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.

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


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.

Our response to the Government's review of post-18 education

We recently contributed to the Government's major review of funding for post-18 education in England, which aims to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. Our submission focused on three key themes:

1. Making sure that Higher Education is “accessible for all”.

We welcome the prominence the review gives to disadvantaged students.

If the new funding system is indeed to be “accessible for all” then care should be taken to ensure that any changes in the funding regime do not deter students from under-represented groups from participating in Higher Education.

While the overall Higher Education Participation Rate increased to 49% in 2015-16 there remain troubling gaps in the ability of disadvantaged and part-time students to access Higher Education.  Whatever the details of the new funding system, access for disadvantaged students needs to remain the top priority.

2. Putting schools and colleges at the heart of post-18 progression

The drivers of fair access – good attainment and effective guidance – are to be found in the classroom, but schools and colleges are largely overlooked in debates about post-18 progression.

To ensure that students can make informed post-18 choices, we need to shift the centre of gravity towards schools and colleges.

Schools and colleges face significant pressures on their existing resources. In order to enable schools and colleges to improve their post-18 destinations, we advocate setting up a Student Outcomes Fund with ringfenced funds made available to improve systems in schools and colleges. 

3. Strengthening Information, Advice and Guidance in the classroom

Most adults struggle to choose between five energy suppliers, but we expect students to be able to make rational choices between 37,000 UCAS courses.

If we want applicants to make appropriate choices about what and where to study then we need to offer better support. Providing more information is not the solution. Information overload has now reached a stage that experts have argued that students are being encouraged to make irrational decisions based on crude heuristics.

Research shows that students respond more effectively to “hot information” provided by trusted sources, such as teachers, as opposed to “cold information” provided in literature and on websites. Part of a Student Outcomes Fund should therefore be directed towards supporting teachers and other key influencers to make provide effective and personalised guidance for students.

The independent panel, chaired by Philip Augar and supported by experts from across the sector, are currently reviewing evidence. We look forward to seeing how the review progresses.