Access and participation glossary

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  • Absolute performance

    This is a term that we use in the context of our student outcomes indicators. It refers to the proportion of students that we observe to have achieved a certain outcome. As a calculated proportion (in technical terms, a point estimate), it provides a factual representation of the actual population of students present at a particular provider at a particular point in time, based on administrative student data. We refer to this as a measure of the provider’s absolute performance.

  • Access

    Access into higher education.

  • Access and participation dashboard

    Our access and participation dashboard helps to compare different student groups and their peers across all stages of a student’s involvement at English universities and colleges. The dashboard can be used by anyone with an interest in higher education and displays data across a time series to show how student access and participation has changed in recent years.

  • Access and participation dataset

    This dataset contains the underlying data of the access and participation dashboard. It is published as data files alongside the dashboard on the OfS website.
  • Activities

    Work to improve access, success and progression as opposed to financial support given to students.

    For example, mentoring is an activity, but a scholarship is not.

  • Aim, objectives and targets

    Aims are a provider’s high-level aspirations. These may be general or more specific (where, for example, the provider has a particular remit for an underrepresented group, such as mature students or children from military families). Objectives explain how these aims will be achieved and should be time bound. There may be a number of objectives that are related to meeting one strategic aim. Targets show what progress the provider expects to make towards meeting its objectives over the duration of the plan.
  • Apprenticeships (including higher and degree apprenticeships)

    Apprenticeships combine study with on-the-job experience working for an employer.

    Degree apprenticeships are apprenticeships which include a degree for an undergraduate (level 6) or masters’ (level 7) qualification.

    There are also apprenticeships at level 6 and 7 which do not lead to a degree upon completion.

  • Attainment gaps

    Attainment in higher education is part of the success stage of the student lifecycle and considers the academic outcomes achieved by students.

    There are identified gaps in degree outcomes for underrepresented groups when compared with their peers. We refer to this difference as the attainment gap.

    The Office for Students has set ambitions for itself and the sector to eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between white students and black students by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31.

  • Association between characteristics of students (ABCS)

    Association between characteristics of students (ABCS) is a set of analyses that seeks to better understand how outcomes vary for groups of students holding different sets of characteristics.

    We define groups of students by looking at a set of characteristics so that we can determine the effect of not just one characteristic on an outcome, but the effect of multiple characteristics. 


  • BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic groups)

    The term BAME refers to black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.

    There are significant equality gaps between different ethnic groups in terms of access, success and progression in higher education. The extent of these gaps vary depending on ethnic group and stage of the student lifecycle.

    Find out more about support for BAME students.

  • Basic fee cap

    The level of tuition fee up to which an access and participation plan is not required. This is set by the government and varies according to year of entry.

    There are different basic fee levels for full-time, part-time and accelerated courses, and for sandwich course, years abroad and Erasmus years.


  • Care leavers and looked-after children

    In England most young people remain in care until age 18, although young people can leave care from the age of 16.

    If the young person has been in care for a minimum of 13 weeks, some of which was after age 16, they are entitled to continuing support from their local authority until age 25. This includes support from a Personal Adviser until they are 25.

    The legal definition of care leavers does not capture all adults with experience of care and who may need support as they enter higher education later in on in life. Therefore, providers can include all those who have experienced care at any stage of their lives when developing activities to support this group. This is particularly important as many care leavers return to education as mature students.

    Find out more about support for care leavers.

  • Carers

    The Carers Trust defines young adult carers as ‘young people aged 14-25 who care, unpaid, for a friend or family member who could not cope without their support’.

    There is no national data on the number of carers in higher education as not all disclose their caring responsibilities and their carer status can change.

    Find out more about support for carers.

  • Collaborative activity

    Collaboration between higher education providers and other organisations to provide activities that support access and participation.

    Collaboration can be delivered in many ways, for example with other providers, employers, schools and third sector organisations.

  • Comparator group

    A comparator group is defined relative to a target group and by student characteristics or combinations of characteristics that have better outcomes than the target group.
  • Contextual admissions

    Contextual admissions refers to providers using information and data to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential, and making them an offer in the context of their individual circumstances.

  • Continuing students

    Students in their second, or later, years of study.

  • Continuous improvement

    The Office for Students’ expectation that providers will:

    • regularly review activities and prioritise investment accordingly
    • develop their understanding of local and national data
    • deliver activities that are demonstrably effective, strategically focused and evidence-led.

    Through this, providers will aim to reduce gaps in access, success and progression for underrepresented groups and improve practice year on year.


  • Disability

    Under the Equality Act 2010, a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

    Find out more about support for disabled students.

