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Fair Access and Participation: Sector-wide challenges need sector-wide collaboration

  • 21 October 2022
  • By Antony Moss

This blog was contributed by Professor Antony Moss, Associate Pro Vice Chancellor, Education and Student Experience, London South Bank University, and Chair, London Uni Connect.

In the summer, all universities with an approved Access and Participation Plan (APP) were asked by our regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), to submit a mid-cycle variation responding to a set of new priorities. Of these new priorities, two stand out as representing a significant shift in focus from previous iterations of the APP process. First, providers have been asked to develop plans to diversify pathways into and through higher education, including the development of apprenticeships. Secondly, providers need to put in place interventions to raise pre-16 attainment in school settings. These priorities are notable due to their external focus – particularly with regard to raising pre-16 attainment, we are being asked to demonstrate positive impact on the performance of institutions outside of our own.

With regard to diversifying pathways into and through higher education, this is neither a surprising nor an unwelcome priority. Indeed, the Augar review noted the need to expand Level 4 and 5 qualifications to address skills gaps. However, as the landscape of pathways into and through higher education grows more complex, there is a need for our sector to develop better information and guidance for prospective students. There is a greater risk in particular for prospective students from underrepresented backgrounds that they will struggle to understand the different options available, which I have written about previously.

In plain terms, how does a prospective student decide between a degree, a degree apprenticeship, a higher national qualification and a higher technical qualification? Certainly, there will be no shortage of institutions willing to offer these course options, but how clear are we across the sector about the actual differences between the choices? I would argue that this is a challenge for the whole sector, not something for individual providers to resolve on their own. Given that it is also unlikely (and, indeed, neither desirable nor necessary) that any one provider would offer a complete range of all possible study options, a sector-wide, collaborative approach to developing better careers information, advice and guidance is even more important.

Moving on to pre-16 attainment raising, this is an even greater challenge for the higher education sector. Following the COVID-19 lockdowns, there has been concern across the education sector about lost learning and the need for intervention to help young people catch up. In a pre-16 context, this has been particularly acute, with some calls for additional funding going as high as £15 billion. In the absence of additional funding at anything like this level, the higher education sector has been asked identify what we can do, systematically and at scale, to support pre-16 attainment raising. While the OfS have issued some guidance, it is evident from a recent rapid review by the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) that the evidence base for effective interventions is quite limited in this area.

In a review of attainment raising interventions, Anna Anthony has noted that universities have tended to focus most heavily on interventions which involve us having direct contact with pupils. This sits in contrast with very few providers indicating an intention to develop more strategic partnerships with schools and their leadership teams. I would argue that universities are well-placed to work with schools at this strategic level rather than assume that the primary way we can help raise attainment is to put our staff and students on the ground in school settings. We’ve done this at London South Bank University (LSBU) over the past three years by creating LSBU Group which for the first time created a partnership between a university, a further education college, a University Technical College (14-19 year-olds) and a University Academy (11-19 year-olds). This is not to suggest that direct, student-facing outreach is not worthwhile, but rather that it should be underpinned by a more strategic approach.

The existence of APPs as a condition of being able to charge higher fees provides a key mechanism for the OfS to ensure that the higher education sector is prioritising fair access and participation. However, the current approach to APPs is failing to incentivise strategic collaboration across the sector. The problem is that the current approach to APPs is entirely bottom-up, in the sense that individual providers submit, and are accountable to, their own APPs and targets. There is no overarching coordination across providers to ensure that we are deploying our limited resources in the areas of greatest need to deliver interventions which have the greatest impact. While this might not have been a particular issue in the past when APP targets focused entirely on targets relating to an individual provider’s student data, the introduction of these new priorities has materially changed the nature of an APP. We now have to show impacts on the performance of institutions other than our own and contribute towards a national shift in the way higher education qualifications are being developed and marketed.

A response to this criticism would be to highlight the existence of the Uni Connect programme, funded by the OfS, which has a remit to support underrepresented groups to access higher education. Uni Connect partnerships have, since their creation in 2017, been tasked with creating local connections between schools, colleges and higher education providers. So perhaps Uni Connect is the solution to the challenge outlined above?

Indeed, like higher education providers, the 29 regional Uni Connect partnerships have been asked by the OfS to respond to new priorities, which include pre-16 attainment raising and signposting. However, unlike higher education providers, the Uni Connect partnerships will not be required to submit their plans until May 2023. On the face of it, this is a missed opportunity, particularly because Uni Connect partnerships have been advised to work with higher education providers up to and including seeking additional funding and resource to support their attainment raising activity. The obvious practical issue here is that higher education providers have already internally agreed their activities (and, by implication, their resource commitments) in this space as a pre-requisite for having submitted our plans to the OfS. So, it is difficult to see how Uni Connect partnerships will be able to secure further additional support from them to engage in, or financially support, even more new activity.

This situation presents a risk and an opportunity. The risk is that in the absence of better coordination across the sector we will miss opportunities to pool resources to deliver the best outcomes as individual higher education providers focus myopically on their own APP targets and commitments. The opportunity is to rethink our current approach to APP development and establish a regional model which puts Uni Connect partnerships in a formal brokerage role – acting as the main point of contact between schools and colleges, and local higher education providers.

In practical terms, no other approach seems likely to work, given that in England we have well over 25,000 schools and 250 HE providers with approved APPs for 2022/23 (of which a significant minority are small and specialist providers with obvious limits on their capacity, which is explicitly recognised by the OfS). Rather than asking every individual higher education provider to explain its model for attainment raising and diversifying pathways, we should instead be working with our local Uni Connect partnership to determine how we can best align with local needs. This regional approach would also enable closer collaboration with regard to the way in which we develop information, advice and guidance on the growing landscape of higher education study options – extending this beyond simply what any one provider happens to offer.

In conclusion, it is positive to see that APPs are being used to encourage more meaningful collaboration across the wider education sector. Indeed, the importance of collaboration and partnership to address challenges around fair access and participation featured heavily in the OfS’s Director for Fair Access and Participation’s recent speech on the next phase of APPs. However, the setting of these new priorities is not in itself sufficient to ensure we deliver on them in the longer term, and the OfS should be focused on how it supports and facilitates this collaboration in a systematic and strategic way. The priorities we are working to address are important and impact the whole sector. A collaborative and coordinated approach is required to meet the challenge.

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