Higher education outreach

Coronavirus restrictions including school and university closures mean that many higher education outreach activities are not currently possible, requiring other ways to engage potential students.

These case studies look at how universities, colleges, Uni Connect partnerships and others are responding to the challenges of delivering outreach activities during the coronavirus pandemic.

These interventions have been developed at pace and have not yet been evaluated for effectiveness. Their inclusion is not intended to stipulate particular approaches or endorse the actions of specific institutions. They are offered in the spirit of sharing practice that others may find useful and applicable to their own contexts.

AccessHE, the widening access and participation network for London, has launched its Student Advocate programme with the aim of putting current higher education students at the forefront of outreach work in the capital during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The programme created a regional cohort of ambassadors for higher education who are delivering online outreach sessions to schools across London.

The pandemic stopped all face-to-face activities with mature learner communities run by Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement department. In response, the department reconsidered its method of activities, communications and overarching support, rapidly moving all community facing pre-entry programmes online.

The department is using a number of platforms to provide ‘live’ and ‘watch later’ advice and guidance interventions and has designed tailored guides to help participants navigate these new learning environments.

It has also made extensive use of community Facebook groups, local newsletters, partners still working on the frontline, and messaging though the marketing and communications teams. 

Student ambassadors have provided insight sessions and advice to participants about the challenges and positives of learning from home and details of how they will be supported and prepared come the start of term.

Go Higher West Yorkshire’s Progression Officers are based in, and often employed by, target schools and colleges. During the pandemic these staff have been able to use school or college communication and home learning systems to offer outreach and support to learners.

Staff have been involved in pastoral care and facilitating an individually tailored package of support including enhanced careers guidance and specialist tutoring – including for vulnerable learners physically attending school during the lockdown.

The GROWS Uni Connect partnership in Gloucestershire has designed an interactive blended learning booklet adapted from sessions run in school for Year 9 and 10 learners researching potential future pathways and careers.

Through quizzes and other interactive activities, they can explore post-16 pathways and qualifications, develop their interest in particular careers and courses, identify their own skills gaps and set goals and actions to work towards their dream career.

The booklet includes activities that do not require internet access, while those that do have been designed to be undertaken in short chunks and can be accessed on smartphones, tablets and other devices. Printed copies have also been posted to the homes of students in schools with the highest populations of widening participation learners.

As part of the South Yorkshire OfS-funded Uni Connect outreach programme HeppSY, the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University careers services are working in partnership to offer advice and guidance to students who live in areas where progression to higher education is least likely.

Five higher education progression advisers are employed as part of the HeppSY project to deliver this work, targeting students in Year 9 to 13 who are least likely to access higher education. Most of the work to date has involved face-to-face delivery. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, HeppSY have revamped their offer to schools and colleges by putting the following in place: 

  • Launching an advice line for final year Level 3 students and their parents and carers who need guidance to navigate their next steps. All staff have received safeguarding training and can signpost to alternative support services where necessary.
  • Creating a chat function using a secure platform on their website where all students, parents and carers can ask qualified careers advisers questions. Recent graduates, now employed by HeppSY, have also helped to produce a number of FAQs.
  • Launching an extensive 'here to help' online offer, with at least three resources for each year group to access online that students can work through in their own time, or schools and colleges can set them as tasks in student’s online classrooms. Schools and colleges administer this themselves, and there is no direct student contact here other than YouTube viewer comments.
  • Increasing our social media presence, aiming to engage with staff, parents and carers via Facebook and Twitter to pass on information to those who may have limited IT or internet access, but who may have internet access on their mobile phone. Any contact received directly from a student is reported to the safeguarding lead.
  • Launching a summer mentoring programme to aid Year 13 students who are unsure about their progression to higher education in September.

In making a large part of their existing outreach offer available online, HeppSY is aiming to help as many students and their supporters as possible throughout this time, enabling them to still access information, advice and guidance on the higher education and outreach opportunities available to them.

So far, feedback about this offer has been positive and work will continue with the HeppSY data team to create short feedback forms to evaluate the effectiveness of the online resources and advice line.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are among the least likely to go to university. They are also most likely to experience multiple types of deprivation, including lack of access to computers at home and parents who may be less able to provide homework support.

To increase progression to higher education among the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, King’s College London launched the RomBelong programme in 2018.

