Necessity has bred invention: universities themselves have been forced to construct structures for outreach
Very few people working in outreach in England would do anything other than wholeheartedly welcome David Willetts’ support for a national widening-participation network to “help coordinate all the good work that is happening”. Least of all me - I argued for just such an infrastructure in the pages of Times Higher Education last year (“Rivals and collaborators”, 30 August 2012).
The minister’s comments highlighted the importance of collaboration, a message emphasised in a recent Higher Education Funding Council for England paper, National Strategy for Access and Student Success: Interim Report, which sets the direction of travel in this area. The report mentions “collaboration” no fewer than 17 times.
As welcome as all this is, however, a national network is not going to work if it is perceived and constructed as some form of “Aimhigher 2”. Aimhigher was the product of a level of investment and an approach to widening participation that has now gone. To be effective, the new infrastructure will have to fit the very different environment in which higher education now operates, as well as reflecting and adding to the evidence base about what works in widening participation to higher education.
Hefce’s plan is to combine its existing widening access, improving retention and disability funding into one new “student opportunity” allocation. The council recognises the importance of differentiating between the activity this funds and the work required of universities under their separate access agreements (which institutions must make in return for the ability to charge higher fees). Different streams of funding must complement each other.
A national infrastructure must also focus on producing more even coverage for outreach work across the country, ending the so-called “postcode lottery” in this area that has emerged since Aimhigher was abolished in July 2011.
Given the attention that has been paid to the effectiveness (or otherwise) of money spent on outreach, it is not surprising that another big theme of Hefce’s paper is evaluation. The idea of a national evaluation framework is particularly welcome. Policymakers need to give clear guidance about the data that matter when evaluating what works. The ability to mine national datasets would be valuable, and may highlight opportunities for economies of scale in delivering evaluation work (eliminating duplication in collection of information, for example).
But the framework must also include provision for the continuing and structured sharing of best practice. This is the surest way to enhance the evidence base and drive up the quality of the evaluation undertaken.
The temptation is to think that a new, more prescriptive framework and better data will meet widening participation’s biggest challenge: proving the impact of the money spent on it. This temptation must be resisted. Solutions will come just as much, if not more, from the bottom up than from any top-down strategy.
If Aimhigher had one major drawback, it was its top-down nature. It came into being not through a groundswell of demand but as a means of achieving a target set by the Labour government for 50 per cent participation in higher education. These origins shaped the trajectory of the project and prevented “ownership” of it by the sector.
While there have certainly been downsides to the end of Aimhigher, including patchy provision across the country, there has also been one positive. Necessity has bred invention: universities themselves have been forced to construct more bottom-up structures for outreach work, led by the sector and including schools, colleges and others.
The overriding objective of any new infrastructure is that it should be sustainable and less likely to crumble when funding priorities shift in future, as they inevitably will. The best way to ensure this is by placing responsibility for its success firmly in the hands of the sector rather than the state.