Coronavirus briefing note

Supporting disadvantaged students through higher education outreach

Working with universities, colleges and other stakeholders, the Office for Students (OfS) is producing a series of briefing notes on the steps universities and colleges are taking to support their students during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The notes do not represent regulatory advice or guidance – their focus is on sharing ideas and responses, and signposting to further information. They reflect current information as at date of publication in a rapidly evolving situation.

This briefing note looks at how universities, colleges and their partners are responding to the challenges of delivering outreach activities during the coronavirus pandemic.

9 July 2020

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Universities and colleges work with schools, local authorities and third sector organisations to support people who might not have traditionally entered higher education to do so. Through ‘outreach’ – programmes that provide advice and information about and experience of higher education – they raise awareness and expectations, removing barriers and creating pathways.

Outreach is delivered in schools and in the community as well as on campus, with many activities typically delivered face-to-face. Coronavirus restrictions including school and university closures mean that many of these activities are not currently possible, requiring other ways to engage potential students.

This briefing note looks at how universities, colleges and their partners are responding to the challenges of delivering outreach activities during the coronavirus pandemic. It does not stipulate particular approaches or endorse the actions of specific providers, and it does not constitute regulatory guidance. Its purpose is to highlight the practical steps universities, colleges and others are taking to ensure that they can continue to engage with those most likely to benefit from higher education outreach.

Our briefing note on information, advice and guidance for prospective students also looks at aspects of this.1

The role of outreach in supporting access to higher education

Considerable progress has been made in improving access to higher education during the past decade. Yet wide gaps in participation remain for some groups, and there are large differences in the participation rates of young people living in different parts of the country.2

Universities and colleges registered with the OfS must set out in access and participation plans how they will improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education, and what outreach they will do to support that. Alongside this, the OfS-funded Uni Connect programme brings together 29 partnerships of universities, colleges and other local partners to offer impartial outreach activities, advice and information on the benefits and realities of going to university or college. Through collaboration, the hubs deliver a coordinated outreach offer which allows schools to engage with higher education efficiently and effectively.3

Approaches to delivering outreach during the pandemic

Providing remote outreach online

Because of school closures, many universities and colleges have adapted their outreach model to engage learners online. Typical activities include virtual open days and summer schools, online mentoring, academic support and information, advice and guidance. There are a number of existing and emerging platforms that aim to support these efforts.4

Providing remote outreach offline

To use online resources, learners need access to a suitable study space, appropriate technology and a sufficiently fast internet connection. Sutton Trust research found that just over a third of parents with children aged five to 16 reported that their child did not have their own computer, laptop or tablet to access the internet at home.5 Some innovative approaches do not require participants to have access to the internet.

Responding to the needs of learners from underrepresented groups

Engaging with learners from disadvantaged backgrounds

School closures resulting from the pandemic are expected to exacerbate inequalities and widen the existing attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.6 Before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were over 18 months behind their more affluent peers in attainment by age 16.7 Time away from school is likely to widen this gap, which may be further exacerbated by lack of access to the resources needed to study effectively. Other challenges, such as increased poverty and food insecurity, are likely to indirectly affect attainment.8

Universities and colleges are therefore adapting to the needs of disadvantaged learners. For those in Year 13, the focus may be on study skills during school closure, preparedness and readiness for higher education, and information, advice and guidance about their final choices. These learners may also have concerns about the use of calculated grades in the light of cancelled summer exams.9 For earlier year groups, outreach might focus on curriculum support, making choices around Key Stage 4 or 5 study, building confidence and raising awareness and expectations of future opportunities.

Engaging disabled learners

Many disabled learners already face challenges at school or college as a result of their disability. The coronavirus pandemic may intensify these issues and raise new ones. For some students, school closures can exacerbate mental health issues.10 Online learning can also prove challenging for some neurodiverse learners. Outreach providers are recognising the need for digital activity and resources to be inclusive and accessible to all students.

Engaging black, Asian and minority ethnic learners

There is evidence of a disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, which could increase the barriers to educational success and progression for these students.11

Engaging vulnerable learners

The Children’s Society has expressed concern about the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable children, including those in poverty, refugee and migrant children, looked-after children and young carers.12 While education in school is still being provided for the children of key workers and those who are considered vulnerable, these groups may be at greater risk of financial insecurity, digital disadvantage, anxiety, isolation and many other challenges. This could have implications for their future progression.

