Embedding partnerships: John Blake speaks on increasing equality of opportunity in English higher education through collaboration

Watch the video or read the full transcript of a speech by John Blake, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, who spoke at an Impetus third sector forum event on 18 January.


Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us today.

Thanks especially to colleagues from Impetus, who as well as organising today’s event, have regularly convened this forum for third sector organisations to speak directly to me and other colleagues from the Office for Students, where equality charities can share their thoughts and provide us with invaluable feedback on our work.

Impetus was also good enough to host my first external speaking event as Director for Fair Access and Participation, two years ago, when I first took up the role. Reflecting on the work we have all done together since then, I am hugely proud of the progress we have made:

  • A whole-sector variations process that nurtured and demonstrated the sector’s ambitions around equality, and our desire at the OfS to understand the full range of equality activity providers undertake, and the evidence that drives their choices.
  • A comprehensive refresh of our approach to regulating access and participation plans, putting evaluation and collective learning at the heart of the process, alongside greater scope for providers to reflect their different missions.
  • And – enormously gratifying for me – that 34 providers, reflecting the rich diversity of the sector, were willing to work with us at OfS to pioneer our new approach in Wave 1 of APP renewals.

I was warned that no university or college could possibly be mad enough to volunteer to go through a regulatory process a year earlier than everyone else.

But volunteer they did, and as a result, we were able to have productive, practical conversations about our new approach to equality and its impact on the ground. This offered the OfS the chance to provide greater clarity about our expectations, but also challenged our assumptions and ways of working, and helped us generate revised guidance.

I hope the sector agrees that guidance strikes an appropriate balance between a clear and comprehensive sense of what we are looking for, and sufficient scope for providers to undertake the APP process as a part of, not an add-on to, their wider thinking about access, success and progression.

As we enter into the second wave of new APPs, I am today announcing updates to the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register – in response to feedback from stakeholders, and evidence produced by relevant experts, we added additional groups of students who may be at risk of not experiencing equality of opportunity: service children; young carers; prisoners, commuter students, parents; and Jewish students.

We have decided not to expand the number of risks at present, but we have noted that “sense of belonging” has appeared in lots of evidence reviews as relevant to many of the risks. I’d urge providers to think hard about practical, enduringly impactful work they might do around that idea as part of new APPs.

One change in our regulatory expectations in particular is very relevant to our third sector colleagues: what I have called “the presumption to partnership”.

By this, I mean that OfS expects providers to consider partnerships – with other providers, with other educational phases, and with the third sector – across all activity they commit to in their APPs, and that such partnerships should be at the forefront of planning for mitigating risks to equality of opportunity, not a last resort when a provider has tried to go it alone for as much of their work as possible.

I know that as I say this, many people will be thinking about excellent and enduring partnerships that already exist in their own provider or elsewhere in the sector – and I do not take those exemplars for granted, nor the hard work that goes in to creating and sustaining them.

But, as with almost everything in HE, that something is being done well somewhere, does not mean it is being done well everywhere, and the feedback from colleagues, in this room and beyond, is that the fundamental importance of equitable partnerships between the different actors in the collective work of equality in HE is not always accepted and understood.

There are three key reasons why I consider partnership essential in this work: efficiency, contestability, and sustainable impact.

The first case is relatively easy to make – we can all recognise the benefits of sharing a load, and reducing the frequency with which people re-invent wheels, duplicate offerings, or compete for access to the students we seek to help and support.

A particular challenge in HE is balancing the need and desire for highly bespoke offerings with achieving these efficiencies – I have heard providers give clear and sensible reasons why they wish to run a programme similar to, or even based on, an existing initiative of an already-successful third sector body.

However, we also see cases where providers are building near-identical offerings to work already well-developed by, and provenly-successful for, existing equality charities. Sometimes, the provider is unaware that there was such an offering they could benefit from; other times, there were differences between what the charity offered and what the provider sought – providers have a right and duty to focus on what they judge to be their needs, but I would urge those seeking APPs not to fetishise small differences, where the space between what is desired and what is offered is not nearly large enough to justify a whole-sale replication of a programme.

Turning to contestability, it might be said this cuts against my last point. If collaboration is desired, then let’s get on with it without too much argument – but that would be, let us say, an unusual approach in the HE sector in any event… but also does not lean into one of English HE’s best features, the enormous diversity of the sector, and indeed of the third sector that surrounds it.

