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Improving access, success and progression in English higher education

Daniel Wake

Daniel Wake

Policy Analyst
Universities UK

The outcome of the Office for Students' (OfS) consultation on access and participation plans – published last week – sent a clear message to the higher education sector in England: more must be done to drive social mobility.

In recent years, access and participation has become a key focus for universities, and the sector has worked hard to improve equality of opportunity, with a degree of success. So what are these enhanced expectations, and what do the changes mean for students and universities?

Ahead of the announcement of the review, universities gathered in early 2018 to discuss the opportunities a review might present. In particular, universities were clear they wanted lengthened plan timescales, access to more evidence of successful initiatives, support for collaboration, and a more strategic approach to target setting and monitoring that still accounts for universities' own contexts.

It is pleasing to see that the OfS have directly addressed several of these concerns – which were raised in Universities UK's response to the consultation – but through UUK member workshops, universities have identified a number of key areas where further work is needed:

  • Timescales – The OfS proposes to extend plan cycles to allow universities to think more strategically and ambitiously about initiatives to improve the access, success and progression of students. While we welcome this proposal, the administrative burden arising from the new requirements must be proportionate for this change to have a truly positive effect.

  • Risk assessment – The OfS plans to provide more information on the risk assessment methodology which influences the level of monitoring required. It will be important to have this information soon, so that universities are aware of their reporting requirements. Any risk-based approach should encourage universities to be ambitious and must not deter innovation.

  • Targets – Universities broadly support a move towards greater standardisation of targets that aim to eliminate gaps in entry rates, drop-out rates and degree outcomes. We recommend, where appropriate, that the OfS allows flexibility so that 'disadvantage' is measured reliably. We are pleased that universities can set targets related to their own contexts.

  • Evaluation and self-assessment – Self-assessment is a vital part of any evaluation process, and universities support enhanced evaluation requirements. The OfS, by working with the Evidence and Impact Exchange and the wider sector, must support universities to develop their evaluation practices.

  • Transparency – Transparency is vital. As the OfS has outlined, it is important that students are engaged with APPs and can easily access and understand the information in published datasets. We look forward to hearing the OfS' plans to engage with stakeholders to ensure that public information is fit for purpose.

  • Funding - We are pleased that the OfS Board has agreed, in principle, to continue funding the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. The OfS should work with the DfE to support sustained change in access and participation by providing opportunities for collaboration with schools, colleges and employers based on what works.

What happens next?

The OfS will develop its proposals further, and plans to issue a new regulatory notice covering access and participation plans from 2020−21 in late February 2019, alongside an evaluation self-assessment tool and the latest data. To make further progress, the OfS should work with UUK, the Department for Education and the wider sector to clarify how 'disadvantage' should be measured. This will help providers measure and track access, and evaluate the existing initiatives that are designed to improve it. 

Above all, we hope that these changes will allow universities to think more strategically about the wider student lifecycle, from access through to progression.

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