Travel Diary: Ideas Lab, London

Helen Drummond, our Director of School and College Engagement, reflects on a stimulating day’s discussion at the first of our Ideas Labs, held among the glorious surroundings of the Royal Veterinary College in London.


For anyone unfamiliar with the Royal Veterinary College’s building, nestled between Camden and Euston, you are in for a treat. It’s a beautiful building, packed with history, not to mention skeletons of elephants, ostriches, sloths and some live ponies and sheep. It’s a veritable treasure trove, yet with some of the most sensitive recent renovations it’s clear you are in a modern, global institution.

RVC was the host of our first Ideas Lab today, a session for WP practitioners from around the country to come together to celebrate, reflect and discuss the work they are doing with schools.

After more than 20 years of partnership working between HEIs and schools/colleges, it’s clear that there are many effective, successful approaches to widening participation. In fact, last year’s NCOP report recognised many of these successes, not least the 1,200 schools across the country engaged in activities.

It also noted that ‘bespoke programmes’ were particularly effective at engaging schools and colleges, but that there were challenges in implementing them.

So the idea behind today’s Ideas Lab was simple: make time and space for people involved in these activities to reflect on recent initiatives, share successes and the thinking behind them, and identify ways to ensure sustainability. As we all receive public funds to run most of our activities, we believe it’s important to share.


We looked at student events, teacher CPD and how to create a sustainable offering. For each session we demonstrated one of our own activities and asked for critique: what did people like, what could be improved.

We considered what the guiding principles should be for impactful student activities and outstanding teacher CPD, and we’ll use the all the feedback to create a new ‘Progression Roadmap’ tool for WP practitioners, which we’ll share once we’ve finished our tour of the country.

It’s a real treat, and a rare privilege, to have the time and space to come together to talk, interact, share, and try to understand the schools, students and families we want to serve. Absolutely everybody said they found the day useful, and their highlights were as varied as the attendees themselves.

Leaving the elephant skeletons behind in one of London’s smaller HE gems, our guests, a varied mix of representatives from University WP departments, NCOPs and FE colleges from around the south of England, have hopefully made some new contacts, reflected on their own work and shared some good practice, and learned about how to better communicate their offer to schools.

We’re running two more Ideas Labs in early April, in Manchester on 1st April and Bristol on 2nd April. A few tickets remain - see our Ideas Labs page for more information and how to book.

The danger of fee cuts for social mobility

Joint Statement by the Russell Group and social mobility charities on the dangers of a university funding cut

The Government’s review of post-18 education and funding is expected to report shortly. It has been widely speculated that the advisory panel led by Philip Augar could recommend sweeping changes, including a cut to tuition fees. If the Government does not replace the lost income, funding for higher education will be significantly reduced.

We are concerned that the progressive elements of the current student finance system will be chipped away and the proposed reforms could make disadvantaged students worse off. While there is still work to do in ensuring young people from all walks of life have equal access to a university education, recent years have seen important progress with a record proportion of young people now entering higher education, including a record proportion from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities, often working in partnership with third sector organisations, are driving innovative and effective schemes to make UK campuses more inclusive and diverse.  We call on Ministers to help ensure recent social mobility gains are not sent into reverse.

It may sound counterintuitive to suggest that lower tuition fees could harm social mobility, but the reasons are threefold:

  • If tuition fees are reduced and Government does not make up the shortfall, universities will have significantly less funding and will in turn have to reduce student places. This would amount to a de facto cap on student numbers. When student places are restricted, disadvantaged students suffer most. 

  • We could face a sharp drop in the money available for vital schemes which encourage underrepresented students to start a degree and support them through their studies.

  • A fee cut primarily benefits graduates who earn more, who will end up contributing less to the cost of their education than they do now.

Since higher fees were introduced and student number controls started to be removed, numbers of the most disadvantaged students going to university have increased by almost a third. It is therefore welcome that the Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, recently confirmed he is “proud to be a member of the Conservative Party that…removed the cap on student numbers”. But while no government is likely to restrict the number of people able to enter higher education directly, reductions in the number of places will be inevitable if fees are cut and the overall money available to universities is reduced. Ministers should go further and explicitly rule out a de facto cap on student numbers. 

On average, across the country, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their classmates to go to university and do not benefit from the same networks and support when they do. This year, Russell Group universities will direct £265m into programmes to address these gaps, working with charities, schools and communities in every region and nation of the UK. As a whole, the sector will invest £900m. We want this money to be used as effectively as possible and to build up strong evidence to show which interventions works best. But a fee cut to £7,500, for instance, would wipe out much of this spending. If the Treasury cuts fees it should provide an enduring guarantee that the lost income will be made up in full, with meaningful assurances it will rise with demand.

Finally, evidence indicates that any deterrent effect of higher fees is outweighed by progressive arrangements for loan repayments. Young people have not been put off from entering higher education in increasing numbers, including those from worse off homes. At present, no fees are paid up front; students only ever repay in line with their earnings; and any outstanding balance is written off after thirty years. The focus should be on providing disadvantaged students with the academic and admissions support they need to get in to university and adequate maintenance when they are there. To help, maintenance grants should be reintroduced for the students who need them most.