The college has adapted its approach and is collaborating with the Traveller Movement on its project to provide bespoke one-to-one tutoring for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families. Every tutor is matched individually to help with the needs of the family, using whatever technology they have access to.

Where possible, tutors support them with work that the school has sent home. If the family cannot access this work or the student has finished what they have been set, they provide workbooks to help students continue learning. The Traveller Movement has supplied tablets for some of the families and King’s College London has provided internet connections, as this is a major barrier for students living on sites.

The LiNCHigher Uni Connect partnership has adapted its in-school activity to an online platform which hosts training modules and material, using individual learner and teacher information accounts.

Pupils can be allocated work modules based on their individual learning needs and year group, as well as more targeted activities for underrepresented groups, and their progress can be tracked.

The platform currently contains 20 courses and over 100 videos, which are designed to engage learners – particularly those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

By September 2020, it will host webinars and other real-time activities if restrictions on face-to-face activities are still in place.

As part of London NCOP (Linking London), the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Goldsmiths, University of London are adapting their collaborative summer school. Their ‘blended model’ offers both physical and online activity, enabling learners without access to technology or internet to take part.

Participants are sent a physical ‘art box’ of creative supplies. They are then invited to look at short ‘how-to’ videos, created by student ambassadors, lecturers and creative industry experts, which provide instructions and inspiration for using the supplies, alongside information on soft skills.

The project will end with an online celebration event at which participants can present their work for virtual display.

The Make Happen Uni Connect partnership in Essex has organised two webinars for parents and carers of children in Years 7 to 13 who feel they need support during lockdown.

The first focused on parents’ and carers’ concerns and challenges and on helping to equip them with the tools and knowledge needed to support and motivate their children.

The second looked at other ways in which parents and carers could help their children with remote learning and home schooling to promote healthy and effective learning and soft skills development.

The events were offered in both the morning and evening to facilitate attendance.

Target Oxbridge is a programme run by Rare, a diversity specialist, that supports black African and Caribbean students who are applying to Oxford or Cambridge universities.

When planned events were cancelled, Rare wanted to ensure that applicants on the programme would still be able to benefit from talking to current black students at the universities about their concerns about fitting in at university. It moved the launch online, with a webinar featuring a discussion panel of black Oxbridge students.

Following the online launch, a 10-part webinar series was designed using survey data to cater to participants’ interests. Five podcast episodes provide advice to parents, teachers and learners, and feature a Target Oxbridge alumnus who has studied at Oxford or Cambridge.

Rare is also providing tailored support to individual Target Oxbridge participants by phone and email.

The Southern Universities Network’s research and evaluation team has created a monitoring, evaluation and research response plan which has enabled coherent communication across the partnership as well as supporting a consistent approach to ethical aspects of evaluation and providing robust evidence towards its local impact evaluation.

The response plan operates via a traffic light system, linked to the stages of the government’s plan to lift restrictions. At each traffic light stage, it has identified the risks to its monitoring, evaluation and research and identified how it will mitigate against this.

The network and six other Uni Connect partnerships have agreed to work together in mapping across evaluation themes addressed in online activity. By collating datasets, the group hopes to gain robust validity in findings that support understanding of what works in online outreach delivery.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Southern Universities Network (SUN) is delivering a peer-led research project centred around youth student voices which will ensure that their outreach programme for the 2020-21 academic year is evidence-based.

SUN Young Researchers is a group of 35 students, aged 14-18 from across the south coast, interested in understanding issues important to young people. SUN works in collaboration with the third sector organisation the Participation People to engage target learners in participatory research on key issues aligned with the Uni Connect programme.

During the first week of lockdown, SUN Young Researchers were proactive in suggesting a pulse survey to support SUN’s response to remote and blended outreach programmes.

Coronavirus has dramatically altered the way outreach is delivered across the SUN partnership. The likelihood of activity delivery returning to ‘normal’ in the new academic year is questionable. The key challenges for a blended outreach programme where online and small-scale in person delivery include common themes of:

  • rapid development or adaption of programme
  • limited stakeholder input due to lockdown restrictions and shifted priorities to other areas
  • ensuring programmes reflect target learner need to support informed decision making during a complex social/economic context.

SUN’s approach to a learner-led blended outreach programme was to invite the SUN Young Researchers to create the pulse survey focusing on current experiences of online learning, key challenges relating to decisions about education choices, and key areas for SUN to address in programmes going forward.

