- This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Andrew Ross, Head of Widening Access and Participation, and Jenny Boyle, Access and Participation Manager, both at the University of Bath.
As the Office for Students (OfS) finalises the new wave of Access and Participation Plans (APP) from volunteer ‘wave 1’ providers, it felt timely to reflect on the journey we’ve been through over the past 12 months.
In October 2022 the OfS launched its consultation on the new approach to Access and Participation Plans (APP). At the time we didn’t know there would be two waves of submission, but we did begin to change our language from ‘outcome gaps’ to ‘risks to equality of opportunity’ in our initial discussions about what the new APP might look like. When the new approach to Access and Participation was delivered in Regulatory Notice 1 (RN1) when it was published in April 2023, we were pleased to see that the language and direction were similar to what had been proposed by OfS during the consultations. RN1 sets out what we as institutions are required to do to meet the conditions of registration. There is an associated Regulatory Advice 6 (RA6) which, as the name suggests, is advice OfS is giving to institutions to help us best meet the criteria set in RN1.
To develop their plans, institutions are encouraged to consider risks to equality of opportunity in their own context. Through data analysis and consultation, we are then expected to identify and produce a summary of those risks and identify which student groups are likely to experience them at different stages of the lifecycle. Once the risks are identified, we then develop a set of intervention strategies. These are effectively action plans of activities which we believe will tackle each risk, based on both sector and local evidence, and a correlated set of outcomes which can be used to measure the success of each strategy. The final step is to produce a robust evaluation plan that will demonstrate that all of our actions and interventions have had an impact and genuinely mitigated our risks to equality of opportunity.
Sounds easy, right?
Well in some ways it is, in other ways it isn’t. The logical flow of ideas is there, but the reality was somewhat different. We rarely have a significant amount of time to carry out intervention planning, design and preparation in a sequential way, and this was especially true for wave 1 institutions. For example at Bath, we had just over a month to produce the first draft of the APP from the release of the RN1 in April. This was mainly due to our governance timelines and the fact that the APP is owned by Council (our governing body) so to get a fully drafted and approved document to them required significant time for oversight and approval. So, when RA6 was published in mid-May we, like others, had already written a draft of the plan – in fact we were already on version 4 by that point.
We were therefore often working slightly in the dark and making assumptions about what OfS wanted to see. We had so many meetings with what felt like hundreds of post-its trying to map out how we could possibly approach such a large task, in such a short space of time, with often very limited guidance. Our solution was to go back to basics and break the process down into its fundamental stages, analyse our data, consult with our community, identify our risks, build evidence-informed plans to tackle them – and we regularly had to refer back to this when we couldn’t see the wood for the trees. We focused on what we believed to be the absolute core of the APP, what we understood that OfS was trying to encourage us to do, and what we believed would be most valuable to continue pushing for change at our institution to continue to affect change. That core is equality of opportunity, and at its heart is a belief that access and participation should never be about what deficit person A or B may have. Instead it looks at what structural barriers exist, either in our institution or in the wider sphere of influence that impacts a student’s chance at equal opportunities.
The refocus onto risks was hard in the first instance to get our heads around, because we were so used to focusing on gaps demonstrated by data. But once we had, the approach made a lot of sense to us. At Bath we now have a risk register of nine key risks that we believe affect equality of opportunity for our most underrepresented student groups, based on analysis of our data and consultation with our community. This has given us a clear framework to map our current activity against, will allow us to more easily highlight where we’re doing a lot and where we might not be doing enough to mitigate all these risks, and gives us the ability to think strategically about what new activities should be developed, or how to allocate our APP resources. Finally, it gives us a solid foundation for our APP evaluation strategy and allows us to think about more consistency in our outcomes measurement. Everyone across the institution delivering APP activity can now clearly see where their work fits in with the big picture, and how they are directly addressing the challenges that exist and contributing to meeting our APP targets and objectives.
We believe this new approach will embed a new, more strategic way of thinking around APP activity which will allow us to more easily identify our impact and share what works over the coming months and years.
So has wave one been easy? No! Was it frustrating at times? Yes! Will it all be worth it? We really hope so.