  • ELQ students

    ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) students are students who already hold a higher education qualification and are studying a course that leads to a qualification equivalent to or lower than one they already hold.

    These students are not usually covered by fee regulations.

    For information about ELQ exceptions, see UK statutory instruments 2008 No. 1640; 2011 No. 1986, and 2014 No. 2765.

  • Employability

    Employability in the context of progression of graduates refers to the skills and competencies that a student gains as they progress throughout their higher education programme to ultimately enhance their chances of finding meaningful and sustained employment.

  • Entrant/year of entry

    When we refer to entrants, or year of entry, we mean the academic year in which students started their courses, including those who deferred entry.

    For example, students who deferred entry from 2019-20 to 2020-21 would be classed as 2020-21 entrants. From 2021-22 onwards these students would be classified as continuing students.

    The definition of an academic year is covered in the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 (UK statutory instrument 2011 No. 1986) within regulation 2.

  • Estranged students

    In higher education, the term ‘estranged’ applies to students who are aged 18 to 24 and have no communicative relationship with either of their parents. In addition, these students often lack the support of their wider family.

    Students may be estranged before entering higher education but can also be at risk of becoming estranged during their studies.

    Find out more about support for estranged students.

  • Ethnicity

    There are significant equality gaps between different ethnic groups in terms of access, success and progression in higher education. The extent of these gaps vary depending on ethnic group and stage of the student lifecycle.

  • Equality of opportunity

    In the context of higher education, ‘equality of opportunity’ means that individuals are not hampered in accessing and succeeding in higher education as a result of their background or circumstances they cannot fairly influence.
  • Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR)

    This is the OfS risk register that sets out the greatest sector-wide risks to equality of opportunity in English higher education.


  • Fee information document

    An Excel document that providers must submit with their access and participation plan that captures student numbers and fee information.

  • Financial support

    Support given by higher education providers to their students typically in the form of:

    • bursaries and scholarships (financial awards paid to students)
    • fee waivers (a discount on the tuition fee charged)
    • hardship funds
    • 'in-kind' support.
  • Flexible learning

    Approaches to provision that encourage potential learners to access higher education.

  • Free school meals (FSM) eligibility

    Whether or not a student has been eligible to receive free school meals in the six years prior to the March census date in their final year of key stage four (year 11). This eligibility criteria can be used as an indication of students’ disadvantage.



    Higher Education Information Database for Institutions. A web-based management information service run by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that provides quantitative data about equality and diversity in higher education.

    Find out more about Heidi Plus.

  • Higher education provider

    An institution that delivers higher education, as defined in Schedule 6 of the Education Reform Act 1988. A provider can be a body with degree awarding powers or deliver higher education on behalf of another awarding body.
  • Higher fee cap

    The maximum regulated fee that can be charged under an access and participation plan. This is set by the government and varies according to year of entry.

    There are different fee caps for full-time, part-time and accelerated courses, and for sandwich courses, years abroad and Erasmus years.

    Approved (fee cap) providers must not charge fees more than the higher fee cap.

  • Higher fee income

    Any income from fees above the basic fee threshold.

    For example, if a provider charges £9,250 for a full-time course in a year when the basic threshold is £6,165, the higher fee income per student would be £3,085 (£9,250 – £6,165 = £3,085).


  • Identifiable information

    Identifiable information is information that relates to an individual who is identified or may be identifiable. An individual is ‘identified’ or ‘identifiable’ if they can be distinguished from other individuals.
  • Indications of risk

    An indication of risk is the term used by the OfS to refer to a potential impact of a risk to equality of opportunity in relation to higher education, that is visible in data or apparent through other insights. For example, lower continuation rates for a specific student group in comparison to another is a potential indication of risk of insufficient academic support (a risk to equality of opportunity).

  • Information, advice and guidance

    Information, advice and guidance provided by higher education providers plays an important role in students’ choices from pre-entry to higher education, throughout their studies and through to progression into employment or further study.

  • Intersections of characteristics

    The intersection of two or more indicators of underrepresentation (for example, white British males from low socioeconomic backgrounds) to enable a broader understanding of a provider’s student population. This is used to identify barriers to equality of opportunity.

  • Intervention strategy

    An intervention strategy is a coherent group of activities or measures, such as new policies or programmes of work, that a provider will undertake or put in place to address the risks to equality of opportunity it has identified through its assessment of performance and achieve its objectives. The intended outcome(s) of an intervention strategy should relate directly to reducing or eliminating these risks, and to any related targets and objectives. The outcomes may also contribute to other objectives. Individual activities within the intervention strategy may have their own outcomes.