The group collaborated with Dorset Young Researchers to create a survey that was disseminated across 120 target schools and colleges within the SUN region. The five local authorities within the SUN partnership are supporting by promoting the survey across their wider networks to ensure a representative sample across the region.

In addition to this, the SUN Young Researchers are interviewing their friends and peers to gain extra depth to the survey answers. This rich qualitative data will provide SUN with contextual information and key examples of learners lived experiences during lockdown.

The survey is still open and has so far received over 2,000 responses from young people across the south coast. Half of current responses are from POLAR4 quintile 1 and 2 learners. The project report, due in early August 2020, will ensure youth voice is embedded within the development of the blended outreach programme in 2020-21.

SUN Young Researcher, Lerryn, states:

‘Through this project I have developed an understanding of how to dig deeper and make insights into results of our survey. I think it’s important for young people to do projects like this because it builds teamwork skills, data analysis and helps in gaining confidence.’

Naomi Clements, Research and Evaluation Officer for SUN, comments:

‘Our Young Researchers have challenged our assumptions of what target learners need during this exceptional time. The evidence created from this project will support the sector in understanding what will work in supporting target learners make informed decisions about higher education.’

In response to the immediate needs and questions being posed by Uni Connect delivery staff due to coronavirus and school closures, the Study Higher evaluation team compiled a toolkit to practically support and inform the design, monitoring processes and evaluation of online activity.

The toolkit is intended as a resource for anyone involved in the creation, monitoring and evaluation of online activity and resources, and has been created to be accessible and easy to implement regardless of the level of evaluation-specific knowledge or expertise on the part of those designing and delivering new online interventions.

Although elements of the toolkit are tailored to Study Higher’s specific context and operation, some of the guidance and suggestions may be of use for other partnerships and institutions seeking practical cornerstones of creating, monitoring and evaluating their own activity. 

The toolkit focuses on fostering ongoing good practice, encouraging practitioners to build evaluation in approaches at the design stage of their activity, to develop simple theory of change models for online activity and to capture small steps towards change. It also emphasises the value of reflective practice on the part of delivery staff and facilitators as the direct experience and perceptions of the intervention and outcomes for participants become all the more pertinent in an online setting.

The toolkit recently featured in a blog submitted to the Outreach Evaluation Hub, and is intended to be a ‘live’ document, which can be supplemented with new and updated information and approaches as the sector garners greater insight in to ‘what works’ in online delivery and provision.

To respond to the challenges of providing and promoting university guidance to schools during the period of lockdown and students learning from home, UniTasterDays launched two free resources to schools in April, which will remain in operation for the remainder of 2020.

Online UniTasterDays university events hub

To support schools and colleges searching for online events for their school groups and students searching for online university opportunities directly, the new online events hub on UniTasterDays has advertised over 1,000 online events hosted by universities UK-wide. This is the lead resource for over 65,000 unique users who have visited UniTasterDays.com during lockdown.

Weekly UniTaster Tuesday university guidance webinar series

Starting in April 2020, UniTasterDays has so far delivered 26 independent and impartial university guidance webinars, featuring over 60 speakers from universities UK-wide and delivered in collaboration with the Higher Education Liaison Officers’ Association (HELOA).

The live events have attracted over 3,389 registrations, with over 22,000 visits to the UniTaster Tuesday webinar hub, where recordings can be found of all events. Webinars are held at 0930, 1200 and 1500 every Tuesday.

The University of Birmingham outreach programme, Access to Birmingham (A2B), supports disadvantaged learners and those from underrepresented groups. Participants usually attend on-campus events, complete an academic assignment and receive an alternate offer (below the standard course offer) as well as enhanced financial assistance.

A survey of A2B applicants revealed that many had limited access to IT and the internet, as well as facing other pressures at home. As a result, the university decided that learners would not need to complete the usual academic assignment to benefit from its alternative offer and the benefits associated with the scheme this year.

The outreach team has also developed additional online resources to complement the support available through the programme. A2B students have been offered one-to-one mentoring by a current undergraduate student to help with their preparation for higher education, and regular online chats with a member of the outreach team.

Learners are also encouraged to complete a reflective task designed to support their preparation for university and help them develop the skills they will need to succeed.

Together with the New Anglia Enterprise Adviser Network, the University of East Anglia launched ‘Explore Your Future: My Work Experience Week’ on Monday 6 July 2020.

The aim was to help Year 10 students explore different careers and replace the valuable work experience week that many have missed out on.

