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New research showing the impact of outreach – only possible through collaboration

  • 3 April 2024
  • By Anna Anthony
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Anna Anthony, Co-Director at the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) Service.
  • HEAT provides a collaborative system which enables member higher education providers to evaluate the work they deliver as part of their Access and Participation Plans as easily and efficiently as possible.

At a recent partnership event, John Blake, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS), spoke about the important role of collaboration in increasing equality of opportunity in English higher education. Owing to the benefits successful partnerships can, and do, bring to the sector, John announced the OfS’s intention to strengthen regulatory requirements in relation to partnership. The OfS now expect providers to consider partnerships in all the activity listed in their Access and Participation Plan (APP), putting collaboration at the forefront of the work they are doing.

Collaboration is just as important when it comes to evaluating an APP, as it is to delivering the interventions listed within it. One key reason for this is the quantity of resource it takes to do it well. And given the financial situation faced by most, judicious use of resource and the associated costs, is top of the agenda.

Evaluation is resource intensive, there is no getting away from it, and evaluating all parts of an APP will take a significant amount of staff time. It thus makes sense to collaborate and pool resources – something that providers have been doing for over ten years now through collaborative evaluation systems such as HEAT.

New research from HEAT

And this collaboration is paying off. Thanks to a sustained commitment from the 130 higher education providers, Uni Connect partnerships and Third Sector Organisations that are part of the HEAT collective, we have published impact research based on the largest and most complete population of outreach participants available to the sector. 

The HEAT longitudinal tracking cohort included in this analysis consists of over 190,000 students who have received outreach from providers within the HEAT community. Of all large outreach providers delivering Access interventions in England, 87% record their data on the HEAT system, enabling us to draw high-level trends about the efficacy of outreach delivery in England. By tracking learners who participated in outreach whilst at school or college, and accessing data from HESA, we are able to see whether participants went on to enter higher education.

Our reports for Higher Education Provider delivery and Uni Connect Partnership delivery employ a quasi-experimental research design where records for students who participated in an ‘intensive package’ of outreach are matched to a comparison group of students who participated in no to minimal outreach. To ensure both groups are as similar as possible in their characteristics at baseline, they are matched on the characteristics known to determine future higher education participation – informed by the OfS’s Equality of Opportunity Risk Register.

An intensive package of outreach includes interventions such as university summer schools, visits to a university campus, taster sessions for university subjects and interventions designed to raise pre-entry attainment and study skills such as tutoring and mentoring. The students who took part in an ‘intensive package’ of outreach in our analysis all received at least eight hours of these types of interventions.

The analysis examines outcomes for students who took part in outreach delivered by higher education providers as part of their APPs separately from that delivered by universities working in partnership through their regional Uni Connect Partnership. Although, broadly speaking, both types of delivery have similar aims, Uni Connect is a large government-funded programme that has received over £370,000,000 of funding since its inception in 2016/17, and so it is important to examine the impact of this programme in isolation to help safeguard future funding.

Key findings

The analyses found that:

  • Students who took part in an intensive package of outreach consisting of at least eight contact hours are more likely to enter HE than a closely matched group of students who took part in less than three hours of outreach.
  • Differences in higher education participation were +12.5 percentage points for higher education provider-delivered outreach and between +14 and +21 percentage points for Uni Connect-delivered outreach.
  • In particular, Further Education students appear to benefit from participating in intensive outreach, with those in receipt being more than 17 percentage points more likely to enter higher education than their peers in receipt of little to no outreach.
  • Once in higher education, outreach participants show similar continuation and degree attainment success rates to the national average.
  • Monitoring data showed the significant contribution of Uni Connect to the total volume of outreach delivered nationally, with almost half of the activities recorded on HEAT delivered by Uni Connect partnerships.

This research has played a primary role in informing the future funding of the Uni Connect Programme, underpinning the OfS-commissioned economic analysis of the programme by Public First.

Public First’s analysis of data from the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) service found that students receiving an intensive package of outreach through Uni Connect had a significantly higher probability of attending university. For the estimated 2,350 additional students progressing to university in 2020/21 alone, we estimate a gain of £495 million of additional earnings in their lifetime. Based on this analysis, the economic benefit of Uni Connect is substantial – an estimated £5 to £9 of economic value generated for every pound of public money spent.

John Blake praised the value of the HEAT data in their negotiations with the Department for Education (DfE) for future funding.

More in the pipeline

And there is more of this kind of research in the pipeline. Thanks to the sharing of data by data custodians such as the DfE and HESA, HEAT has recently been granted access to a new ‘linked dataset’ which combines Key Stage 4 (GCSE) and 5 (A level or equivalent) attainment data, HESA data and outreach intervention data in one dataset.

This rich dataset will allow us to examine the impact of outreach more reliably because it will give us prior attainment so we can be more confident about the claims we are making in relation to the impact of our interventions on higher education progression. The research potential of this dataset is huge – this is the work that will “allow providers to better understand the long-term impact of APP interventions” that John mentions in his speech.

For members of HEAT, this kind of research is possible for all of us. Now we must make sure the data are put to good effect in the quest to build impact evidence and improve the way we evaluate. Working collaboratively is the only way to do this effectively – together we are more than the sum of our parts.

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