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A response to the Office for Students’ Review of Collaborative Outreach

  • 1 March 2024
  • By Antony Moss
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Antony C. Moss, Pro Vice Chancellor, Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University and Chair, London Uni Connect.

The story of the massification of higher education – whereby we have seen around 3% of 18-year-olds going to university in the 50’s, up to over a third in 2023 – is often the subject of debate. With such a growth in scale, it is right that our sector and our regulatory body are active in ensuring that the opportunities presented by this expansion are available to all who can benefit – and not contingent upon individual characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, disability, or socioeconomic background. It is for this very reason that all English higher education providers, who wish to charge higher rate tuition fees, are required by the Office for Students to invest in activities to promote fair access and outcomes for students.

The task of engaging with young people across the country, and targeting the specific groups who face the greatest barriers to access, is significant. As such, for most of the past two decades, we have had nationally funded programmes to support collaborative outreach. The latest incarnation of such a programme is Uni Connect, established in 2019.

The recent evaluation by Public First, commissioned by the OfS, provides us with a detailed insight into the value of the Uni Connect programme, and the structural challenges it (like predecessor programmes) faces. I would like to reflect on the report recommendations, and offer my own suggestions on how we might capitalise on successes in the short and long term.

Before doing this, I think it is worth reflecting on two questions. First, how much are we spending, across England, on access activity? Second, what progress are we making on ensuring fair access to higher education?

The latest official data on the money spent by providers on access initiatives is for the 20/21 academic year, and these show a total of £179m was spent across England. The Office for Students also invest in this activity, through their Strategic Priorities Grant. For 23/24, they have committed £30m to fund the Uni Connect Programme, which is a direct investment in access. They then distribute a further £276m through their Student Access and Success Fund – but this funding supports both access and activities to support students once they have entered higher education. No official data is available on how this investment is split, in part because individual providers make this determination themselves. In short, we can say with certainty that there is well over £200m being spent directly on access activity per annum, and a further proportion of £276m will also be used to support fair access.

With these figures in mind, the second question is whether we are, collectively, delivering on our ambition to provide fair access. Unfortunately, data published since 2016 by the Office for Students suggests not. The OfS maintain a data dashboard on gaps in access and outcomes for students, broken down by various characteristics, and these figures show very little change over a 5-year period for most characteristics. For example, between 2016/17 and 2021/22, the percentage of students entering higher education who were previously eligible for free school meals in England has shifted from 18.6% to 18.4%. Over the same period, the percentage of pupils eligible for FSM has risen, standing at 23.8% of pupils in state-funded schools as of January 2023. In other words, while there has been an increase in the number of young people experiencing disadvantage, the sector has not kept pace in terms of ensuring our intake remains representative of the country.

This paints a rather negative picture of progress towards ensuring equality of opportunity for higher education. However, the Public First review of the Uni Connect Programme, specifically, highlights something quite different. Their economic impact analysis of the Uni Connect programme shows that it delivers significant value for money. Specifically, pupils who receive intensive UC interventions are more likely to progress into higher education, and the economic benefit of this activity is estimated to be between £5-£9 for every £1 of public money invested. The review also identifies a number of ways in which the UC programme might be developed and improved. However, it seems that – even in its current form – the Uni Connect programme may well be the single largest and most impactful publicly funded access initiative operating in England.

For this reason, the report authors conclude that there is a strong case for the OfS continuing to centrally fund a collaborative outreach programme, alongside their recommendations to improve and build upon the existing strengths of the programme. The issues which the report authors recommend the OfS consider are as follows:

  1. What should the strategic mission for collaborative outreach be?
  2. What should the duration and level of funding for collaborative outreach from central government look like?
  3. How should funding for collaborative outreach be structured?
  4. What should the structure, size, and governance of the subunits of collaborative outreach be?
  5. How should the success of collaborative outreach be measured, and accountability be delivered?

