OfS seeks collaboration, not intervention, in access reboot

Hitting targets ‘not the be-all and end-all’, John Blake tells THE, as national risk register for higher education participation planned

September 28, 2022
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A major redrawing of the ways English higher education providers are expected to identify and act on access and participation issues will see more of a focus on risks to equality of opportunity with less attention paid to meeting targets.

The Office for Students (OfS) will collate and publish a “national risk register” that identifies sector-wide circumstances that may hinder an individual’s ability to participate and succeed in higher education, under plans outlined by John Blake, director for fair access and participation.

Providers will be expected to consider the register and identify any further site-specific risks as they formulate new four-year access and participation plans (APPs) to be submitted to the regulator in 2023.

The documents should include a prioritised list of objectives alongside evidence-led interventions intended to achieve these, Mr Blake told Times Higher Education.

An indication of what will be included on the risk register will be released by the OfS on 4 October, when a consultation on the new APP framework opens.

But Mr Blake said he would be “surprised” if several issues did not feature, namely: “differential attainment by economic group in earlier years, insufficient diversity in admissions to higher-tariff universities, cost-of-living challenges, and necessary diversity in routes to access higher education”.

He also stressed that the impact of educational inequality before the age of 16 on both access and participation in higher education is “certain” to be one of the issues on the risk register, despite some sector leaders questioning whether it is universities’ role to improve standards in schools.

But Mr Blake stressed that providers will also be given autonomy on drawing up their plans and how to achieve the objectives.

“I’m not going to say, you absolutely must do that,” he said. “The purpose of the evaluation is that over time we will build a clearer picture of the most effective activity, and it might be [that] in a future cycle of APPs we are more in the business of saying: ‘Look, the evidence is overwhelming the best way of solving problem X is to do Y, and we’d be surprised if that isn’t what you are going to do.’

“Even then, you have to be open to idea that people might be developing new and better ways of doing things. We wouldn’t want to cut off innovation.”

Mr Blake also signalled a different approach to setting targets to judge whether the objectives are being met, admitting that at times providers have prioritised achieving a target “whatever the cost” under the current system.

“We want providers to think dynamically. Targets are there to help us identify whether progress is happening, but it is not the be-all and end-all,” he said.

This means that if a target is missed, it will not “automatically lead to aggressive intervention”, Mr Blake said, and instead he is looking for providers to engage and evaluate why things did not go as expected.

Only if providers were not seen to be taking seriously the commitments made as part of their APP would the regulator seek to get stricter in its approach to enforcement, according to Mr Blake.

He said the new framework was intended to foster a more collaborative approach. “My hope is this represents a public agreement between the whole sector and the regulator that outlines the problems we are trying to tackle, the things we are trying to do about it, and how we will know if it is working. It is in everyone’s interest to build that knowledge base.”

In a speech in London announcing the new strategy, Mr Blake said the recovery from the pandemic, coupled with new threats from inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, carried a “very real risk” that “decades of progress” on social mobility will be lost.

But he said there were still opportunities to move the agenda forward, although there is an “urgent need” to think about how to do this more effectively as much of the work done so far has been “fractured”, meaning an “awful lot of time, energy and effort spent on it that has not necessarily yielded what it could have done”.

The more collaborative approach to access stands in contrast to the OfS’ stance on other issues it regulates such as quality, where it is poised to introduce more targets and has initiated “boots-on-the-ground” inspections.

Speaking at the London event, Mr Blake said he didn’t believe the two approaches were contradictory as “different problems can be tackled with different tools”.

“There are some things in which it is absolutely right where we lay down a strict standard and we hold people accountable for that,” he said but added the “amount of goodwill, effort and time” spent on equality of opportunity by the sector showed “we are beyond that” in this area.



Print headline: OfS seeks collaboration on risk ledger, not intervention, in access reboot

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