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Giving widening access a real reboot

  • 7 January 2022
  • By Graeme Atherton

This blog was contributed by Professor Graeme Atherton, Director National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and Head of Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CILUP), University of West London.

The reboot

The reboot to widening access to higher education announced by the Minister for Universities last month is in some ways welcome. It is better than giving it a kicking which the government could be accused of doing over the last 18 months. But to be a real reboot, it will need to go farther than suggested by the Minister last month if we are to tackle some of the long-standing challenges in how widening access is delivered which have bedevilled the field since the 2000s and push the Office for Students into a more radical place.

Most of the changes to widening access work proposed are not entirely inconsistent with the direction of travel laid out by the government since mid-2020 where access and success are concerned.

The reboot appears to have 5 parts to it:

  • a greater focus on graduate outcomes for disadvantaged learners which will to manifest itself in revised Access and Participation Plans (APPs), with more ambitious targets in this area
  • universities to concentrate in their outreach work on attainment raising
  • when working in schools, universities to support learners to choose options other than HE
  • the production of slimmer APPs which are more outward facing and can be better understood to an external audience
  • stronger links to levelling up addressing regional disparities and supporting/expanding degree apprenticeships, reflected again in rewritten APPs.

As a ‘package’ this reboot, while putting at its centre outcomes, also includes a greater focus on inputs than we have seen for some time. The common thread running through it though is actually the move away from the widening of entry into HE. Putting more emphasis on graduate outcomes as opposed to entry targets, encouraging universities to offer forms of quasi careers advice rather than information on HE entry and talking up the importance of attainment raising work (which will benefit those already looking to go to HE enter higher tariff courses as much if not more than those who are borderline for HE entry) are all measures consistent with the Ministers statement last year that social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university’.

New or old ideas?

However, while the move away from aiming to increase the numbers of learners from under-represented groups is new, the actual changes do not constitute as much a reboot as they may appear. Much depend of course, on how the new Director for Fair Access and Participation interprets this new guidance, but we can find strong evidence if all the five parts of the reboot in the system already. The OfS has repeatedly stressed the importance of graduate outcomes in recent years. HE providers are required to have targets already pertaining to the percentage of students to employment outcomes for those from widening access priority groups. Where attainment is concerned this has been a key part of the outreach provision of universities for many years and even if the explicit emphasis on advising students to take the best route for them is newer this is still what is at the core of outreach work. There are no outreach teams we are aware of in the NEON membership who go into schools telling young people they must go to university regardless of whether it is right for them. Linking widening access with levelling up is only novel because the term itself is. The OfS itself funds a locally-based national outreach initiative in Uni Connect and this is the 6th iteration of such a place based programme in the last 20 years. Finally, APPs at present are not in reality the longest document you will ever read. They could benefit from being more accessible but this should not be the biggest ask.

The actual lack of novelty does not imply though any potential lack of impact. This impact though depends, for two of the measures in particular, on far greater engagement with external agencies than exists at present. Attainment raising work by universities is restricted in its scope and nature by the failure of successive governments to use their powers to engage schools in this endeavour. Few school leaders if pressed would put working with universities near the top of their lists of things that will raise the attainment of their pupils. However, numerous examples of what universities can do here exist and looking at the Education Endowment Foundations (EEFs) teaching and learning toolkit one can see places where universities can contribute. But this requires schools to be both cajoled and supported far more proactively than has ever been done before to work with universities on attainment raising projects. A similar situation pertains where graduate outcomes is concerned. The extent to which graduate employers are engaged in work for diversify their recruitment particularly along the lines of socio-economic background is sporadic. Universities are partnering with them to do this and some excellent toolkits to support employers to hire a wider range of graduates have been produced across a range of industries. However, for this element of the proposed reboot to be successful employers, as with schools, will need to be engaged with more directly by government and its agencies.

How to deliver on these two parts of the government’s plans point to what a genuine reboot may look like. The approach to access and participation presided over the last four years has borne some fruit. There are more students from free school meal (FSM) backgrounds entering HE than ever before and more from low participation neighbourhoods. The extent to which this progress can be attributed to the Ofs or the tireless work of those working on outreach in universities and charities together with their colleagues in schools/colleges across the country is a moot point. While there has been progress in terms of participation geographically though, the gaps in participation between FSM and non FSM learners has barely moved since 2005-06 (although it drop by nearly 15 per cent by 2013-14 before increasing again).

The data-driven regulatory approach of the OfS has been a powerful force in ensuring that access and participation but whether due to the constraints placed on them government or their own volition, they have been quite conservative (with a small c). Relaxing the duty on universities to report in detail on how they spend their money on access work or indeed implying that they need not spend anymore was not challenging the sector. Nor have they shown any willingness to address the problems with the POLAR measure inheriting the inertia of their predecessor body which has had a subsequent impact on give the kind of support and flexibility a programme like Uni Connect requires to achieve its full potential. This conservatism may in fact reflect more the wishes of the government than the OFS itself. Nevertheless, if widening access is to be really rebooted then it has to be addressed.

