Fair access is about to be set back significantly and universities must act

The loss of Supporting Professionalism in Admissions would be bad news for students, says Les Ebdon

September 15, 2017
Widening participation
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Small things can have a really big impact. Sometimes that small thing can be a single sentence offering a place on a life-changing degree course. And sometimes it can be a handful of people in a corner of an office in Cheltenham who provide invaluable support to university and college staff in improving fair access. 

I’m talking about Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA). Since 2006, this initiative has been promoting, in its own words, “professionalism, fair admissions and access to higher education” – so perhaps a more accurate name would be “Supporting Professionalism and Fair Access in Admissions”.

That role in fair access is the reason why I’m deeply concerned that SPA’s future is in jeopardy: its funding is being removed, and the SPA team is set to cease operations at the end of this month. Among its varied work, SPA has been a vanguard for the use of contextual information in admissions. Contextual information can be immensely beneficial to access, and it is widely used throughout the higher education system.

In recent months, SPA has also published guides on using admissions to bridge the gaps for groups such as care leavers, estranged students and students with criminal convictions.

All this support has been key in expanding the use of approaches that help universities and colleges find and recruit students based on a true picture of each individual’s talent and potential, even where that might not be accurately reflected in raw exam grades.

So my fear is that without SPA and its support, fair access will be set back significantly.

That’s surely not something that anyone working in higher education wants. It’s definitely not something that the government wants. I know this because support for the use of contextual data has been explicitly stated in ministerial guidance to the Office for Fair Access since 2011; it’s also in the White Paper Students at the Heart of the System and in the National Strategy for Access and Participation

But who’s going to help higher education staff to share and follow best practices when SPA is no more?

Many have expressed concern at the withdrawal of funding for SPA, including a #savespa campaign that has received support from admissions staff on social media. In a survey earlier this year, 92 per cent of respondents rated their overall experience of SPA as “good” or “great”. In 2015, a review found that SPA was highly valued by the sector and was perceived as having a positive impact; it also recognised the importance of having a shared sector-wide service that provides an efficient way to support professionalism in admissions, saving higher education providers time and effort by finding and sharing good practice.

But there is currently no coordinated proposal from the sector to continue the level of support that SPA provides.

Ucas has committed to ensuring that resources to support fair admissions are available for the admissions community, but having access to the expertise in SPA has been critical in being able to understand how these issues impact real-life scenarios. Neither Offa nor the Office for Students will be able to fill this vacuum, because although we can give general encouragement for the use of contextual information where universities and colleges choose to use it, to provide the kind of direct assistance that SPA has done is beyond both our remits (and must remain so, I might add).

So unless universities and colleges can find a way to support this work, there is a real danger that those wishing to use contextual information in their admissions will, from next month, no longer be able to access the expertise, guidance and support on good practice that SPA has provided.

There are lots of big issues filling the headlines in the higher education sector at the moment as the higher education landscape is reshaped and rebuilt. This small but vital piece of the puzzle must not be allowed to fall between the cracks. Getting fair admissions and access right are important to every university and college’s success and reputation, so it is time for them to take action to avert this loss of sector-wide expertise and collective knowledge.

Les Ebdon is director of fair access to higher education at Offa.

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