Getting serious about third sector collaboration requires clarity over its purpose and power dynamics

The Office for Students is promising guidance on equitable access partnerships. Ruth Squire thinks through the issues

Ruth Squire is Evaluation and Impact Manager at Leeds Trinity University

Collaboration has been an essential component in the development of widening participation – even before “widening participation” became the default terminology for access to higher education work.

The forerunners to access to higher education programmes and the national access initiative Aimhigher were built on collaboration. Core aspects of access and participation activity, including summer schools and even evaluation, were started in proof-of-concept collaborations and spread to the wider sector. One of the core modes of current national delivery, UniConnect, is based on partnership. Yet 2025 will apparently see the publication of guidance from the Office for Students (OfS) on partnership working. Is it really necessary?

Potential debates about the role of an HE regulator aside, I think it is – particularly when it comes to collaboration between providers and the third sector. Having spent four years studying the roles of third sector organisations in widening participation policy and practice, and an unnamed number of years in universities, private sector, and third sector widening participation organisations, I can see that there are things we are not getting right.

The sector has changed significantly since the last semi-official guidance in 2014. However, any guidance will need to go beyond encouragement and nice words about (non-university and non-SU) charities, and really tackle the current and challenging climate of widening participation partnerships. We need to talk about power, money, and values.

OfS fair access and participation director John Blake, in his speech announcing the intention to publish guidance, does make more than just a nod to some of these issues. The proposed guidance is intended to look at equitable partnership building, and he identifies the importance of contestation to more effective and equitable work. There is space here for the interrogation of the many assumptions around collaboration, and around those who collaborate.

Who are the collaborators?

John Blake’s announcement of this new guidance on partnerships focused (though not exclusively) on third sector organisations.

This is not surprising given that the audience for this announcement was a third sector forum convened by the funder and impact charity, Impetus, and nor is it new; collaboration between universities and third sector organisations has been encouraged by successive directors of fair access and has formed part of access agreement/access and participation plan guidance since 2013.

However, the term “third sector” comes with some baggage that is worth unpacking. It comes with more than a hint of new Labour philosophy about bridging gaps between public and private sectors and has tended to be attached to organisations considered to be innovative, values-driven and “better” than the alternatives. It hasn’t just been about charity status, it is also about function, form and values. Focus on particular organisations as good practice has implied that some organisations are “in” and others are not.

Whether intended or otherwise, some of the historical positive encouragement given to universities to partner with the third sector has read as a criticism of higher education providers. Praise of the third sector’s innovation, expertise and value-driven access and participation work has easily implied (or even explicitly outlined) a slow-moving, generalist and self-interested HE sector.

Generalisations about strengths and weaknesses of different organisational forms can be alienating, if not wholly inaccurate, and they don’t do justice to the diversity of either sector. Fortunately, John Blake’s speech and the most recent access and participation plan guidance suggests that we are moving away from such assumptions and starting to look more at collective strengths, rather than plugging weaknesses.

Definitions are important and higher education providers are, perhaps more than some organisations, quick to debate them. Institutions might reasonably ask whether they themselves, other providers, students’ unions, or schools and academies of various forms, qualify as third sector by their charity status. They might query the distinction between third sector and community organisations in access and participation plan guidance. For this reason, clarity on what third sector includes and whether it is deemed to be a particularly “special” partner could be helpful for practitioners who also have the assumptions and values of their institution to navigate.

Looking critically at who we consider to be “good” partners and why could be a fruitful exercise, as could guidance that recognises the broad range of potential partners out there. Between 2018 and 2021, in looking for third sector organisations working in widening participation, I identified 51 organisations with a major interest in access and participation work. My search did not include commercial organisations, though some came up in the process and were recorded. Only 26 of these organisations were registered charities in England with a sole focus on access and participation and, of these, half focused primarily on access to selective institutions.

These tend to be the organisations offered as examples of the third sector in guidance on access and participation work. This makes sense, as they are often the most developed, and are closest to access and participation work as understood within access and participation plans. However, if this guidance aims to support new perspectives in access and participation, there are many other third sector organisations we could also include, while ensuring that the quality and sustainability of partnership for existing organisations is strengthened.