A real reboot

An alternative to the five-point plan offered by the Minister is offered below. It aims to deal with existing, mainly long-standing issues related to widening access and participation which have hampered effectiveness. In so doing, it may help meet the main goals the government has for its reboot, such as improving the impact of outreach and graduate outcomes. But it departs in that the aim is to widen access into higher education for those from under-represented groups not, as it appears the government wishes to do, restrict it.

Briefly the five elements are:

  1. Revise graduate outcomes targets to make them both broader to encompass both other measures of success alongside income and also local/regional as well as institutional.

Earnings matter but so does the contribution that graduates may make to society in other ways. Ways of understanding this impact are being developed. A broader definition of value here would display that the government has learnt from the pandemic that there are many jobs whose importance has been downplayed in the past. These jobs include ones that graduates do. Broadening how success in graduate outcomes is measured could also have a regional dimension linking more closely with the levelling up. Collaborative regional planning in tertiary education with regard to technical skills is a key part of the Skills Bill going through the commons at present. Who is involved in these plans and how they are constructed has come under criticism but the concept of regional planning is broadly welcomed. Integration of higher education into coherent tertiary skills targeting and planning infrastructure would surely bring benefits. It is worthwhile remembering that the vast majority of graduates remain in their own region after graduating and that as the outgoing Director of Fair Access and Participation said on HEPI’s own pages recently, those working in graduate occupations are distributed very unevenly across the country.

  • Move away from the POLAR measure as a tool to orientate the work of outreach and access work.

The evidence shows that only a minority of those in the POLAR quintile areas of lowest participation are from low income backgrounds. The focus on POLAR means that it is extremely difficult to work with any low income young people in London as participation is overall too high. If participation continues to rise, as many predict, other areas will soon face the problems that London has battled with since the 2000s in which universities are effectively forced to ignore young people from low income backgrounds if they live in high higher education participation postcodes. POLAR makes little sense to schools and never has. Alternatives to using POLAR exist and it is surely time to explore them. As we await the government’s response to the Augar review they may be well placed in their reboot programme acting upon on its recommendation in this area. As the report stated: ‘We believe that individual socio-economic indicators, such as FSM or household income, are a better measure of an individual’s disadvantage and need for extra support and that these should be used within the sector more widely to report progress on social mobility.

  • Initiate collaboration across the student lifecycle.

While successive governments have implemented national collaborative outreach programmes since 2000, few have committed to them fully and none have attempted to support collaboration that extends outreach to work on academic attainment and graduate outcomes. A true reboot would put genuine cross institutional work across the student lifecycle on a firm footing with longer term guaranteed funding. Uni Connect is the closest thing that the government has at the moment to a national levelling up project. It would be undermining the whole levelling up agenda to scrap it now. But there is also obvious potential for greater collaboration in the areas related to success and outcomes. The attainment gap between BAME and white students is a problem that transcends institutions as recent research looking at this issue in London showed. A new, radical OFS could pioneer a genuine national collaborative success/outcomes programme and make evidence of such collaboration a condition of APPs being approved.

  • Link outreach to careers work through a change in the admissions system

Alongside tacking outreach to attainment bringing it much closer to national IAG strategically via reforming the admissions system would represent a much-needed boost to this work. Despite the hundreds of thousands of learners that universities work with in schools providing IAG related to HE they appear often absent from policy discussions in this area (higher education gets only passing reference in the last Careers Strategy in 2017). A shift to a post qualifications admissions system which incorporates within it new approaches to supporting students to make choices earlier with more information as outlined in the model proposed by the University College Union (UCU) would also help address the deleterious impact on access of predicted grades. It may also assist in the outcomes agenda by addressing a situation where over half of Black students and over 40 per cent who enter HE via clearing are not happy with the institution or course they have chosen.

  • Engage the Ofs with other policy areas

Finally, if the goal is to make the OFS a more dynamic, outward-facing body then publishing easier to read plans appears a tame way to do this. Rather, it should be allowed or encouraged to take a pro-active role connecting its work explicitly with that of the Department of Education on attainment and careers and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on levelling up in ways that can practically help universities to pursue objectives related access and participation.

There are other issues that a more comprehensive reboot could look at. Widening access and participation since the early 2000s has been pre-occupied with younger learners at the expense some would argue of those who are older. As lifelong learning becomes an increasingly accepted cross-party priority, engendering institutional collaboration explicitly focused on such learners would be a positive move. None of the national outreach programmes funded in the last 20 years have focused on such learners in a significant way. In addition, the present APP structure is incompatible with prioritising work with small groups of learners – be that in small providers or as specific groups within any provider, such as those from gypsy, Romany, Traveller or showboat communities or looked-after children. The present APPs are based on data-driven target setting and make it very difficult to include those groups for whom establishing an initial data baseline is difficult (or near impossible) as such information can be hard to obtain. With such groups, they also don’t fit in with the present approach to national collaboration in access work which is based on geographical targets. Again, there is room for more innovative thinking with regards to what collaboration means here.

Widening access is perhaps the most intransigent challenge in higher education. Regularly refreshing how it is approached is necessary to try and meet this challenge. A new regime at the OfS presents the opportunity for a more radical approach, if the government is prepared to be brave enough to take it.


  1. Sally Griffin says:

    Showboat community?

  2. Julian True says:

    It is actually Gypsies, Travellers, Roma, Showmen & Boaters (GTRSB).

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