Hearts must have courage for the changing of the WP guards

As Access Agreement holders have recently completed wrestling their data into the latest OFFA Monitoring Return, a mercurial annual process that to some seems an exercise in positioning the proverbial square peg into the round hole, we expect institutions are beginning to ponder the next round of development of their “Access and Participation Statements.”

This will take place with the shadow of the incoming regulatory approach of the new Office for Students. Should the sector be concerned? Yes. Should small and specialist institutions be particularly concerned? Very much so. But considering the amounts of money involved, shouldn’t it already be central to an institution’s strategy?

Interpreting the OfS consultation, and assuming that the consultation follows a similar trajectory to TEF’s (i.e. that there won’t be much changed in response to feedback), we now have a reasonable idea of what the sector is facing, at least at the high level. In short: anticipate less carrot and more stick; students at the centre means “get focused on outcomes; social mobility will matter. So, Access and Participation Statements will remain vital.

As OfS Registration and consequential risk profiling takes place, and institutions seek to navigate a safe passage, a scenario will develop that could have all the attributes of hugging a hungry crocodile. The choice facing institutions now is whether proactively to mitigate potential risks, or wait to react to risks as they are identified by OfS. Here are some questions that governors and vice chancellors, and anyone else charged with widening participation strategy might want to bear in mind.

Are you reviewing current practice and preparing a targeted access and participation strategy for the anticipated changes under HERA and OfS?

This consideration forces thinking regarding the alignment of impending government policy with institutional approaches to doing business around access and recruitment, student success and graduate progression. In short, do you know whether your access and widening participation approach will effectively and efficiently increase your overall institutional success as defined by your institution as well as the OfS performance outcomes? For the record, “being compliant” does not mean “being successful”. As we’ve said elsewhere there is genuine opportunity in the widening participation agenda.  

Is return on investment (ROI) from widening participation across the student lifecycle a standing order item at senior executive level?

Effective governance and senior executive engagement in the WP agenda is a crucial element in programme success. The size of the revenue linked to the access fund should really be sufficient to warrant “Return on Investment from WP” being a standing item. And note: ROI is not some bland spineless item name to be glossed over in the rush to the fancy issues like the big new building or some such. Increasing executive visibility will engender more scrutiny of the strategic alignment to, and integration with, the overarching institutional corporate strategy; it will shift WP from a side note of honourable intentions and unmeasured social mobility rhetoric.

Have you benchmarked and reviewed your WP operational performance across the value chain?  

Note the key words: operational performance; benchmarking; value chain. Success, meaning better outcomes through better programme design and execution, is built on the evaluation of past performance. Not just past outcomes, but what has actually been done (outputs), and whether there was an optimal level of input per output. A tip from the private sector: calculate your per-unit costs. It apples to WP as well.

While the Access Agreement Monitoring Return provides a window into operational performance, it is a limited – and often problematic – tool to judge the efficiency of the performance in its wider sense. It is a blunt tool written for the regulator, not for institutional management. There are much more astute questions that good management would require, and with which the regulator is not concerned, questions such as the efficiency of resource deployment per unit of output and outcomes, and strategic alignment with institutional agendas.

That said, there are some “lead indicators” in the Access Agreement Monitoring Return. The sector-wide returns for 2015-16 showed that a whopping 60% of Activity-based Outcome Targets achieved less than anticipated, stagnant, or negative progress. This can be a crude indicator of operational and managerial processes, whether it’s the prediction or the execution. And let’s speak clearly to governors and finance for a moment: when we are looking for value we mean growth and recruitment; with per-student income of up to £27,750 over a 3-year programme as the target. WP, recruitment and financial success are bed-fellows, not estranged neighbours. Going further, the power of benchmarking performance against other comparator institutions provides significant managerial insight, not just measuring outcomes, but measuring operations.

Are you fully satisfied with your institutional capacity and capability to deliver a high performing widening participation and recruitment agenda?

Asking this question of the WP leadership team is an incredibly powerful tool that forces constructive reflection. It can highlight areas of exceptional practice, which may have room for further leverage. It can also flush out the gaps. Assessing responses to these questions at different levels of leadership and operations can also demonstrate the depth of understanding of the WP strategy, and capability in managing responses and articulating value. And if you want to add more weight, we recommend the “what does success look like” question. Just load it up and watch the strain on the faces as your team really lift the bar in response.

And why should we ask? Well, the range of capabilities required under the new regime will be significantly more than an ability to plan the logistics of outreach activity, or to coordinate a committee group-think approach to Access (and Participation) Agreement preparation. A well-managed WP team will be ready, willing and able to develop and execute a cost-effective programme capable of generating real success across student access, success and progression outcomes. That is a hell of a lot more than compliance.

If your answers to these questions are less than optimal, start asking the harder and deeper questions… what will it take to optimise your performance? And don’t forget the financial context!

Why bother?

We’ve been asked: “Should vice chancellors worry about WP, given all the other pressing sectoral issues?” With all due respect, that depends on how confident you are in your answers to the above questions, and what your ambitions are for growth and development. Given the policy shifts, and the substantial amount of funds invested in WP, we have had to respond to this question with slight bewilderment given the current context. Just imagine what you could do if you could get a 20% increase in the returns from the Access Agreement funding. We do, every day.

Applied Inspiration are specialist education advisers working across the student pipeline, providing corporate advisory solutions which include targeted and innovative recruitment, and widening participation strategy and delivery solutions.

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