Tailoring outreach to meet the needs of younger age groups

Outreach is most effective as a progressive, sustained programme of activity and engagement over time.13 Approaches should be planned, coherent and contribute to an incremental journey taking learners towards their educational goals. Outreach therefore tends to begin young: nearly all universities and colleges work with learners under the age of 16.14 This engagement remains important during the pandemic.

Engaging with parents and carers

Outreach work with parents and carers can help disadvantaged pupils get into higher education.15

Engaging with mature learners

Universities and colleges also undertake outreach targeted at potential mature students, often in partnership with further education colleges, employers and community groups. The pandemic is likely to have disrupted this activity, at least in the short term, and economic pressures as the country comes out of the crisis may have a longer term impact on partners’ ability to engage.

Evaluating remote and online outreach

The amount spent on outreach activities has increased year on year over the last decade but there is too little robust evidence available about what is most effective in improving access and participation.16 This is in part due to the challenges of undertaking high quality evaluation in this area.17 However, things have improved in recent years and we are now seeing a genuine commitment to evidence and evaluation.

The OfS has placed great importance on the role of evaluation in our approach to access and participation. We are supporting the sector to improve evaluation practice and generate better evidence by providing practical guidance and toolkits18 and through funding the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO).19 We also work closely with higher education tracking services to help demonstrate whether outreach is effective, regardless of where students enrol.

With a rapid expansion in remote online outreach delivery, evidence and evaluation will be crucial to gauge the impact and effectiveness of new approaches, identify any issues, and learn and adapt accordingly. Many of the evaluation methods previously used, like online surveys, phone interviews and postal questionnaires, may still be applicable in current circumstances. However, data monitoring and collection may need to change to reflect changes in delivery. If a provider is using an online platform for an activity it should know what data it wants to capture and whether its chosen platform can provide this.

Ethics and safeguarding

There are a number of ethical and safeguarding issues to consider when delivering and evaluating digital outreach activities, including:

  • data privacy and consent
  • Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checking of personnel
  • mechanisms for identifying and reporting risks or concerns
  • ensuring appropriate support for participants, staff and volunteers
  • adherence to university, college and school safeguarding policies and processes.

It is clearly extremely important to promote the welfare of outreach participants, as providers recognise. Further information and advice on safeguarding and ethics can be found in the resources section at the end of this note.


There is no doubt that working with schools during the pandemic has been challenging, and there are real concerns about the impact on students’ attainment and expectations around higher education. However, the shift to online and blended modes of delivering outreach has the potential to lead to innovation in the longer term that could increase efficiency and effectiveness. Online and remote engagement with learners could be with us for some time, with blended approaches potentially becoming a more mainstream part of the outreach toolkit.

Outreach has an important role to play in mitigating the immediate and longer-term impacts of the pandemic, especially for the most disadvantaged students. And with these students and their communities likely to be most affected by the pandemic, it is more important than ever to make progress on access and success for all students, regardless of their background.

Further information and resources

Delivering remote outreach provision

Office for Students coronavirus briefing note on information, advice and guidance for prospective students.

Office for Students information about providers of online outreach provision.

Department for Education guidance on safeguarding and remote education.

The Key for School Leaders advice on safeguarding pupils and staff for remote learning.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's advice on undertaking remote teaching safely.

Online safety charity South West Grid for Learning’s information on safe remote learning.

The Sutton Trust shares what it has learnt about online delivery.

Paper by Jon Rainford on moving widening participation outreach online.

Evaluating remote outreach provision

BetterEvaluation blog series on adapting evaluation to respond to the pandemic.

FHI 360 webinar on monitoring, evaluation and learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

London School of Economics and Political Science blog post on the practical and ethical considerations of carrying out qualitative research under lockdown.

Market Research Society guidance on undertaking safe face to face data collection.

American Journal of Evaluation article on methods of rapid evaluation, assessment, and appraisal.

Office for Students information and guidance on standards of evidence and evaluation self-assessment tool.

Office for Students research into the evaluation of outreach interventions for under 16-year–olds.

TASO step-by-step guide for effective impact evaluation.

Public Health England guidance on rapid evaluation of digital health products during the pandemic.

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Published 09 July 2020

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