What is interesting to note about these recommendations is that only one, the first issue, is a truly existential question. The rest of the issues are important but relate to technical issues of funding, structure, and governance (i.e., can the programme be operated more efficiently with fewer regional hubs, how should the programme be funded and evaluated). I would also venture to suggest that the first question is the easiest to answer.

The review concluded that there was a lack of clear consensus amongst stakeholders as to the core purpose of the Uni Connect programme and, as such, recommended the OfS review the strategic mission. However, I would argue that this apparent lack of consensus reflects a perfectly rational response to the fact that there is no single model for collaborative outreach that would apply meaningfully across the country. Despite this fact, all 29 UC partnerships are expected to operate under a single set of guidance issued, annually, by the OfS. As chair of London Uni Connect my colleagues and I feel this quite keenly. While we receive just over £1m in annual funding, we are surrounded by one of the highest densities of higher education providers on Earth, who collectively spend over £40m on access activities each year. In contrast, many Uni Connect partnerships across England are responsible for the delivery of the majority of that region’s collaborative outreach. We have different views on our focus and priorities precisely because we understand what is needed across our regions, despite programme-level guidance which is overly rigid. This plurality of ideas about what Uni Connect delivers across the regions is a strength, not a problem to be eradicated.

With this being said, the OfS have in recent times made a constructive shift towards working with the sector to drive improvements in access and participation. At London South Bank University, we volunteered to be in the first wave of providers to submit a new Access and Participation Plan under the OfS’s new framework. Particularly welcome in their new approach was the shift towards asking providers to articulate the risks we see to equality of opportunity, based on our knowledge of our student community. This contrasted with the previous framework, which felt overly top-down and data-driven, with a lack of appreciation of local context. I believe that the OfS should apply this same approach to the Uni Connect programme: work with partnerships to understand regional priorities, to agree the most impactful way of spending public funds and deliver on our collective commitment to improving fair access in higher education.

Although I have said that the other four issues identified in the review are technical in nature, their importance should not be underestimated. Since its inception, Uni Connect has been dependent on an annual funding settlement, which is agreed as part of the OfS’s overall Strategic Priorities Grant. With each phase of the programme, there has been no certainty on the level of funding the programme will receive and it has, at several points, been significantly reduced. This limits the ability of partnerships to invest in genuinely long-term strategic activities. Moreover, experienced and talented colleagues across the programme face job insecurity, and the sector risks losing many of those colleagues, as they seek more secure employment elsewhere.

The report authors discuss this funding issue, and amongst other options propose the idea of a levy on providers. While I can see some advantages to this, I think this will have an unintended negative impact. With the financial challenges faced by providers across the sector, a levy of any kind will inevitably lead to cuts from core budgets – and it is hard to imagine this axe falling anywhere other than the access and outreach expenditure which I mentioned earlier. I think there is a better way forward, which would lead to an increase in collaboration across the sector, rather than simply shifting access investment from providers and into Uni Connect.

As noted previously, providers in England spent just over £179m on access activities in 21/22. What this figure does not show us is how much of that expenditure was linked to collaborative outreach – either with local Uni Connect partnerships, or with Third Sector organisations. As part of the new APP framework, the OfS could very easily ask for this budget line to be split – meaning providers would distinguish between collaborative access spend, and all other access spend. This would place no additional burden on providers, but it would provide a much clearer national and regional picture regarding investment in collaborative access.

With this information being more transparently reported, Uni Connect partnerships could then be given a regional coordination role as part of a renewed phase of the national programme. This would send a positive message which reinforces the OfS’s own commitment to increasing and enhancing collaboration in the access and participation space. Over time, this would also enable more robust evaluation of regionally coordinated collaborative outreach interventions, rather than more piecemeal evaluations either at the level of individuals, providers or Uni Connect partnerships.

While I acknowledge that it is not directly within the gift of the OfS to fix the funding problem, I would add my voice to that of the report authors in calling for a sustainable funding solution for Uni Connect. If this can be achieved, a programme which already delivers significant economic benefits will be able to move forward on a more secure footing, working with providers and partners across the sector who will have confidence that their local Uni Connect partnership will be around for the long term.

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