Building on success: a new focus for Uni Connect

The Uni Connect programme will continue to support the most disadvantaged young learners while placing a greater focus on supporting adults into higher education and training.

In December 2020 we launched a consultation on the future of Uni Connect following the end of phase two of the programme in July 2021. In our response, published today, we show how we have taken feedback into account in developing our future priorities and approach.

Our proposals for the next phase of Uni Connect aim to:

  • Contribute to reducing the gap in higher education participation between the most and least represented groups  
  • Equip young and adult learners from underrepresented groups to make an informed choice about their options in relation to the full range of routes into and through higher education and to minimise the barriers they may face when choosing the option that will unlock their potential
  • Support a strategic local infrastructure of universities, colleges and other partners that can cut through competitive barriers, offer an efficient and low-burden route for schools and colleges to engage, and address outreach ‘cold spots’ for underrepresented groups
  • Contribute to a stronger evidence base around ‘what works’ in higher education outreach and strengthen evaluation practice across the sector.

We are grateful to all those who responded to the consultation, and who have helped shape the next phase of the programme.   

We set high expectations for individual universities and colleges to improve equality of opportunity through our regulation of their access and participation plans. But we need them also to collaborate with each other to ensure that outreach to schools is joined up, well targeted, efficient and professionally delivered. This is achieved through the Uni Connect programme, which will now run for a further phase through to 2024-25, to align with the timeline of 2020-21 to 2024-25 access and participation plans.

The story so far

Uni Connect partnerships work with young learners from groups that are underrepresented in higher education to help them explore their education and training options and equip them with the information and experiences they need to make informed choices about their futures.

Learners engage with the programme through their school or college, often over a period of years, and participate in a range of different outreach activities – visits to universities, taking part in lectures, meeting students they can relate to and learning about the range of routes into and through higher education. Over the past year, most of this activity has necessarily taken place online.

The programme has been successful in establishing outreach in areas where little or no previous activity existed, and building positive, collaborative relationships with schools and colleges. The partnerships offer an efficient, low-burden route for schools and colleges to access free, impartial and high-quality outreach in their local areas.

Uni Connect supports the government’s levelling-up agenda by ensuring both young and adult underrepresented learners can access higher education to give them the skills needed to support local economic growth.

Listening to feedback

We have made a number of changes to our proposals following our analysis of the consultation responses. For instance, many respondents pointed out that our proposals for engaging with adult learners studying at Level 3 in further education colleges were too narrow.

Considering this, and in recognition of the government’s push to upskill adult learners, we are now no longer limiting eligibility for targeted outreach to adult learners studying at Level 3 but expanding this to include all learners aged 19 or above studying at colleges prioritised for targeted or strategic outreach.

We also agree with the point made by respondents that outreach and information and guidance (IAG) for adult learners will not be easily transferred across from existing Uni Connect activities and that provision of IAG and outreach for adult learners will need to be tailored to the diverse needs of this group.  

What difference is Uni Connect making?

Evaluation is a key part of the programme. We want to add to the evidence of ‘what works’ in higher education outreach to help strengthen evaluation practice across the sector.

As part of our ongoing evaluation of the programme, we are publishing the results of a survey tracking changes in Uni Connect learners’ higher education knowledge, attitudes and intentions. 

The report finds that our programme of sustained and progressive engagement with the same learners over two years is associated with improved knowledge of higher education and their understanding of the benefits. Mentoring was associated with improving learners’ knowledge of subjects, courses and what student life would be like. Older learners in year 13, who had engaged with the programme for two years, said they were more likely to apply to higher education.

Uni Connect isn’t just serving the learners well. Schools and colleges have an important role to provide careers advice and guidance around higher education which Uni Connect helps them to deliver.

The survey of 478 schools and colleges who were eligible for Uni Connect was carried out by Ipsos MORI between November and December 2020. A total of 715 responses were received, from staff engaged across all 29 Uni Connect partnerships.

The survey responses were overwhelmingly positive, finding that schools and colleges:

  • Regard Uni Connect outreach as high quality and relevant to the needs of the school or college and the groups of learners targeted
  • Rate all activities offered by Uni Connect highly, but those taking place with learners (rather than with staff or parents/carers) are the highest rated amongst schools and colleges, particularly general information, advice and guidance and campus visits
  • See a broad range of benefits to learners from engagement with Uni Connect, including increased confidence to make informed choices and increased understanding of the benefit of higher education
  • Would also welcome more involvement of employers in targeted outreach activities.

A range of wider benefits were identified stemming from Uni Connect, including contribution to Gatsby benchmarks, financial support, access to expert knowledge and an enriched curriculum.

Engaging adult learners

Greater Manchester Higher

Parent Power, in collaboration with Opportunity Area Oldham and other key partners, engages and empowers parents of high achieving children from Oldham schools to make a positive change for their family’s future. This builds on a model developed by Kings College London and Citizens UK. One positive outcome of the project is that some of the parents involved have gone on to higher and further education themselves. This suggests that intergenerational outreach can support promoting higher education opportunities to parents as potential adult learners.

Humber outreach programme (HOP)

During National Careers Week, HOP developed and ran workshops for adult learners looking at changing career pathways, what it is like to be an adult student and issues around financial constraints - these are still available to access, with ongoing support through their website. HOP is also piloting a mentoring programme for adult learners, in collaboration with the University of Hull and local further education colleges, and developing an ambassador scheme to be delivered through their website and supported by an online chat facility.

Aspire to HE

Aspire to HE has run virtual events for adult learners and worked with local further education partners to support these students to consider progression to higher education. As part of this offer, a dedicated adviser is in place to promote 1-2-1 support, group work and mentoring.

Building on the success of Uni Connect, the next phase of the programme presents a great opportunity to expand outreach to adult learners. Partnerships will be able to prioritise further education colleges for targeted outreach activity where there are high proportions of adults that could benefit from engagement with the programme.

The existing Uni Connect infrastructure is in a unique position to work with local stakeholders to support local areas in re-skilling the workforce following the impact of the pandemic. This will equip both young and adult learners from underrepresented groups to unlock their potential, achieve their personal ambitions and contribute to supporting their local communities and economies.

Uni Connect


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Published 26 March 2021

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