Last Wednesday I published my first guidance to higher education providers as Director for Fair Access and Participation. It lays out what they need to do in the access and participation plans that I have to approve if they are going to charge above the basic fee level. At the Office for Students (OFS) launch conference the same day, I shared some of the thinking behind that guidance, and our wider approach to promoting access and participation, and I’m going to expand on that here.
I think we can all agree that everyone should have the opportunity to build a good life for themselves and to unlock their potential, regardless of their background and identity. This is not just important for individuals, it’s important for a cohesive and just society, and – as jobs change into the future – for a productive economy. I think we’d also all agree that higher education is central to this. It provides knowledge, credentials, networks and skills for successful careers, and nourishment for personal growth. It’s both a gateway to a fulfilling life, and fulfilling in itself. That’s the case if you study away from home and move around during your career; it’s also true if you want to study, live and work in the community where you grew up, and to develop your skills later in life.
But just as higher education can create opportunities, it can reflect and indeed entrench disadvantage. If you have the ability and desire to enter higher education but you can’t access the right course for you at the right time for you; if you’re unable to continue with your studies or to perform to your full ability once you get there; if you’re unable to capitalise on the time and money you have invested in higher education in your later life and career.
That’s the case for far too many currently. And, as Claire Crawford – who has conducted research on this at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University of Warwick – told us at the OfS launch event, the evidence clearly shows how it’s linked to socio-economic factors and their intersection with equalities characteristics such as ethnicity, gender and disability. Although we’ve made good progress on improving opportunity by widening access to higher education during the last decade, we are a long way from equality of opportunity and this extends through all stages of higher education, including transition into work.
The OfS Regulatory Framework puts this front and centre for our work, making it the first of our regulatory objectives. But what does that mean in practice?
It means we will look specifically to protect and promote the interests of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and with equalities characteristics in everything we do.
Through our assessment of access and participation plans, we will apply pressure for continuous improvement, which is a higher baseline expectation than in other areas. To get their plan approved, providers will need to show that they will reduce the gaps in access, success and progression between groups that are under-represented at different points of the lifecycle and other students. It’s not just about getting in, it’s about getting on, too. As Ben Hunt – former President of King’s College London Student Union and a member of our student panel – told us at the launch conference, we need to shift the balance of the conversation further towards the support that students get during their studies so that their talent and hard work is not wasted.
I’ll also be looking for more sustained and in-depth collaboration, building on long-standing engagement with schools, but extending to employers too, recognising that this is crucial for equipping students with the attributes they need to succeed in the labour market, and also for employers to understand how they can capitalise on graduate skills, and indeed improve the productivity of their current workforce.
One of the key messages from Claire’s speech at the launch conference that really struck home with me, was the role that the OfS can play in driving evidence-led practices. So I will be looking for all providers to improve their use of evidence and evaluation so that we can make sure that investment is being focused on the activities that are most effective.
But access and participation plans are just one of the levers for change available to the OfS. They are part of a much wider regulatory system that gives us the capability to drive stronger progress than ever before.
Assessment and support
Alongside the pressure we will apply through our assessment of the plans, we will be active in providing support for the access and participation effort nationwide. A key issue here will be the availability and use of data and evidence and the development and sharing of innovative and effective practice. This will be the focus of the Evidence and Impact Exchange we will develop during the coming year.
Alongside this, of course OfS will conduct its work to diversify the offer to students by removing barriers to entry to new providers and to new routes like degree apprenticeships, reform the student information landscape to support informed choice and promote quality and student outcomes through the TEF. In all that work we will focus on how these measures can improve the prospects for students from disadvantaged groups and those with equalities characteristics.
We have a terrific platform through the OfS Regulatory Framework to take the bold and innovative steps that are needed to make the step change from improving opportunity to equality of opportunity. So I’ll be talking to higher education providers, students and also the vibrant third sector in this area during the coming months to identify how we can deliver on this.
Our success will be judged ultimately by whether we can achieve a significant reduction in the gaps that exist for access, success and progression during the coming years. Unlocking the imagination and the ambition of the next generation of students depends on this, so we owe it to them to succeed.