As part of the week, students investigated different industries, sectors and careers. There were opportunities for them to ask questions in live Q&As and take part in quizzes to help them reflect on their skills and interests.

The week was flexible so they could attend everything live or dip in and out of the recorded sessions and downloadable resources as part of careers lessons.  Students gained a bronze, silver or gold ‘Take Your Place’ award if they were registered for the programme by their teachers.

The skills and experience gained may also be used in other awards such as the Duke of Edinburgh and Youth STEMM Awards.

The programme was designed and delivered by NEACO, the Uni Connect programme for East Anglia.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, University of Surrey’s widening participation and outreach team have designed a new initiative to connect students during a time of isolation and disruption.

'European Connect' is an eight-week initiative, matching like-minded students from the UK and EU by completing a group research project as facilitated by a student mentor. UK applications were invited from across Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5, prioritising eligible students.

Using Brightside Trust’s mentoring platform, students converse and correspond regularly within a safe, academic environment, receiving resources and reading lists designed to aid independent and group study. The programme culminates with a virtual group presentation to an audience of university representatives and academic personnel.

Throughout the programme, team members lead weekly webinars designed to provide further information and guidance towards university applications, finance, living and pastoral support. All webinars are repeated to allow students to plan their participation around study commitments whilst content is added to a resource bank. All webinars are evaluated via an online poll.

Students were invited to complete an evaluation survey to indicate what they had gained from the programme, with comments endorsing the opportunity to raise culture capital:

'The European Connect programme as it was an extremely productive way of furthering my education whilst in quarantine.'
'It allowed me to learn so many things without being under pressure. It was amazing!'
'I believe the programme was highly beneficial and enriching to be able to discuss with other team members on a wide variety of topics.'

After the programme 92 per cent of students felt confident that they know what is expected of students at university.

In total, 56 UK domiciled students engaged with the programme, 40 of which met widening participation eligibility criteria. The students were matched with 65 EU-based students.

Recognising the disruption to English lessons and access to school and public libraries, the University of Surrey and the Higher Education Outreach Network (HEON) are supporting learners with their reading.

The Book Quest provides students with books and access to an online portal on the HEON Outreach Hub website. There are two ‘quests’ (Years 7 to 8 and 9 to 11). Each lasts several months and involves reading four books, with digital certificates and rewards as an incentive. The portal contains a range of activities that enable the students to learn more about English language and literature. Students can complete assignments (quizzes to assess knowledge) or larger ‘pursuit’ projects involving cross-curricular activities and expeditions.

Students complete a pre-evaluation form that measures their confidence in reading and creative writing, and a final evaluation. The quizzes and activities are also used to assess levels of engagement and knowledge development.

Parents and carers are encouraged to become involved and are given information about the books their child is reading.

A student said:

'I loved the book and so did my mum. I read some every night with her and we thought it was amazing, I finished it in three nights (that's a new world record for me) - I can’t wait to see what book I get next.'


Delivering remote outreach provision

Office for Students coronavirus briefing note on information, advice and guidance for prospective students.

Office for Students information about providers of online outreach provision.

Department for Education guidance on safeguarding and remote education.

The Key for School Leaders advice on safeguarding pupils and staff for remote learning.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's advice on undertaking remote teaching safely.

Online safety charity South West Grid for Learning’s information on safe remote learning.

The Sutton Trust shares what it has learnt about online delivery.

Paper by Jon Rainford on moving widening participation outreach online.

Evaluating remote outreach provision

BetterEvaluation blog series on adapting evaluation to respond to the pandemic.

FHI 360 webinar on monitoring, evaluation and learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

London School of Economics and Political Science blog post on the practical and ethical considerations of carrying out qualitative research under lockdown.

Market Research Society guidance on undertaking safe face to face data collection.

American Journal of Evaluation article on methods of rapid evaluation, assessment, and appraisal.

Office for Students information and guidance on standards of evidence and evaluation self-assessment tool.

Office for Students research into the evaluation of outreach interventions for under 16-year–olds.

TASO step-by-step guide for effective impact evaluation.

Public Health England guidance on rapid evaluation of digital health products during the pandemic.

Study Higher blog post about its new toolkit for creating, monitoring and evaluating online activity.

British Psychological Society ethics guidelines for internet-mediated research.

Published 17 July 2020
Last updated 30 July 2020
30 July 2020
New case study added

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