HESA Spring: Widening Participation UKPI

Is progress on participation moving as fast as the OfS trajectories suggest it should? David Kernohan plots the latest data

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Widening participation data moves very slowly – frustratingly so.

The Widening Participation HESA UKPI is the gold standard for tracking the pace of change in the socio-economic makeup of each cohort applying to providers registered with the Office for Students. The OfS’s access and participation planning process takes into account a wider range of characteristics – but low participation areas and high levels of deprivation remain important components.

The OfS target remains to “eliminate the gap in entry rates at higher tariff providers between the most and least represented groups”. The gap has shifted from 4.74:1 (a 19.8 percentage point gap) in 2017-18 to 19.5 percentage points in 2018-19 – if higher tariff providers hold up their end of the APP bargain this is projected to reach parity in around 2038 . We are just under midway through the eight admissions cycle scope of this ambitious plan, which is also an OfS Key Performance Measure.

2019-20 results

HESA’s reporting of the results doesn’t directly look at gaps in participation between the most (POLAR4 quintile 5) and least (POLAR4 quintile 1) represented areas in HE. Instead, we get the percentage of entrants from Q1 only.

What we do get that isn’t used in the OfS targets is benchmarks – HESA applies two approaches, one – the best one – adding domicile location to the standard benchmarking criteria (entry qualifications).

Here’s a plot of provider level performance against the regionally adjusted benchmarks for Q1 entry rates in 2019-20 for young (under 21) full time undergraduate entrants.

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And here’s a time series showing the percentage of students from low participation backgrounds against the regionally adjusted benchmark for each provider.

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We can’t derive the OfS measure from this data, as we don’t have information on POLAR Q5 and we don’t know which “high tariff providers” are in their bucket – but I have plotted numeric and percentage performance by mission group, and would suggest the Russell Group offers a decent proxy.

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What can we see?

The OfS targets work at two levels, as befits a system developed by a regulator chaired by notorious target fan Michael Barber. We have the overall stretch target of ending recruitment gaps all together – which is absolutely where we should be aiming, but arguably depends at least as much on reforms elsewhere in the education system as on provider performance.

And we have the specific targets derived from projections within access and participation plans. These could fairly be described as an “aggregation of optimism” the provider level targets were supposed to be meaningful and linked to a comprehensible theory of change, but OfS also could (and did) go back to providers to ask for more ambition. As any social sciences graduate will tell you, this isn’t good practice.

For that reason – based on the available evidence from the HESA UKPI, and what seems to be a DfE policy seeing less people from low participation backgrounds study at a traditional higher education provider – I’m predicting that the sector will not hit the 2024 participation target.

Bonus data

Another great thing you could do to improve participation in underrepresented groups is not cancel BTECs. Unfairly seen as a “cinderella” level 3 consultation, BTECs are popular qualifications among those entering HE from a low participation background. Here I’ve plotted data for “Young” entrants (under 21) to full-time first degree entrants.

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