We need to know which widening participation initiatives actually work

There is evidence of success in changing attitudes, but effects on admissions remain woefully under-explored, says David Robinson

January 23, 2020
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UK universities spend £250 million each year on activities to widen access for under-represented student groups. This is clearly a large figure, even when compared with the £300 million spent annually per year group on educationally disadvantaged pupils in schools. Especially when you consider that only about half of young people go to university, whereas almost all young people go to school.

Indeed, that’s partly the point of the funding; while half of non-disadvantaged 18- or 19-year-olds access higher education, only a quarter of disadvantaged young people do so. Concerningly, this gap has been widening in recent years and is now back to where it was in 2006-07.

It’s also plausible that this access gap will continue to widen. We know that GCSE grades are a key determinant of access to higher education, and research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) shows that the gap between the GCSE grades of disadvantaged young people and their peers is beginning to widen. This first became apparent for the age group taking their GCSEs in 2018, many of whom will enter higher education later this year.

On top of this, we know that the access gap measure itself doesn’t even show the full extent of inequalities. Recent research highlights that, compared with their better-off peers, disadvantaged young people tend to opt for courses with worse employment outcomes and also tend to miss out on courses that might better suit their academic ability.

Given what we know, a focus on closing the disadvantage gap in the school system should be a priority: without this, any activity from the higher education sector will simply be papering over the cracks.

But, at the same time, it’s critical that the £250 million is used wisely. That’s why the recently established Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO) – a “what works” centre supported by King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the quasi-governmental Behavioural Insights Team – commissioned EPI to put widening access programmes under the spotlight by examining the evidence on their success.

We scoured hundreds of studies, finding 92 that provide clear evidence of the impact of student outreach programmes. Many of these studies show some encouraging results, largely on outcomes such as student aspirations and awareness of higher education. Crucially, however, they largely fail to consider how interventions have affected actual enrolment numbers of the most disadvantaged students.

When we focus on only those that consider changes to enrolment rates, the number of studies shrinks to 36. If we then strip away those that do not pin down the impact of the intervention on enrolment numbers, the number falls to 20. Concentrating solely on those with robust methodologies, the number drops again, to 14. Care to guess how many of those remaining studies are UK based?

The quarter of a billion pounds spent annually on widening participation activities has just one robust, UK-focused study to back it up.

So although the evidence base for access interventions shows positive results in some areas (and is more thorough than the evidence base for many other areas in education policy), there is a very urgent need to understand more about which interventions are the most effective, and which produce material results.

To begin with, far more must be done by the government, the sector and the research community to understand which programmes and policies are likely to boost actual enrolments of the most disadvantaged students, rather than just raising their aspirations and awareness. Attitudes and feelings can be important, but it’s the hard numbers that ultimately count.

To enable better research, higher education access programmes must have proper monitoring built into them from the start, and require a central focus on overlooked groups, such as mature, ethnic minority and vocational students.

The government should also do more to track the outcomes of the participants involved throughout the student life cycle. Currently, this process is patchy.

We must raise the bar with our research if we are to understand which programmes really work for widening participation. Organisations such as TASO are central to this endeavour.

Universities have made laudable gains in reaching out to under-represented groups in recent years, but if we are to truly move the dial on social mobility, we must begin by first confronting the glaring gaps in our knowledge.

Higher education access interventions matter to thousands of disadvantaged young people in the UK. They are not something we can afford to get wrong. Understanding what works is the surest route to making sure that we don’t.

David Robinson is director of post-16 skills at the Education Policy Institute.

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