Making waves in reforms to regulating equality of opportunity

Today, we have published updated regulatory guidance and advice for universities and colleges to produce access and participation plans.

students in university classroom working at laptops

These plans set out the steps that universities and colleges will take to improve equality of opportunity to ensure that disadvantaged groups can access, succeed in and progress from higher education.

A lack of equal opportunities remains a real and enduring challenge for many students in English higher education. More than 100 higher education providers must submit a new plan in the next year for how they will tackle those challenges, in their own institution and across the sector. Our updated guidance will help providers shape those plans.

The updates have been made following feedback from wave 1 providers, a self-selected group of providers that submitted plans in summer 2023.

The updates clarify our expectations on how a provider may identify indications of risks to equality of opportunity, undertake work and consult with students to better understand the underlying risks that may be at play, and how they are expected to address these risks.

Wave 1 plans have been assessed, and the approved plans from wave 1 are now published on our website.

Learning from wave 1

I’ve been encouraged to see that wave 1 plans have engaged with the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR). One of my aims in setting out these reforms was to encourage providers to take an evidence-informed, considered approach to developing intervention strategies that target underlying risks to equality of opportunity, and I’m pleased to see providers engaging with this and consulting with their students to do so.

I’m also pleased that many wave 1 providers have put a greater focus on evaluation: hiring evaluation specialists, training staff, developing theories of change and evaluation plans for plan activities. This is promising for the future of the evidence base of what does and does not work relating to intervention strategies. We are keen to see this focus increase further and to see more evaluation plans that explore cause and effect robustly.

Where next?

While I am incredibly grateful to the wave 1 providers for ‘going first’, we can all agree that short timescales reduced the scope for wave 1 providers to commit to going further and faster in relation to our strategic priorities. As such, although wave 1 access and participation plans show our direction of travel, wave 2 providers should not assume wave 1 plans are a definitive guide.

I want to see more evidence of collaboration between universities and colleges and third sector organisations, schools, and employers to address the risks to equality of opportunity that current and prospective students may face. Joining forces brings together expertise and agility and great numbers of students who can benefit from interventions.

I also want to see more ambitious work to raise attainment of students before they reach higher education. What the EORR clearly shows is that where a student does not have equal access to developing knowledge and skills prior to university, they are more likely to experience other risks at access, throughout their course and beyond.

I recognise that there are barriers to both these ambitions – but there are excellent examples of good practice in these areas across the sector, and I would like to see these more widely taken up.

Be brave, take the initiative

We heard an understandable nervousness from providers around setting out targets and activity where the success of the activity undertaken is not necessarily entirely in their control. This was particularly in relation to collaborative partnerships and around work to raise pre-16 attainment.

Whilst this is entirely understandable, I encourage providers to take calculated risks, and to know that where expected progress is not being made, we will provide you with an opportunity to explain the reasons for this, as well as your plans to get back on track, where possible.

Our regulation is not designed to catch anyone out who is doing the hard work – even where that work does not always lead to the outcomes we all want.

Timelines for future submissions

Many providers and their students have already begun to develop their 2025-26 onwards access and participation plans and associated student submissions in anticipation of a 2024 submission. The updated guidance should not affect any prior planning but is intended to provide clarity on our expectations.

With the exception of wave 1 providers, all providers with a 2020-21 access and participation plan will be required to submit a new plan in 2024. Providers with access and participation plans that did not start in 2020-21 have been contacted separately to confirm our expectations.

We are asking ‘early recruiters’ (those with an application deadline in or before October) to submit their plans by the end of May 2024.

All other providers will be required to submit from late July 2024. We will confirm submission deadlines with these providers in the early new year.

We do not intend to update the access and participation data dashboard prior to May 2024 at the earliest. This is to ensure clarity, and as much time as possible for providers to work on new access and participation plans in light of delays to the first Data Futures collection of student data. Providers should use the data and insights that are currently available, including through the data dashboard published earlier this year, to support them to design their plans.

We also plan to make some minor updates to the EORR early in the new year, but again, these should not affect any work providers are already doing to prepare their access and participation plan.

We will offer further support for providers and students to prepare their plan. Details of this will be made available on our website in January 2024.


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Published 07 December 2023

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