What qualifies as collaboration?

We have many excellent examples of university and third sector/community group/charity collaborations to build on. There is however, one important factor that tends to be ignored when sharing these examples – money changes hands. Relatively few charities working in widening participation possess the resources to deliver activity using their own funds and those funds rely on the capacity to pursue grants or other charitable income. The financial model of several widening participation charities, particularly smaller ones, is of selling “services” to universities, schools, or other potential funders.

Both widening participation charities and higher education organisations are also operating in a market – they have competitors who can offer a better partnership “deal”. I perhaps do not need to mention that resources are also scarce, and that the availability of resource can cause changes in behaviours.

Money changing hands or market effects are not an impediment to a positive and equal collaboration, but they are and have been a factor in the power dynamics of third sector-university relationships. The priorities of the funding partner can take a lead, sometimes to the detriment of what collaborators may consider their strengths. There can also be tight margins with a service provision model, leaving limited funding for elements that can enhance and provide organisational security, like dedicated funds for evaluation or the ability to offer staff long-term contracts. Partnership arrangements can be as short as a school term, with no guarantee of continued relationships. Where do we draw the line between a transaction and a partnership?

John Blake’s statement that the OfS could produce guidance on equitable partnerships is ambitious and a clear shift in focus. The challenges of navigating power dynamics in these relationships are an open secret and there are many excellent examples of how it can be done successfully if we are prepared to talk about how it does (and does not) work.

Moving from examples of good practice that focus on shorter-term outcomes for beneficiaries towards a focus on the potential benefits that could arise (and be cultivated) for partners could be one way to demonstrate that these challenges and the limitations that they present are taken seriously.

What do we value?

When we talk about collaboration in widening participation work, there is sometimes an assumption that this involves people coming together around a commonly understood goal.

I’d suggest that one reason that collaborations can be challenging in HE, particularly between providers, and between providers and the “third sector”, is that our shared goal involves a lot of negotiation on what widening participation is.

If we conceive of widening access as opening doors, we don’t agree over which doors, how wide to open them, who for, and in what way. The self-interest of universities in developing their particular stance on widening access and participation is often assumed, but we rarely ask what informs the values of charities working in this space. All institutions have agendas and can face pressures around those agendas that influence and come from working in collaboration.

Different approaches to and understandings of widening participation can also coincide with different work cultures and language. Several charities currently working in widening participation are rooted in different professional cultures, whether venture philanthropy, teaching, or social enterprise, and consequently articulate their social and political values in ways that may be different to universities.

The diversity of the higher education sector also means that we cannot talk about a single university culture. Although not a fundamental barrier to collaboration, these work culture differences are meaningful, particularly when it comes to the interpersonal relationships that make up collaboration. Interviewees in my PhD research, all working in charities, widening participation policy, or HE settings, reflected on discomfort they had felt in navigating those different cultures. They also reflected on the restrictions in speaking those discomforts publicly and the possible consequences of what could be perceived as criticism.

John Blake suggests that there is value in contestability within widening access and participation. Currently, power dynamics within and between third sector organisations, between third sector organisations and HE providers, and between all of these and a regulator, are factors in what contests are being openly presented. Without more open discussion of values in (some) partnerships, we could risk “surface” relationships that can be easily discarded and don’t provide the challenge and growth that can come from closer interaction.

“Doing” widening participation involves negotiating values – our own, our organisation’s, and those encoded in policy. It isn’t beyond us, but it can’t be an assumed side-effect of collaboration, especially when there is power involved.

More questions than answers?

Any guidance is unlikely to answer all the questions I have posed – and if it did, it would be likely to date rapidly.

However, offering clarity on the shape and purpose of collaboration (and possibly even evaluation?) would go a long way towards helping those developing access and participation work in any sector. Doing so in a way that acknowledged the diversity of sectors and the challenges in coming together could create a more secure space for innovation and growth of that diversity.

A small task then. Over to you OfS.

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