  • Low higher education participation, household income and socio-economic status

    Young people from the least represented areas of the country are 31 percentage points less likely to go on to higher education than those who grow up in a more advantaged neighbourhood.

    To understand and measure progress in this area, we look at participation rates of underrepresented groups based on the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification, which groups areas across the UK based on the proportion of the 18-30 year-old population that participates in higher education.

    An individual or household’s social and economic position can be represented through indicators such as income, education and occupation, and how this position compares to others.


  • Mature learners

    Mature students are typically defined as those aged 21 or over when they enter higher education.

    Mature learners are more likely than their younger counterparts to have characteristics associated with underrepresentation in higher education.

  • Mental health conditions

    This refers to mental health conditions reported by the student to their university or college that has a substantial and long-term impact on that student’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

  • Multiple Equality Measure (MEM)

    Developed by UCAS, the multiple equality measure (MEM) is UCAS’s principal measure of equality. It combines the effects of different dimensions of equality (area, income background, school sector, sex, and ethnic group) into a single measure.

    The MEM further demonstrates the importance of considering multiple dimensions of disadvantage when looking at socioeconomic status.


  • Non-continuation gaps

    Continuation is part of the success stage of the student lifecycle and refers to a students’ continuation from one year of study to the next.

    It is often used when considering the rate of non-continuation between the first and second year of study. There are particular gaps in non-continuation for underrepresented groups when compared to their peers.

    The Office for Students has set targets for itself and the sector to eliminate the unexplained non-continuation gap between the most and least represented groups by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31.


  • Outreach

    Activity by higher education providers that supports people from underrepresented groups to access higher education.

    Examples include summer schools, peer mentoring schemes, homework clubs for pupils who may not have anywhere to study at home, or providers forming and sustaining links with employers and communities.


  • Part-time students (fee-regulated)

    Those studying at an intensity of at least 25 per cent of a full-time course, starting on or after 1 September 2012, excluding those studying on a course that leads to a qualification equivalent to or lower than one they already hold.

    See also regulated fees.

  • PI

    Performance indicator. For example, those published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

  • POLAR (participation of local areas)

    POLAR (participation of local areas) is a classification of small areas across the UK according to the participation of young people in higher education.

    There have been several iterations of POLAR, which are referred to as POLAR1, POLAR2, POLAR3 and POLAR4.

    TUNDRA (tracking underrepresentation by area) is a supplement to POLAR4. Using both of these together can lead to more insights about higher education participation than one of the measures alone. 
  • Postgraduate study

    Study at Level 7 or above.

  • Progression

    Activity to support students to progress from higher education into employment or further study.

  • Protected characteristics

    The personal characteristics against which it is unlawful to discriminate.

    The characteristics are:

    • age
    • disability
    • gender reassignment
    • marriage and civil partnership
    • pregnancy and maternity
    • race
    • religion and belief
    • sex
    • sexual orientation.


  • Regulated fees

    The government sets the fee limits universities and colleges can charge through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. These limits may change from year to year.

    Information about which categories of students and courses are covered by regulated fees is set out in regulations made under the Higher Education and Research Act. The current regulations are The Higher Education (Fee Limit Condition) (England) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017/1189).

    See the current fee limits.

  • Risk to equality of opportunity

    Risks to equality of opportunity occur when the actions or inactions of an individual, organisation or system may reduce another individual’s choices about the nature and direction of their life.

  • Robust evaluation

    A robust evaluation would withstand challenge and scrutiny, in terms of the quality of its design and implementation. This includes the quality of the individual methods (for example, adequate sampling strategies and sizes, well-tested tools for surveys or interviews, adherence to ethical principles, appropriate training for researchers) as well as the overall evaluation approach (the extent to which the evaluation provides evidence of a causal effect of an intervention). It might also include the independence of the evaluation and adequate peer review, to quality-assure the design and execution of the evaluation.
  • RPI-X

    RPI-X is a measure of inflation equivalent to the all items Retail Price Index (RPI) excluding mortgage interest payments.

    This is the index that the Secretary of State for Education must have regard to when considering any increase in the basic or higher amounts (i.e. the maximum fee caps).

    Where higher education providers with access and participation plans are permitted to apply annual increases to fees, we suggest they calculate these increases using the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast for RPI-X.