For although I would guard against allowing small differences to stand in the way of potentially fruitful collaboration, we should cherish a rich, constructive debate between different approaches and understandings of the work we are all engaged in.

I have been clear with OfS staff that, as we seek to review APP applications, we are not seeking to enforce a single method of resolving the challenges we face – frankly, none of us can say with enough confidence that we understand so completely what the causes of risks to equality of opportunity are, or what the best methods of mitigating them are, that we could demand a monopoly on action.

What we can do is commit to building an ongoing, self-reinforcing, evidence-building public discourse in which we recognise the imperfect nature of our knowledge, the validity of different interpretations of how to build and act on that knowledge, and that disagreement, challenge and contestability are as valuable in our work on equality in HE as they are in any other discipline.

The third sector is crucial here – just as challenger institutions have posed questions about the efficacy of long-standing approaches to curriculum, pedagogy and progression in discussions of academic quality, so the third sector can be a stimulus to reappraising our thinking on equality. Such contestability is possible within the HE sector alone, but it is immeasurably strengthened by a third sector that can bring new perspectives, methodologies and accountabilities.

And, as with challenger institutions on academic content and practice, so equality charities can induce changes in the wider HE sector that incorporate novel innovations, embed them in “business as usual” in large, enduring institutions, and so ensure the long-term sustained impact of new thinking.

So a flourishing third sector is essential to the health of the public discourse the OfS regulatory framework around equality seeks to build.

I ask those embarking on the process of applying for a new APP to take seriously their role in nurturing the whole network of the third sector, through their collective engagement with those represented here today.

But I also appreciate that will alone, from providers and from charities, may not be enough to ensure that all providers can make their best contribution to this work.

There are actions we as the regulator can take to support effective partnership working.

There is always a delicate balance for OfS to strike between producing more, and more detailed, guidance – it might helpfully elucidate our thinking and reduce delay and confusion, but it might also reduce innovative and challenging thinking by staff in providers.

Having considered requests from providers and the third sector forum, I have concluded it is right and useful for OfS to commit to producing regulatory guidance on effective, equitable partnership building and accountability.

I expect that guidance will draw directly from experiences of creating new APPs, in both Wave 1 and 2, and reflect examples contained in those plans, and therefore that we would write and publish such guidance next academic year. I am announcing that commitment here, because this forum and colleagues elsewhere in the third sector, will be crucial partners in defining that guidance.

But I know even this will not resolve all barriers to partnerships and effective equality work.

In my time as Director, many colleagues have shared with me potentially-game-changing ideas on partnerships, data, evaluation or wider equality challenges – they sound amazing, but to even complete a proof-of-concept initiative requires funding that is scarce.

For example, I know that consistent access to relevant data remains a considerable challenge for partnerships. A key part of the third sector is the data tracker services, like HEAT – whose longitudinal data on Uni Connect recently formed a central plank of our discussions with DfE about the future funding for that programme. There is more work the trackers would like to do to allow providers to better understand the long-term impact of APP interventions.

I also recognise that evaluation – a crucial aspect of the public discourse I want to see – can be challenging because providers cannot always access sufficiently-experienced evaluation professionals, and training opportunities are not always available in the appropriate times and places. I know there are plans out there for ways to meet this need, but they need a help to get underway.

Further research on the nature and form of students’ background knowledge on entering HE, or their willingness to undertake volunteering opportunities, or many other ideas I’ve had flagged to me (and many more I have not), would be a valuable contribution to our equality work.

To support this drive for innovation and learning, I am pleased to announce that, before the end of this academic year, OfS will seek bids for a share of a £2 million fund, providing grants to seed new practices and test new ideas aimed at supporting the equality of opportunity agenda I have laid out. We will share further details in due course, but this is an exciting opportunity to push the boundaries of our collective work, and I look forward to seeing the impact.

I hope people can see in these commitments, that the OfS will put at least some money where our mouth is to support the evolution we want to see in equality work within the HE sector. We have a unique role setting out the framework within which equality work is undertaken by the providers we regulate, but we know that ultimately, the action is on the front-line, delivered by hard-working equality teams of universities and colleges, and of the third sector.

I am enormously grateful to those staff for their efforts, and I hope that in partnership together, we can work to build the public discourse around risks to equality of opportunity and how best to tackle them, that ensures all those efforts reap the reward we all want, of students from all backgrounds arriving and thriving in higher education.

Thank you very much.


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