The evidence option: hitting targets with practised precision

New Office for Fair Access strategies will help universities learn what works best in their efforts to reach ambitious goals, says Les Ebdon

January 17, 2013

Credit: James Fryer

This week, the Office for Fair Access publishes its first guidance under my directorship - guidance to English universities and colleges on what we would like to see in their 2014-15 access agreements. Given the furore that greeted my appointment, I hope institutions don’t find it too much of an anticlimax. There will be changes, but they are not the dramatic ones that some perhaps expect.

If I had to characterise the approach that we are taking at Offa, I would describe it as one of greater challenge coupled with greater support. We want institutions to set themselves targets that stretch them in the knowledge that their progress in meeting these goals will be scrutinised. Institutions have already set themselves ambitious targets under their 2013-14 access agreements and we expect them to maintain the ambition of these.

By way of support, the national strategy that we are developing with the Higher Education Funding Council for England aims to help institutions to make better, faster progress in improving fair access and widening participation. In the meantime, we will be undertaking significantly more research and analysis to improve the evidence base on access and the successful retention of students. We will also be working more closely with institutions and have already started to do this, for example, by assigning them a nominated Offa contact.

So what changes will you find in the guidance we are publishing this week? First, there is a much stronger emphasis on the need for evidence and evaluation. While I appreciate that evaluating access activities is not always easy, it is vital if we are to understand what works well and to share good practice across the sector. Institutions estimate that by 2017 they will be spending £809 million under their access agreements, and clearly it is important to be sure that this money is being spent effectively. We are therefore asking universities and colleges to do more to evaluate their access programmes, and to refine and target programmes as evidence of their effectiveness emerges.

Second, we are asking all institutions to include long-term outreach activity in their agreements, including how they will work with children from as early as key stage 2, and with adults who have the potential to be mature students. By reaching out to bright students in schools and communities with historically low participation in higher education through activities such as summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring, universities help to raise aspirations and attainment levels - both of which are crucial factors in determining whether someone from such a background will go on to university. Under their 2013-14 access agreements, institutions estimate that they will use only 14 per cent of their access agreement expenditure on outreach activity. I expect that institutions that identify their major challenge as a lack of suitably qualified applicants from low-participation neighbourhoods will want to change the balance of their expenditure, adjusting this percentage upward.

Our new guidance will also ask for greater collaboration between institutions. I have been encouraged to discover that many institutions are continuing with collaborative activity, often sustaining partnerships that were forged in the days of Aimhigher. Overall, however, we are not seeing as much collaborative activity as in the past. We see this kind of activity as vital to the long-term success of widening participation to all institutions, and we therefore make it clear in our guidance that we will always take collaborative efforts into account when assessing an institution’s progress.

What else is different? There will be greater emphasis on the need to engage students in the development of access agreements. We want to know how universities and colleges have consulted their student unions or representatives. We also want to know how institutions have discharged their “public duty” under the Equality Act 2010 to assess the impact of their access measures on groups with “protected characteristics”. This can be a rich source of information for us about the impact that access measures have on different ethnic or faith groups, on those with a disability, or indeed on the participation of men or women.

No, the changes are not dramatic - but there is no quick fix here. Instead, there’s a long-term challenge to improve the social mix at our most highly selective institutions and to consolidate the good progress already made in participation across the sector. Universities and colleges are working hard to help meet this challenge and to ensure that a new generation of students experiences the transforming power of higher education. I hope that our new guidance helps them in the task.

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