  • Statistical uncertainty

    The indicators we calculate to inform our regulation of access and participation are the proportions of students that we observe to have achieved a certain outcome (in technical terms, point estimates), meaning that they provide a factual representation of the actual population of students present at a particular higher education provider at a particular time. If our interest were solely the observation of past events, then it would be appropriate to rely solely on these values. However, we are seeking to use the indicator values as representations of the most likely underlying performance in respect of student outcomes and experiences, and in respect of equality of opportunity. As the actual students in a provider’s observed population are just one possible realisation of many other populations of students who could have attended that provider, or may do so in the future, statistical uncertainty exists because of the potential for random variation in student behaviours and outcomes. This means that the indicator values may not always be accurate or precise measures of the underlying performance that they aim to represent. Our regulatory approaches take account of this uncertainty by using a statistical approach that identifies the range within which each provider’s underlying performance measure could confidently be said to lie. The full details of this approach are set out in our ‘Description and definition of student outcome and experience measures’ document.
  • Steady state predictions

    In order to make meaningful comparisons between different access and participation plans, we look at providers’ predicted spending for a notional future year called ‘steady state’.

    Steady state figures indicate what the provider might expect to spend if all student cohorts (that is, first, second, third and fourth year students) were under the same fees and financial support package. This assumes their predictions on income, spend and student numbers remain the same.

    Most undergraduate courses are three or four years long so, for example, for 2020-21 access and participation plans, steady state refers to 2023-24.

  • Structural gaps

    Factors that contribute to the non-continuation and attainment gaps are structural, such as entry qualification, subject of study, age of students.

  • Success

    Part of the whole student lifecycle which focuses on addressing the barriers that prevent underrepresented students from continuing and therefore succeeding in higher education.


  • TASO (The Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education)

    The Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) is an independent organisation and affiliate What Works Centre that undertakes and uses research and evaluation to determine what works in eliminating risks to equality of opportunity in higher education.

  • Target

    An objective set by a higher education provider in its access and participation plan, which it will track over a five-year period.

  • Target group

    A target group is defined by a student characteristic, or combination of characteristics, that is underrepresented in higher education or has poorer outcomes. It represents a group for which a provider may consider developing an intervention strategy in order to address a risk to equality of opportunity through the objectives of its plan.
  • Targets and investment plan

    An Excel document that providers submit with their access and participation plan in which they record their targets and milestones, and their investment in access and participation.

  • Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

    The TEF is a scheme operated by the OfS that aims to incentivise excellence in teaching, learning and student outcomes. The scheme rates higher education providers for excellence above a set of minimum requirements for quality and standards that they must satisfy if they are registered with the OfS. The TEF aims to incentivise a higher education provider to improve and to deliver excellence above these minimum requirements, for its mix of students and courses.

  • Theory of Change

    For the purposes of explaining our expectations, we have adopted TASO’s definition of a theory of change: A theory of change is ‘a visual representation of a programme’s inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and underlying causal mechanisms’.
  • Tracking and trackers

    A database used for monitoring and evaluation that longitudinally tracks participants who have taken part in access and participation activity.

  • TUNDRA (Tracking underrepresentation by area)

    Tracking underrepresentation by area (TUNDRA) is an area-based measure that uses tracking of state-funded mainstream school pupils in England to calculate young participation. TUNDRA is a supplement to POLAR4. Using both of these together can lead to more insights about higher education participation than one of the measures alone.


  • Uni Connect

    Uni Connect is a programme with 29 partnerships of universities, colleges and other local partners, which supports young people to achieve their ambitions through helping remove academic, financial and cultural barriers to higher education. It does this by supporting impartial, collaborative outreach, attainment-raising and higher education providers to engage schools.

    Uni Connect was formerly known as the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP).
  • Underrepresented groups

    Groups of students who share the following particular characteristics where data shows gaps in equality of opportunity in relation to access, success or progression:

    • students from areas of low higher education participation, low household income or low socioeconomic status
    • some black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students
    • mature students
    • disabled students
    • care leavers.

    National data indicates that there are additional groups of students with particular equality gaps and support needs that can be addressed in an access and participation plan. These are also included in our definition of underrepresented groups:

    • carers
    • people estranged from their families
    • people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities
    • refugees
    • children from military families.
  • Unexplained gaps

    Some of the factors that contribute to the non-continuation and attainment gaps are structural, such as entry qualification, subject of study or age of students. However, once such structural factors are taken into account, there remain significant unexplained differences which are referred to as unexplained gaps.


  • Whole-provider approach

    A holistic approach that:

    • sees the adoption of the whole student lifecycle
    • is embedded at all levels of a provider
    • engages all areas of the provider’s work and senior management
    • includes the breadth and diversity of the student population.
  • Whole student lifecycle

    The stages of an individual’s journey as they consider, apply for, participate in and move on from higher education.

    The three stages of the student lifecycle are:

    • access
    • success
    • progression.

    See regulatory advice 6: how to prepare your access and participation plan for further information on the whole student lifecycle.

Last updated 27 March 2024
23 October 2020
Broken links corrected

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