What works to promote equal opportunities?

Plans for the evidence and impact exchange (EIX), and hopes for what it can achieve for the sector.

What works to promote equal opportunities?

The creation of an evidence and impact exchange (EIX) is an exciting moment for the sector, and we are honoured to have a role in establishing it. We are a diverse team, led by King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), and drawing on the expertise and insight of the Education Policy Institute, the Higher Education Access Tracker and experts at Coventry University, the University of Bristol and, we hope, many more partners.

Sector ownership

The EIX should be a place where senior leaders and practitioners can come and contribute to a discussion about effective practice in increasing access, student success and progression. For this to succeed, it needs to be shaped and led from within the sector, but also independent from the interests of any particular institution or set of institutions, and also from the Office for Students itself. We work in a very diverse sector and we want all providers – big and small, old and new – to benefit from the EIX and ensure access and participation plans are informed by evidence.

This is why we’ll be establishing the EIX as an independent charity, with mechanisms to enable engagement and input from the sector at every level of the organisation. Our goal is for the EIX to be its own entity by the middle of 2020; in the meantime, a team drawn from King’s, NTU and BIT will work on the establishment and initial research. We will also be advertising for a permanent director of the EIX in due time.

What you can expect from us

In line with the best of the What Works philosophy, the EIX will put widening participation and student success practitioners at the heart of its work, and keep a clear line-of-sight to improving outcomes for students.

For us, ‘what works’ is characterised by an open mind about the effectiveness of interventions, and a drive to understand whether they work—and if so how and for whom. To do this, the EIX will be promoting the use of causal evaluation methods, particularly randomised controlled trials and quasi-experimental approaches. Susannah and her colleague Michael Bennett (Associate Director of Widening Participation at King’s) have written today for the Cabinet Office What Works blog, exploring the academic research on ‘what works’ in widening access, and what a ‘what works’ approach has meant at King’s.

However, we are mindful of the questions many people have about how appropriate or feasible these methods are, and what nuance they may miss. ‘What works’ is also about the right research method for the question, a focus on practitioners’ needs, and bridging the gap between academics and practitioners so they can work together as equals on shared challenges. To this end, a range of different quantitative and qualitative methodologies will be adopted.

What we would like from you

We need your help to generate the best and most useful evidence to inform the design of widening access, success and progression initiatives. The engine rooms of the EIX will be theme working groups – groups of four to six practitioners and stakeholders drawn from across the sector who will consider the current evidence and make recommendations for what research the EIX should commission. We will then run commissioning rounds, where institutions can either propose projects they would like the EIX’s help to scope, deliver and evaluate, or can put their hand up to partner with the EIX on a shared project. 

We will also be drawing together insights from existing evaluations of all types to establish a practitioner toolkit. In this we will draw on the important literature reviews that already exist. However, we know that there is a myriad of robust evidence on widening access, student success and progression initiatives that may not be in the public domain or have been picked up in previous reviews that focused on academic research only. Therefore, we will be inviting providers to submit, confidentially, their best examples of evaluation of impact across the student lifecycle, to inform the toolkit and the theme working groups.

The future of evidence in HE

We work in a sector with immense passion and motivation to advance social justice and social mobility. Our vision is that the Evidence and Impact Exchange will provide decision-makers with evidence to inform their decisions and practitioners with the tools and knowledge to supercharge this motivation and turn it into even better outcomes for students. We hope that you are excited to join us in making that vision a reality.

For more information on the work of the three organisations involved in setting up the EIX and their thoughts in this area, see their contributions to the HEPI collection of essays ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers.’

Susannah Hume is Associate Director for What Works at King’s College London, and will be the Interim Director of the EIX. Mike Kerrigan is Strategic Data and Intelligence Manager (Widening Participation and Student Success) at Nottingham Trent University, and will be Interim Deputy Director.


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