Since 2017 Uni Connect partnerships have been working with schools, universities and colleges across the country to support learners less likely to attend higher education with information, outreach and other activities to help them make informed choices about their future education.
Closing the persistent attainment gaps that open so early in a child’s life is essential if we are to meet our aim of improving equality of opportunity for all. Uni Connect partnerships are now refocusing their work in line with the OfS’s new approach to achieving equality of opportunity in higher education, with partnerships providing crucial support and a space for collaboration for universities, colleges, schools and charities.
Those of you who have heard me speak, or who have read my previous blogs, will not be surprised to hear me say that building a robust evidence base around ‘what works’ to build equality of opportunity in higher education, underpinned by a strong culture of evaluation, is vital if we are to make progress in improving equality of opportunity for all. We expect all higher education providers that want an access and participation plan (the agreement that allows them to access public funds) to embed evidence-building and evaluation in their work.
We also practise what we preach: evaluation has been integral to Uni Connect since its inception, with the OfS requiring all partnerships to have their own evaluation plans, and regular publications of evidence. The reports we are publishing today examine three key aspects of the programme: collaboration, impact and delivery.
Collaboration: benefits and barriers
The first report explores how Uni Connect partnerships, higher education providers and third sector organisations are working with schools, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) to deliver access activities in their local areas.
The sharing of ideas and evidence of good practice was highlighted by partnerships as a key benefit. Collaboration helps to reduce duplication and burden on schools and colleges by facilitating delivery of a more joined-up, cost-effective and sustainable service.
Collaborative working also ensures greater synergy between the equality goals of providers and the strategic priorities of their partners. These priorities may include wider policy objectives linked to social mobility and economic growth in the context of the government’s levelling up agenda.
The report highlights the importance of long-term investment and appropriate resourcing to build strong collaborative networks. Effective collaboration takes time, and this is often underestimated. It also considers how to mitigate barriers to effective collaboration, building on the success of existing partnerships and networks. This success, which is supported by strong governance arrangements and the adoption of a flexible approach, helps to ensure buy-in from all partners and the creation of a shared vision.
The second report reviews a wide range of evidence submitted by Uni Connect partnerships across the country which we have collated into a resource bank. It looks at the activities and interventions that are having the most impact, and the quality of evaluation submissions. It also identifies potential gaps in partnership activity.
As I have said, evaluation has been a constant thread through the Uni Connect programme – we think this is the largest bank of outreach evidence brought together in a single place. The findings demonstrate that the sustained support for a learner provided through the Uni Connect programme increases the likelihood that they will apply to a higher education course.
The evidence confirms that the interventions delivered and evaluated by Uni Connect partnerships can contribute to increasing learners’ understanding of the benefits of higher education. The review also highlights the programme’s positive impact on skills and attributes such as self-confidence, resilience, problem solving and communication.
It also further develops our understanding of the impact and effectiveness of individual interventions, particularly multi-intervention approaches. This is useful not only for Uni Connect partnerships, but for anyone working on equality in higher education. Providers can use this evidence to decide what activities they want to use to help them in their planning around equality of opportunity challenges.
The third report we are publishing today explores how Uni Connect programme priorities are being delivered through targeted and strategic outreach. It also touches on partnership approaches to raising attainment which were at early stages of development when the evaluation was conducted. The evaluation suggests that schools were positive about and responsive to the new priority of attainment raising that partnerships are tasked to deliver, in partnership with others, from 2023-24.
TASO, the independent hub that works to improve equality in higher education, continues to provide support and guidance to Uni Connect partnerships on how best to evaluate their activity. This includes developing tools and frameworks to support partnerships, and the sector more broadly, to evaluate new attainment raising activity. This will be essential as we move into the new territory.
Building local connections
Our reforms to the regulation of access and participation recognise that a student’s home environment, the school they attend, and their access to resources in their local area may affect the quality and quantity of information they receive about higher education options.
Uni Connect partnerships have a unique overview of higher education outreach activities in their local area. This means they can help higher education providers identify those schools that need additional support.
Many partnerships are also aware of third sector organisations – another group key to driving this work – that are working with schools. This local knowledge enables them to encourage higher education providers and third sector organisations to collaborate and pool resources to ensure wider reach. In this way, they can help to achieve both outreach and raising attainment goals.
We have set out that we expect most providers to consider how they can support schools to raise attainment in our updated guidance on preparing access and participation plans, published today. We know that 71 per cent of providers that made changes to their 2023-24 access and participation plans to address this sector-wide strategic priority are already working with Uni Connect to achieve this – which is great to see.
These evaluations demonstrate the impact and potential of collaborative partnerships in expanding equality of opportunity in higher education. The OfS recently introduced a new approach to access and participation plans, built around our Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR). As part of this new approach, we are undertaking a review of our funding for equality projects like Uni Connect to ensure they are effective, efficient and appropriately supported into the future. We will have more to say on this as the review progresses.