissioned Professor Becky Francis and Dr Anna Mountford-Zimdars to carry out a study of the initial years of operation. Their findings helped us improve the programme. The widening participation community is in urgent need of an Education Endowment Foundation style infrastructure to enable effective sharing of what works and, perhaps more importantly, what does not work. This would also serve to raise the standard of our evidence base, especially important as we now need to move towards measuring attainment-raising interventions. Building the expertise of widening participation leaders and practitioners will be key to securing better practice across the sector. Widening participation practitioners must have a fluent understanding of the evidence base if they are to be successful in developing high-calibre interventions that tackle fair access challenges. Old ways will not open new doors and we must embrace both innovation and evidence to make faster progress in widening access to our most selective higher education institutions.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

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