In summary:

  • Russell Group universities and a coalition of third sector social mobility organisations are calling on Ministers to ensure the Government’s review of Post-18 education and funding does not damage efforts to make UK campuses more inclusive and diverse.

  • We urge Ministers to explicitly rule out any de facto cap on student numbers, which would hurt poorer students most.

  • If the Treasury cuts tuition fees it should give an enduring guarantee that the lost income will be made up in full and will rise with demand.

  • To help with the cost of living, maintenance grants should be reintroduced for students who need them most.  

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO, Russell Group

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus

Johnny Rich, CEO, Push

Nathan Sansom, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Rae Tooth, CEO, Villiers Park

Expert mentoring increases offers to higher-tariff universities for POLAR quintile 1 students


Our Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Coordinator Fionna McLauchlan has been looking at where students on our pilot mentoring programme ended up after their A-levels, and has some interesting insight on how expert mentors can improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.

In 2017 we started a pilot mentoring programme where expert mentors, our Progression Specialists, provided 1-to-1 support to students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes (areas with the lowest progression to Higher Education) across 12 schools in East Anglia, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Mentees met with their mentors for up to five sessions to discuss and put into action their plans for what they want to do after school or college.


Using data provided by UCAS STROBE, an evaluation of our first cohort of more than 150 mentees found that, when compared to a matched comparison group, 88% of our mentees who applied to higher-tariff universities got offers, compared to 74% from the comparison group, a finding which is statistically significant.

We’re delighted by these results, as we know the challenge to close the gap in entry rates to higher tariff institutions for students from low progression areas remains persistent.

To understand how we achieved these outcomes, we triangulated our STROBE results with qualitative data from feedback surveys and mentoring logs (the reports our Progression Specialists make after each mentoring session). This led us to four key insights into how expert mentoring can lead to increased offers to higher-tariff institutions for students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes:

1. Expert mentors support students from low-progression areas to produce high-quality applications

We know from research carried out for our Academic Apprenticeship programme that students’ personal statements can lack the subject-focused content necessary for competitive courses and institutions.

Expert mentors provide the knowledge that students might be missing, helping them fully demonstrate their potential through high-quality, subject-focused applications.

He feels that he is struggling with his personal statement, and shared about half a page of text, which was rather unfocused and vague.  He was surprised that the personal statement needed to be so closely aligned to his chosen degree.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

2. Expert mentoring raises student expectations

The data also told us that our mentees were accepting fewer offers from lower-tariff universities than the comparison group: 40% compared with 54%, which is another statistically significant result.

Combined with evidence from our mentoring logs, we think this demonstrates that expert mentoring encourages students from low-progression areas to be ambitious with their university choices – to take the risk of applying for a selective institution alongside a realistic insurance choice.

She did very well in the end of Y12 exams, gaining AAA. In the light of these results and subsequent discussions with myself and her teaching staff, she has decided to apply for a university course based on animal science rather than veterinary nursing.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

3. Expert mentors can guide students to make pragmatic and realistic plans for the future

We spoke about him evaluating his academic and personal strengths and weaknesses, in order to focus on subject areas that might appeal to his strengths, and eliminate those that he would not consider or be comfortable studying.
— Mentor based in Derbyshire

As well as raising expectations, expert mentors help students pick courses that they are well-suited to, with admissions criteria that are ambitious but achievable.

We think that supporting students with their course choices is an important step in improving both university access and retention, particularly to higher-tariff institutions.

Students need to find courses and institutions where they’ll thrive, and our evaluation results suggest that expert mentoring is a successful intervention to support this.

4. Students value the mentee-mentor relationship

Our feedback overwhelmingly highlighted that students from low-progression areas value having a trusted and knowledgeable person to turn to for advice and guidance about their future. We think that this mentoring relationship is key to supporting students to be confident and ambitious with their plans for university.

My mentor was very friendly and easy to talk to, as well as being very relatable and knowledgeable, which led to her persuading me about university.
— Student based in Suffolk.  

Recent research by the OfS has shown that students are most likely to consult people that they’re close to, like parents or teachers, about progression. So, an expert mentor can play a key role here in building a rapport with a student to share knowledge and expertise about university access.  

Could expert mentoring be a key intervention for supporting disadvantaged students to access selective institutions?

Our evidence says yes!

We think that it’s a combination of these four aspects that has led to these promising results. Expert mentoring undoubtedly helps students produce excellent applications by imparting reliable information, advice and guidance through a friendly, trusted relationship.

It’s the relationship that’s key. By getting to know a student, a mentor can encourage them to be realistic but bold in their plans: facilitating discussions that they may previously not have had or providing the consistent encouragement that can start to chip away at ingrained beliefs about who university is for, and/or who gets to access it.

We’re encouraged by the evaluation of our pilot mentees and we look forward to seeing the results of our next cohort, whose outcomes we can evaluate in the autumn.

This information has been derived from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service STROBE analytical data service, and is used under license.


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


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.


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