Building the widening participation evidence base

One element of the funding jigsaw that gets a glancing mention from the Augar review is funding institutions to support widening participation (WP) students.

At the moment, higher education institutions (HEIs) that charge fees above £6,165 per year are required to direct a portion of that additional fee income towards improving the access and outcomes of the lowest income students, who would be expected to be most affected by the fee increase.

However, Augar’s conclusion having reviewed the success of this approach should provide some cause for introspection among those of us who work in WP:

“Our assessment of the current system is that it fails to fully support social mobility because it over-emphasises entry into higher education rather than successful participation; fails to resource adequately those institutions that admit a large proportion of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds; relies on too limited an evidence base of what works best.” (pg 97)

Unintended outcomes

As a result, Augar proposes that WP funding change to a ‘pupil premium’ approach that would mean HEIs receive funding directly from government, in proportion to the number of WP students in the institution. This is consistent with the student premium element of the teaching grant, which currently comprises around a quarter of the funding that is earmarked for WP support.

Like many of Augar’s other proposals, this one needs scrutiny into whether it will achieve the desired goal, or conversely result in certain wealthier institutions de-prioritising WP recruitment in favour of easier target groups while others engage in a race to the bottom to secure WP students (and hence, the additional funding) as efficiently as possible.

Leaving that aside, though, this isn’t the first time that a lack of evidence that is convincing to those outside the sector has led to calls to change the funding model for widening participation. Despite research finding a positive correlation between AimHigher initiatives and increased access and improved outcomes for students from under-represented backgrounds, evaluators were unable to credibly disentangle the impact of AimHigher from changes to the wider educational policy context. This is reportedly part of the reason AimHigher was discontinued in 2011.

Evaluation of evaluations

Clearly the Office for Students (and its predecessors HEFCE and OFFA) have reflected on this: over the past few years they have increasingly challenged institutions on their own evaluations; commissioned an independent national evaluation of the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP); and funded the development of an Evidence and Impact Exchange (EIX) to become a what works centre for higher education. Indeed, the EIX gets a favourable mention in Augar: “We therefore welcome the OfS’s forthcoming Evidence and Impact Exchange, which will collate, share and commission research and evaluation, and establish which institutions or initiatives are the most effective” (p. 77).

As the Establishing Director of the EIX, now known as the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), this is encouraging, and demonstrates how important evidencing the impact of programmes is going to be in making the case for continuing and stabilising funding for WP initiatives. However, I want to emphasise that it is not envisaged, nor would we support, TASO having a role judging the effectiveness of institutions. This is not the role of a What Works Centre, which is to build the evidence-base on effective practice and work to disseminate this to practitioners. Nor is it in line with the What Works principle of independence, for TASO to have anything resembling a regulatory role. On the contrary, we have set a roadmap towards TASO being established as a charity in the coming years, guided by a Board of Trustees from across the sector, independent from the founding partners and the Office for Students.

Building an evidence infrastructure

What TASO can, and will, do is establish an infrastructure to consolidate the good evidence that already exists, develop new evidence, and support institutions to innovate and evaluate in their WP practice. We want to create a nexus of expertise on effective practice and evaluation methodologies, and demonstrate the impact widening participation activities can have in driving forward social mobility.

To succeed, TASO will need to be shaped and led by the sector, and bring together senior leaders, practitioners and academics to contribute to effective practice. As part of our commissioning process, TASO hopes to distribute over £1.5m in funding via a series of funding calls. There will therefore be opportunities for a range of institutions and stakeholders to secure funding to contribute to the shared evidence base. We are also seeking expressions of interest to participate in a range of decision-making groups, guiding TASO’s work and making sure it is an evidence and impact exchange for the whole sector.

Of course, Augar has launched into a particularly uncertain political landscape, and it remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be adopted, and whether any headline cuts to fees will be matched by adoption of Augar’s compensating funding mechanisms to ensure there isn’t a sharp decline in quality of provision.

The Augar review signals clearly the need for a fair and sustainable HE funding regime. Although it’s a relatively small part of the report, earmarked WP funding is a big part of achieving this goal. As Augar recognises, TASO can support the sector to allocate its funding more effectively.

Beyond that, I hope that through TASO we can move to a world where it isn’t so easy to point to a lack of impact evidence to justify cutting funding that supports the students who need it most.

Join us on 2 July in London for a one day conference to analyse and digest the Augar review and begin to build the response.

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