At the end of last year, the Office for Students set itself ambitious goals to eliminate equality gaps in higher education.
Today, we are issuing our first guidance under this new approach, setting out how we expect higher education providers to make a step change through the targets they set themselves and the activities they deliver through their access and participation plans.
By increasing access during the last decade, higher education has transformed thousands of lives. We now need to open up these opportunities to include all parts of the sector, including the most selective courses and universities, and to give more focus to supporting all students to unlock their potential during their studies and through their careers. We need also to improve the evaluation of access and participation activities so that students, government and providers themselves can have greater confidence in the investments they all make in this work.
A radical approach
Our new approach is radical, freeing higher education providers from having to submit new plans every year, and from a blanket approach to inputs such as spending. This will enable longer term strategies to be developed, with greater innovation in support of them. But we are expecting more from providers in return.
We expect all plans to be underpinned by an honest assessment of the gaps in access, success and progression between different groups of students, including a sophisticated understanding of intersecting characteristics. We expect all providers to set more ambitious targets than before to reduce the gaps they identify through this analysis, achieving a real step change during the next five years. And we expect all plans to demonstrate evidence-based activity and investment to achieve these goals, including well thought-out evaluation strategies to refine and improve upon the approaches taken.
Joining up investments
As many have observed in recent weeks, we cannot achieve a step change on access and participation without sufficient funding. It will be essential also to join up the investments made by higher education providers, government and the third sector, which is an increasingly dynamic and successful contributor to this work.
We are no longer setting a standard requirement for spending through access and participation plans. This is in line with the statutory regulations, which require us to agree a plan that is tailored to the position of each individual provider, but it is also the right thing to do. By considering each provider’s spending in relation to the particular challenges it faces, we will get better value for the investment made. Some providers may need to invest more than before and some less. We will scrutinise closely any provider that wants to spend less and increase our focus on ensuring that promised commitments are delivered in practice.
Alongside this, we will invest significantly ourselves to address issues that cannot be resolved by individual providers working alone. This includes bringing universities and colleges together with schools, employers and local agencies through the National Collaborative Outreach Programme, so that higher education outreach is well targeted, joined up and efficiently delivered, and sharing different approaches that are being taken across the sector to tackle common challenges, like closing the attainment gap for BAME students, supporting student mental health and wellbeing, diversifying postgraduate education and research careers, and securing graduate-level jobs for students who study and work in their home region.
Evidence and impact exchange
We have also appointed a terrific consortium from King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team to set up an evidence and impact exchange (EIX), an independent ‘What Works’ centre. The new centre will help the full diversity of providers to understand effective approaches in their own context, so that their access and participation plans are supported by the best available evidence. Staff working on the ground have been calling for a central place for evidence to be systematically gathered and shared. As we set greater ambitions for progress, it is timely that the EIX will now fill this gap.
We are raising the bar on improving access and participation, and putting in place the pressure and support needed to deliver on our ambitions. We will be running briefing events, workshops and webinars on specific topics between March and May. We are also engaging with individual providers on the particular risks we have highlighted in assessing their most recent access and participation plans and will identify the events each one should join to meet their needs. I look forward to seeing yet more of the passionate, expert and dedicated people who are now devoting their careers to opening up access to higher education and to helping students to succeed.
I often hear university leaders say that improving equality of opportunity and outcomes is a top priority for them, and that a great university must be fully inclusive of talent and potential from all backgrounds. My message today is clear: this is the moment to act on it.