Collaboration must trump competition in outreach work

In England, regulation frequently promotes competition - but it's collaboration that is key to successful outreach work, argues Anna Anthony

Anna Anthony is Co-Director at the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) Service

As universities start focusing on the next Access and Participation Plan (APP) cycle, they may be considering working in collaboration with other providers, either through Uni Connect or other partnerships.

Collaboration has been encouraged by the Office for Students (OfS), yet the regulator doesn’t go so far as to say explicitly that providers should be collaborating. So why then should we be collaborating?

Collaboration has the potential to ensure that outreach is delivered to those who need it the most – mitigating the effects of the recruitment-focused outreach that was the topic of my last blog.

In straightforward terms, this is because in a collaborative model the priorities of any one provider will not be at the forefront of delivery, making it more likely for delivery to align with national level aims.

These national level aims are, in turn, more closely aligned with what may be seen as providers’ moral or civic duty.

A recent national aim, put forward by OfS, is for university outreach to raise the pre-16 attainment of disadvantaged learners. My last blog argued that if we want to have an impact on school attainment, we need consensus over who it is that this work is meant to help. We then need all providers to target those learners consistently.

Yet this has not been the case so far. Data recorded on the HEAT system shows that, historically, attainment raising interventions have not been targeted specifically and consistently towards the lowest attaining learners who are most in need of support with their attainment.

This is concerning because, as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, the most disadvantaged students will be more at risk.

Although concerning, this is not particularly surprising – providers are held to account by the regulator for the access gaps at their own institutions and so must set targets to remedy these inequalities.

A focus on institutional targets does not encourage collaboration, but rather siloed working to tackle institution-specific inequalities as quickly as possible. This sums up the policy tension between institution-driven targets and the wider national aims of the widening participation agenda, which may be considered our moral duty.

Time to work together

Collaboration has been suggested as a possible mechanism to ease this policy tension. Tony Moss’ HEPI blog provides a compelling argument for increased collaboration to tackle the new priorities that Providers are being asked to address in their APPs.

Moss argues that, as providers are held to account for their own APP targets, there is currently no regulatory incentive to encourage strategic collaboration between providers.

As Uni Connect funding declines, new incentives need to be introduced to encourage collaboration. If successful, this will enable providers to refocus their strategy to ensure that resources are targeted towards those with the greatest need, rather than only to those who must be recruited to meet APP targets.

In the case of attainment-raising, these are the lower attaining students identified in the HEAT data as currently at risk of missing out on outreach opportunities.

The analysis provides evidence to suggest that collaborative working really can provide the mechanism to ease the unintended consequences of competitive recruitment-focused outreach.

We found that the collaborative outreach delivered by Uni Connect partnerships, working in partnership with higher education providers, was more likely to engage the most academically disadvantaged learners when compared with outreach delivered by higher education providers working on their own.

However, it must be acknowledged that this pattern may be a result of the impartiality associated with the Uni Connect programme, rather than collaboration per se.

The evidence on the benefits of collaboration is still emerging, but if we are satisfied that we should be collaborating, next we need to know how.

Encouraging collaboration

To move collaborative working from a conceptual vision to something that can be operationalised in practice, it seems to me that we need three things.

First, the evidence to show that working collaboratively really does improve equality of opportunity; collaborative working can be challenging so we need to be sure it is worth it.

Second, we need the shared platform or system to enable collaborative working, providing solutions to practical hurdles like staff who are based in different universities having secure access to the same data.

And third, providers will need a regulatory incentive. We’ve already dealt with the first, HEAT can provide the second, the third is in the hands of the OfS but I do have some suggestions.

Can HEAT support collaborative outreach?

For providers wishing to work collaboratively, HEAT provides the platform to do this effectively and efficiently. Through secure data sharing, Providers using HEAT can work together to jointly record data which they can view and edit from their respective HEAT accounts. When permissions are in place this enables partners to work together, virtually, to agree their intervention evaluation plans, access data to monitor progress towards that plan and access outcome data for the evaluation. Without this sharing of resource and data, providers would be working in isolation and without essential context.

We are now exploring funding opportunities to develop the data sharing functionality of HEAT to better support cross-provider peer evaluation. This would help providers to meet the latest expectations from the OfS in relation to increases in transparency and peer reviewed evaluation. Needless to say, if any funding bodies are reading this and are interested in our work, please do get in touch.

Can OfS support collaboration?

Despite the compelling arguments for collaborative working, it often involves additional investment, for example the funding of additional staff is needed to ensure neutrality in delivery and to coordinate partners’ plans into a single strategy. This additional investment will be increasingly difficult for providers to justify internally, given the current financial situation faced by most, unless there is a clear directive from OfS.

The regulator is currently seeking feedback from the sector on how they can use “tools, such as funding, evidence of effective practice and convening powers to support collaboration and partnership to address core risks to equality of opportunity” (p34), and so it appears they are looking for ideas in this space.

I would encourage OfS to be more explicit in relation to their expectations for Providers to collaborate. Such directive will be extremely helpful to outreach teams needing to convince their respective senior management teams to fund collaborative work.

As a principles-based regulator, OfS may be reluctant to make collaboration a requirement of outreach delivery. However, they are already being prescriptive by asking providers to raise pre-16 attainment, and that calling for collaboration to be a core aspect of the way outreach is delivered is now needed in order to support the sector to deliver outreach that mitigates the issues set out above.

Such clear directive would help providers with the internal conversations needed to identify the necessary investment for the 2024/25 APP cycle.

Finally, a word on Uni Connect. Until now, Uni Connect has been the solution – successfully facilitating collaboration so that outreach delivery aligns more with national-level aims and less with institution-level priorities.

As funding for Uni Connect winds down, it appears that we may be disposing of a model that works well, only to reinvent something similar under a different funding model. History may be repeating itself here as such short-term policy making was criticised following the abolition of Aimhigher, particularly for the resulting loss of expertise.

Learning from these mistakes, It would therefore be helpful for OfS to clearly position Uni Connect as part of the solution to the sector. This would enable us to capitalise and build on that existing infrastructure and the considerable staff expertise already in existence, rather than waste it, only to duplicate it later.

4 responses to “Collaboration must trump competition in outreach work

  1. Thought provoking piece and we value HEAT. Note we are all already collaborating via the UniConnect Partnerships. OfS guidance on APP due in the spring we hope as I am sure many of us want to get started on our plans asap as it’s important for the future of our young people across the country. University continues to be life changing for hundreds of thousands of students of all ages.

  2. Especially agree with the last two paragraphs! Constant cycle of building expertise and relationships to then pull the plug and start all over again.

  3. Brilliant blog Anna. Collaborative outreach must continue and you’re right on lessons from history, although the staff that remember Aimhigher, LLNs and NNCOs (and some other shorter term interventions pre and post these) are now v limited in the policy and regulator corridors of govt and OfS.

  4. An important contribution to a much-needed debate. Could I also raise the issue of taking a collaborative, as opposed to a competitive, approach to working with existing staff in FE colleges? Some HEIs have outreach teams who can appear to be essentially competing for student contacts with existing staff in FE colleges. Communication needs to be tactful and respectful, as FE staff often have expertise in working with their own students and this can sometimes be missed by outreach staff from HEIs and other projects.

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