Richard Boffey makes four suggestions for how higher education can contribute to levelling up
Opportunity was the word that came up repeatedly in responses to the government’s planned ‘reboot’ of higher education access and participation policy, announced last month. Writing in Research Professional News, Steve West, president of Universities UK, spoke of it as an opportunity for the sector to accelerate our work in driving upward social mobility.
But how can that opportunity best be seized? How can universities successfully pivot their widening participation activities towards attainment-raising in schools and redouble their efforts to achieve improved outcomes in higher education?
John Blake, the newly appointed director of fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), should offer some clues when he begins a reform of access and participation plans in the new year.
Meanwhile, with the government expected to publish its long-awaited levelling up white paper early next year, it may be useful to consider what a roadmap for achieving levelling up through higher education could look like in this new phase of widening participation work.
I have four suggestions, which include recommendations for the OfS and for colleagues across the sector.
Align regulation with levelling up
Universities are anchor institutions and express much of their civic mission through the access and participation activities they undertake. If they are to advance the levelling up agenda and address lost learning through widening participation work, a regulatory framework will need to be in place that incentivises and promotes a local orientation.
This means ensuring, firstly, that any new access and participation plans include sufficient provisions for institutions to set targets that respond to local as well as national needs. For instance, while the OfS could ask providers to concentrate attainment-raising work on white boys eligible for free school meals, given this group’s historic low attainment nationally, this should not artificially limit providers’ aspirations where other attainment gaps exist locally.
It also means the OfS should actively encourage providers to use their own expertise in addressing attainment gaps that are specific to their local area. As work with black Caribbean boys in London has shown, attainment-raising is not reducible to tutoring and can also be achieved through methods such as supporting emotional wellbeing, providing access to suitable role models, and working with key influencers such as parents and families. Universities that choose this approach as opposed to tutoring pupils should be supported if they are doing it for good reasons.
Harness good practice
Widening participation work has been disrupted in the past two years. However, as with teaching and learning, it has had to evolve rapidly due to Coronavirus restrictions. This has led to practices that, when used effectively, can improve outcomes for current and future students—especially those from underrepresented groups.
Research into the ‘Covid cohort’ of current and incoming students has shown that, although they remain motivated to progress to higher education, they navigate the transition quite differently and have specific needs when it comes to academic achievement and job readiness, partly as a result of lost learning and lost opportunities during the past 18 months. These students will also graduate into a transformed labour market and in many cases enter a hybrid workplace that will require different graduate skills and attributes.
The higher education sector has shown great ingenuity and enterprise in rapidly developing interventions such as remote work placements and online mentoring that equip students with such skills. The task now is to properly embed these in access and participation plan commitments alongside longer-standing projects, where suitable, and scale them up where they are proven to work.
If providers are to rise to the challenge set out for them by government, they will have to work in partnership. This applies both to widening participation delivery and to sharing good practice. The Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO) has helped to implement a ‘what works’ approach across the sector. But as a recent evaluation of TASO concludes, it is too early in its development to do the heavy lifting of practice-sharing alone.
Although relatively few established mechanisms exist for practice-sharing between local clusters of institutions, the sector can, with a little proactivity, create them. It could take inspiration from AccessHE’s Action Forums in London and the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers’ (NNECL’s) Regional Networks across the country.
The other crucial form of collaboration is with students. The coming period represents a significant opportunity to systematically embed student consultation and co-creation within widening participation work nationwide. As with practice-sharing between providers, the underlying infrastructure does not exist currently but could easily be created with the support of bridging organisations, such as local authorities, regional higher education networks and social mobility charities.
The student submissions accompanying access and participation plans are important levers too. A recent analysis of APP monitoring outcomes indicates that 118 of a possible 240 institutions made student submissions this year; doubling that number next year would indicate that the sector is serious about student consultation.
Make work sustainable
All of the above requires sustained commitment, not to mention long-term funding to ensure the work has the desired impact. It seems inconsistent with the government’s ‘revolutionary’ ambitions for access and participation that flagship widening participation programmes such as Uni Connect continue to receive annual funding settlements. This limits ambition and does not inspire confidence among schools and other partners seeking to access university-led projects.
The government has thrown down the gauntlet to universities on raising attainment and student outcomes but providers’ widening participation work to date shows they are more than up to the challenge. It is now for the government to match its level of ambition with resources. Otherwise, the reboot, no matter what roadmap accompanies it, will lead nowhere.
Richard Boffey is head of AccessHE at London Higher