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A call to action on widening participation in the era of Covid-19

  • 8 June 2020
  • By David Woolley & Anand Shukla

This blog was kindly contributed by David Woolley, Director of Student and Community Engagement at Nottingham Trent University & Anand Shukla, the outgoing Chief Executive of Brightside, a social mobility charity.

Gains in recent years in access and participation risk being swept away by Covid-19. A clear-headed response on where and how to prioritise is required.

Let’s begin with the bigger national picture. The Prime Minister has said:

The agenda of this Government remains unchanged: to unite and level up across our country with infrastructure, technology and education above all.

This is what widening participation does – at its best. We should therefore position our work within the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda to help secure its future (and funding).

Within this context, we present one recommendation for each stage of the student lifecycle, with a focus on the most affected students. We also present one overall recommendation.

Overall recommendation

To frame the recommendations at each stage of the student lifecycle, we will start with the overall recommendation – the need for evidence-based interventions. There is an important balance to strike here. Urgency requires us to move quickly, while effectiveness needs action to be considered. The sector has made major progress since a memorable 2012 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on widening participation described ‘a proliferation of “hopeful” interventions with unknown effectiveness in enabling disadvantaged children to realise their ambitions’.

Since then, there has been a step change in professionalising access and student success work. With Theory of Change (ToC) Access and Participation Plans and the establishment of the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO), we are well on the way to becoming an evidence-based, research-informed movement. The urgency of the situation makes it even more important that interventions are based on evidence and rigour and are evaluated. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. Students caught up in Covid-19 deserve nothing less.

Student lifecycle recommendations

(i) Access

Academic and wider pastoral preparedness for university are the issues to confront.

The academic study of current Year 13 students finished this Easter. Students will have been unable to – or not needed to – revise for their exams. They will have missed out on this crucial knowledge consolidation phase, which coupled with the usual summer learning loss, will have had a negative impact on their academic preparedness for higher education.

We should also be prepared for questions about whether students feel comfortable in ‘leaving home’ for university in such uncertain times. Will there be wider socialisation issues when the lockdown comes to an end? Pastoral – as well as academic – support may be required.

We are also concerned that Year 12 students are being neglected given the understandable current focus on students who are taking public exams this year. However, Year 12 students could well suffer the most – with disruptions to Year 12, Year 13 and then university life.

There is good evidence of the effectiveness of tailored one-to-one support in the form of tutoring and mentoring (and we back calls for a National Tutoring Service).

Our access recommendation is therefore that every Year 12 and Year 13 student from a disadvantaged background be guaranteed access to a tutor and mentor.

(ii) Student success

The value of belonging and engagement to student retention and success is well documented. If there was ever a time for universities to focus on belonging rather than on independent study with the unfriendly ‘you’re on your own’ connotations, it is now.

Nottingham Trent University has addressed this by collaborating with the charity ‘Grit Breakthrough Programmes’ to design an innovative engagement and retention programme for all first year students. Focusing on belonging, agency and awareness of support the programme starts in Week One with small group, participatory ‘Welcome Workshops’ facilitated by specially trained staff and student mentors. The programme evaluation shows a positive, statistically significant impact on these factors, particularly with the most-at-risk students. Based on this programme, we recommend induction sessions focusing on belonging and engagement for all first years.

Furthermore, assuming a mixed model of provision next year, universities should consider in their planning other factors besides course logistics, such as the learning and support needs of different student groups. This is pertinent to both new first year’s ‘onboarding’ into an institution and for second and third year’s ‘reboarding’ into later years.

(iii) Progression

There is clear evidence on the value of work experience in supporting progression to graduate level jobs but advertised placements are at a premium.

Commendably, many large employers have moved their placements online. However, many placements are offered by SMEs who do not have the resources to provide online support effectively. Assuming the easing of lockdown continues, universities and government should work together to get the economy moving again by supporting SMEs to take a target university student on placement. The government should therefore provide funding to SMEs who take a target student, and universities should direct what placements there are towards these students, supporting them to take them up, including financially if necessary.

The Office for Students (OfS) should further relax the conditions of use for Access and Participation Plan (APP) funds to allow expenditure shortly after graduation, to facilitate APP funds to support paid internships / jobs for target graduates, rather than limiting this to current students.

While the approaches adopted by institutions will vary depending upon their particular context, all universities will need to respond to Covid-19. It is important to know what activity is happening across the country but to do so in a way which does not increase administrative burdens.

We therefore call for universities to set out what they have done to address Covid-19 issues across the student lifecycle in their 2019/20 OfS annual impact report, and what they plan to do for the following year. We also call on university widening participation teams to use existing collaboration mechanisms such as the #digitaloutreach online community to share what they are doing to support their students.


The consequences of the current crisis could well reverberate for years, and require long-term, community-based approaches to address them effectively and sustainably. Our article does not consider these crucial long-term issues. Our aim is to set out evidenced, viable and reasonably quick-to-implement options to ensure that the academic and wider development of students directly affected by Covid-19 is not inhibited.

Previous HEPI contributions on widening participation by Anand Shukla and David Woolley are available in the collection here.

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  1. Albert Wright says:

    Interesting ideas.

    Is there any estimated cost breakdown of the different initiatives?

    Who will pay the costs?

  2. Anand Shukla says:

    Hi Albert – thanks for your comment. The aim of our article was to set out evidence-based approaches which wouldn’t require lots of additional funding, and be reasonably quick to implement.We think that most of the funding could be found through existing funding streams such as pupil premium funding for pre-access work and Access and Participation Funding for post-access work.

    The mentoring and tutoring recommendations could be met through the organisations out there already providing these services. Some modest additional funding for project management, scaled up infrastructure and volunteer training costs for these organisations would be required.

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