Our “new approach to regulating access and participation in Higher Education”

Following consultations in the autumn, the Office for Students has released its new approach to access and participation in Higher Education. We can’t fault the OfS for the scale of its ambition, seeking to drive progress towards four long-range objectives:

  1. To eliminate the gap in entry rates at higher-tariff providers between the most and least represented groups by 2038-39.

  2. To eliminate the unexplained gap in non-continuation between most and least represented groups by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31.

  3. To eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between white students and black students by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31.

  4. To eliminate the gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between disabled students and non-disabled students by 2024-25.

Access in detail

At first sight, aiming to eliminate the access gap between advantaged and disadvantaged 18- and 19-year-old students appears a lofty ambition. On further inspection, the intermediate steps are not unattainable.

If we start by looking at reducing the gap in participation between the most and least represented, for 18- and 19-year-olds the OfS' target is to reduce the gap from its current ratio of 5:1 to a ratio of 3:1 by 2024-25.

When expressed in a slightly different way, this means decreasing the gap between quintile 5 and quintile 1 from 10.2% (as it was in 2016-17) to 8.9% by 2024-25 – a shift of 1.3%.

On the face of it, this seems feasible; the question is whether the sector as a whole – universities, third-sector organisations and other supporters – can build momentum and sustain progress.

New ambitions need new approaches

But, when viewed over time, a number of key access gaps have remained stubbornly entrenched. As the chart opposite, from the DfE’s most recent report into widening participation, shows, the gap between the proportion of students that received Free School Meals going to university and those that did not has shown few signs of progress since data became available in 2008-9.

So to meet that bold target from the OfS, it’s clear therefore that we need bold new approaches. Piecemeal activities for small groups of students are unlikely to deliver the step-change required. Instead, we need innovative models that work with large cohorts and effect long-term structural changes in schools and colleges, such as our Access Champions programme.

As the OfS requires, Access Champions is focused on outcomes rather than outputs. The programme drives progression rates up for whole cohorts by helping build better systems for HE progression within schools and colleges. We train and empower a senior teacher in the school or college to improve practice in six key areas, including the use of data and the training of other staff members. The sustained programme allows universities to build strategic relationships with schools and colleges and to ensure that existing outreach activities are targeted effectively.

Currently running in regions across England and starting shortly in Glasgow, Access Champions has garnered significant support from teachers, with early indications showing an uplift in application, offer and acceptance rates at participating schools and colleges.

“Access Champions has encouraged students to take progression seriously”, according to Sandra Griffiths, the Post-16 Learning Leader at St Edmund Campion Catholic School in Erdington, Birmingham, who we’ve been working with over the past twelve months.

At Quarrydale Academy in Nottinghamshire, the Access Champions approach has “completely changed our approach to personal statements and references,” according to Leanne Straw, the academy’s UCAS co-ordinator. Personal statements are now much more focused on specific courses, and led to one applicant, applying for Nursing at Nottingham University, being told by the admissions tutor that their personal statements was “one of the best applications I have ever read”.

Teresa Lamb, who took part in the programme from Brimsham Green school near Bristol, told us that, having identified areas for improvement while on the programme and writing a development plan that outlines the changes to make to address them, tutors now feel “empowered” and are able to focus on emphasising a student’s academic suitability and skills when writing references.

Working at the school level is a different approach to the more common student-level interventions seen in much widening participation, but we believe it’s one that has the chance to make lasting change for large numbers of students, and help meet that ambitious OfS target.

To find out more about Access Champions, please contact info@causeway.education.

Statement from social mobility charity CEOs following discussion on widening participation with Universities Minister

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We were very pleased that Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities and Science, responded so quickly and so positively to the statement we issued on university access last week, following leaks from the government’s post 18 education funding review.

We are grateful to the Minister for his time this week; we had a constructive and wide-ranging discussion and he reiterated his commitment to closing the access gap.

Among the topics we discussed were the barriers that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face in accessing HE; measuring the impact of widening participation activity and demonstrating what works; and the role of the third sector.

The Minister encouraged us to continue making the case for widening participation and assured us that it was a top priority for him.

Andrew Berwick, CEO, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Statement from social mobility charity CEOs in response to proposals for changes to Higher Education funding

“Britain’s deep social mobility problem, for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse not better.”Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation Report 2017.

Higher Education (HE) should be a route open to all young people, irrespective of background. But we have a big and persistent social mobility problem in the UK: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are half as likely to progress to HE as their peers.

Widening Participation funding exists to help close this gap. This funding is vital to the work that we – alongside universities, the Office for Students and others – do to support young people from under-represented groups to progress to, and succeed in, HE. This funding is now in question.

