Widen thinking as well as participation

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Since the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework were published six months ago, there’s been time to reflect on this new system of measurement of universities. While TEF’s methodology and metrics are being refined, and its importance in the overall scheme of things will settle down, the focus it provides on teaching and the student experience will not go away, and many would (and should) say quite right too. With the birth of the Office for Students and consultation on the new regulatory framework, we see confirmation that this emphasis will continue.

The minds that will be concentrated will not just be in universities. Prospective students will look, potentially, less at league tables and instead to the colour of the TEF medal in deciding where their +/-£9,250 is best spent – the medal is easy to access and obvious in what it purports to say. The levelling of the field within the TEF benchmarking removes the disincentive to widening access, unlike the league tables. This potentially could see universities pick their place for comparison. The intent or rhetoric to shift power towards students will continue.

The TEF winners’ golden sunshine could indeed cast an unwelcome sun tan on the already bronzed in terms of recruitment outcomes; in short, competition is hotting up. Irrespective of the validity of the measures, the impact in students’ and their parents’ minds will resonate. The potential impact on recruitment requires a strong counter-offensive, with more strategic forecasting and targeted investments to counter the challenges of growth. The perfect storm, carrying a system of TEF results, falling market volume, debt aversion, Brexit, collapse in part-time student numbers and alternative qualifications, coupled with a strong competing skills agenda, means “High Water, Everywhere”.

What’s the relationship between TEF and WP?

The inevitable re-emergence of questions about the balance between societal and personal advantage from a university education, and the morality of saddling the younger generation with high levels of indebtedness, raises further questions in students’ minds. Those of us concerned with widening participation know this can simply amount to the confirmatory slam of the ivory tower door for these target groups.

And yet in all of this, the issue of widening participation (WP) becomes more critical to universities – not only as a moral and societal imperative, but as a specific business case as advocated by the former CEO of UCAS, Mary Curnock-Cook. If institutions are to build – or even just maintain – their student numbers, recruitment will need to come from a wider pool. It is considered that these pipelines of potential students would result in an additional 30,000 students from POLAR Quintiles 1 and 2 alone.

And just as prospective students are thinking more carefully about whether they would benefit from a university experience, institutions should also reassess how they too make that judgement. A more thoughtful approach is required. A sector that is now uncomfortable about the use of metrics in TEF has been using its own proxies for suitability for university, little changed, for many years.

We know partial answers to some of these, but is academic success in secondary education the best predictor of achievement in higher education? There is much written on academic achievement, clearly identifying it is far more complex than school grades, with myriad individual, contextual and systemic factors playing their part. Systems thinking and acknowledgement of the complex non-linear relationships between the multitude of variables asks from more innovative solutions than picking schools for outreach purposes. Perhaps shifting thinking from institution-as-gatekeeper to institution-as-enabler? Such concentration may have enabled the 3,000 POLAR Quintile 1 students who were declined places in 2017 to progress to university.

What can be done?

Perhaps some of the more innovative practices employed under widening access to enable student access and success have a role across all recruitment agendas? Ensuring programmes are designed to achieve effective outcomes, in a highly efficient and equitable manner, is a great place to start. More refined approaches to connect institutions with specialist course offerings to prospective students using sophisticated targeting and engagement deep into the pipeline; and better tools for assessing the value to be added by institutions to these students, and themselves, may serve the sector well.

And there is good practice out there in the WP landscape . The formation of the School Farms Network Education Alliance is an example of innovative collaboration between a niche university, a network of schools and third-party experts. In this alliance, the Royal Agricultural University, the School Farms Network (a national network of schools), and specialist HE Advisors Applied Inspiration have developed a programme of activity to promote HE pathways particularly in land-based disciplines. This is a highly targeted solution for a university with a niche course offering partnering with a network of schools with an alignment of interests, developed and implemented in partnership with skilled professionals. The inaugural conference this year had over 130 delegates with teachers, school leadership team staff, students, sector leaders, academics and key influencers in the land-based education arena. The alliance this year is progressing work between the university and the schools, and linking schools to their broader communities. Furthermore, this is a national network, proving that “outreach” can be more than a localised approach, as is more critical for niche and nationally-recruiting universities.

Widening participation is a value-adding opportunity, not a compliance problem, and this will become more the case under the new regulatory regime. The cross-pollination (or adoption) of innovation will be imperative to advance the social mobility agenda and support institutional growth. After all, and to paraphrase, for most if not all universities, it’s the recruitment, stupid.

1 thoughts on “Widen thinking as well as participation”

  1. Sally Kift says:

    This is a really good piece and thanks for it. The thinking is directly transferable to the Australian HE context where the government has just (as of Monday) reimposed caps, limiting access with anticipated disproportionate effect on regional institutions which do most of the heavy lifting in Oz in the WP space.
    I also wonder how long it will take the Australian government to get to an Australian Office for Students?
    Thanks again.

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