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Mind the skills gap

Image: christopher_brown [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Access students will be important in rebuilding the UK economy. They need support 

As the education sector began to get to grips with the scale of disruption arising from Covid-19, public attention focused on the impact of the virus on GCSE, A Level and degree students. But one group was overlooked: Access to HE students.

Although these represent only a small proportion of higher education entrants, more than 20,000 Access students progress to university courses annually. What do the changes brought by Covid-19 mean for them and their progression to higher education?   

Developed and regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency, the Access to Higher Education Diploma—a Level 3 qualification that prepares people without traditional qualifications for study at university—is often a transformative ‘second chance’ for adults who want to change careers. Courses range from nursing to law, and students often come from diverse backgrounds, with broad skills and experience.

In any normal year, these students would be working towards completing their diploma, attending their last few classes, and finishing their final pieces of work. That has all changed. Students due to complete their Access to HE Diploma by 31 July 2020 will now receive calculated grades for assessments with submission dates after 20 March 2020.

We know that Access to HE students, like many others studying other qualifications across the country, might be disappointed to lose the opportunity to finish what they started and demonstrate how much they have learned. But, working closely with the Department for Education (DfE), Ofqual, the Welsh Government, Qualification Wales, and Access Validating Agencies (AVAs), and engaging with students throughout the process, we have developed a regulatory framework that is robust and fair. The framework allows for the award of Access to HE Diplomas using calculated grades in the same way that A Levels are being awarded using predicted grades.   

Calculated grades 

The calculated grades will take into account tutors’ assessment of the likely grade the student would have achieved had they been able to continue under normal circumstances, as well as other factors such as prior attainment on the course. The diploma requirements are unchanged: students will still present diplomas of 60 credits, including 45 graded Level 3 credits.   

We are developing an Extraordinary Regulatory Framework (ERF) to support this new assessment model, as well as robust quality assurance mechanisms to test both the grades achieved and those calculated. Ensuring the quality of the process is essential, and our job is to maintain overall oversight of the model to ensure consistency across all Access to HE Diplomas awarded by our Access Validating Agencies. We’ll also undertake additional monitoring to assure ourselves and stakeholders that students’ results are accurate and fair. 

In the meantime, as well as providing updates to higher education providers, we are arranging a forum with them to discuss progression of Access students to HE in these unusual circumstances.

Collaboration with higher education providers has always been important to the success of Access to HE. Many higher education staff are involved with the diploma, through quality assuring, participating in moderation processes, overseeing outcomes, advising on course content, and taking part in validation processes, recruitment and widening participation activities for Access to HE students.

New communications 

We have developed new ways of communicating with all those involved, too. As well as publishing information on how grades will be calculated on our website, and useful FAQs, we’ve been offering a series of webinars for students and Access to HE providers where QAA staff can explain and discuss the process of calculating grades.    

We have also encouraged all Access to HE students to keep learning. We recognise that it won’t be easy for everyone as many students were already juggling families and jobs and the current circumstances have made that balancing act even more difficult.

But it is important for students to be well prepared for their transition to higher education and keep skills gap to a minimum. Access to HE course providers will continue to support their students to engage with alternative methods of delivering teaching, where possible.

There is more to be done. We will continue to consult on changes to our regulations that allow this year’s results to be delivered under our extraordinary regulatory framework. This will include arrangements for appeals, an equalities impact assessment, and statistical publications for 2019-20 outcomes. Our framework has been designed to deliver fair and robust grades, and parity with other Level 3 qualifications that lead to higher education.

Last week we announced further information for students who plan to complete their Access to HE diplomas after 31 July 2020, and we will continue to work with Access Validating Agencies and course providers. 

Care homes 

Many Access students will be experiencing professional as well as academic disruption. While studying for their diploma, many also work in health-related professions, including in care homes, which is why it is so important to make sure they get the support they need.

Access to HE courses frequently fill skills gaps, and they will be especially important as the UK economy is rebuilt. The pandemic has spotlighted the continued need for more doctors and nurses. This is where Access to HE Diplomas are especially important. Over 50 per cent of Access to HE registrations were on health courses in the last year, and 35 per cent of students entering higher education with an Access to HE Diploma study nursing. Many of these students will be working in the NHS during and after the pandemic. The Access to Higher Education Diploma is well placed to supply a diverse and well-prepared student body who will play a big part in our future.

Ann-Marie Karadia is access officer at the Quality Assurance Agency