Our request to government

  • Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on momentum around spending it effectively

  • We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE

  • We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone

  • We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers

Rationale: We are concerned by reports that the government’s review of post-18 education funding is considering measures which could have a detrimental effect on social mobility.

Specifically:

The current student loan system is progressive as no fees are paid up front and loans are paid back contingent to income. Cutting fees to £6,500 would benefit higher earning graduates the most, as they would pay back less of the cost of their education than they do now. Addressing the cost of living, for example by restoring maintenance grants, would be a better way to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access HE.

Unless protected, a cut in fees to £6,500 could eliminate almost all the widening participation funding designed to close the access gap. This is because universities are currently required to spend a proportion of the fee income they receive if they charge fees above that amount on widening participation activities. Universities have already indicated that if fees are cut, they are unlikely to be able to fund their widening participation programmes. Clear arrangements for funding widening participation activity will be needed to replace this lost fee income.

In his speech on social mobility earlier this year, Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds reminded us that “universities expect to spend £860 million to improve access and success for disadvantaged students, this is a lot of money and it needs to be spent well.”

We agree. The fact that millions are earmarked for poorer communities and students for whom university has not historically been an option is a seldom talked about good news story for the government. This money is being spent increasingly effectively, with better evaluation, an improved regulatory framework and the forthcoming evidence and impact exchange all adding to our ability to put these funds to good use.

As charities involved in access, we rigorously measure our impact and we know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. Now is not the time for government to turn its back on the funding we need to do this.

Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on the momentum around spending it effectively.

Differential fees would add another level of complexity to student choices in a HE landscape that is already complicated. Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to receive the advice and guidance they need to make good choices about their course, and we believe there is a real risk that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could choose courses based purely on price, as opposed to the value they might deliver for them.

We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE.

The affordability of university is a significant concern for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The current level of maintenance support is not sufficient to cover students’ living costs and contributions from parents to make up this gap are seldom an option for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone.

A cap on the number of people going to university is a regressive measure which would hit disadvantaged students the hardest. These young people are less likely to apply, less likely to get in and less likely to graduate. A cap would also be bad for business and risks hampering our global competitiveness. The global trend is for countries to send more young people to university, not fewer.

We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers.

Andrew Berwick, CEO, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach


Our response to the Education Committee's "Value for money in Higher Education" report

We welcome a number of the findings in the House of Commons Education Committee’s report: Value for money in higher education.

The report highlights a series of challenges that are key to ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to access, succeed, and benefit from Higher Education.

We fully agree with the Committee's position that the current system of funding Higher Education is "widely misunderstood". In seeking to promote "better public understanding" we endorse an approach which provides funding for the enhanced training of teachers and careers advisors, and provides support for other key influencers including parents. As a recent CfE report (2018) for the Office for Studies pointed out, "support[ing] the supporters" is crucial if we are to make progress towards the goal of fair access.

A number of the report's recommendations focus on the provision of greater data for students including:

  1. more information on contextual admissions policies,

  2. better statistics on labour market outcomes,

  3. the publication of a breakdown of how universities and HEIs spend tuition fees.

While we approve of these objectives, we believe that it is essential for policymakers to emphasise the importance of structured advice and guidance alongside more sources of information.

The Careers and Enterprise Company's "Moments of Choice" paper (2016) points out that "young people are presented with a choice environment in which attempting to act rationally looks like an irrational choice. It is simply too difficult." The response to “too much choice” should not be “too much information”.

If we are to support young people in making difficult decisions, we need to ensure that networks of support are in place so that young people are provided with the information they require and the guidance they urgently need.

Our response to the Association of Colleges' 2030 and beyond report

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The Association of Colleges has today called for a radical shake-up of post-18 education in England to create a world-class system that supports more people to learn, train and retrain throughout their lives.

In its 2030 and beyond: an upgraded post-18 education system report it also proposes a major re-design of the country’s higher technical education offer to provide a credible alternative route to a BA/BSc degree, including:

  • New national qualifications developed locally to meet employer and labour market needs and built on those already working well.
  • Government reform to grant, fee and loan rules to incentivise and support new one and two-year courses at Levels 4 and 5.
  • The same fee cap and loan/maintenance arrangements to be made available for students of all ages who take up the new national qualifications part-time or full-time.
  • Access to financial support for living costs, travel and childcare.

We heartily agree: colleges are engines of social mobility, and this important and timely call to action by the Association of Colleges is one which we thoroughly endorse in its ambition to make the post-18 education system accessible to everyone, reintroduce means-tested maintenance grants, and ensure we have a workforce appropriately skilled for the future labour market.

We urge everyone to read the report, and for government to heed its messages.