Increasing equality of opportunity requires deeper collaboration with the third sector

Access and participation partnerships between providers and third sector organisations continue to be the exception to the norm. Ayesha Baloch explains why – and what to do about it

Ayesha Baloch is a policy advisor at youth charity Impetus

This Thursday, the Third Sector Forum and the Office for Students (OfS) will host over a hundred third sector organisations, higher education providers and policymakers, to better understand how collaboration across and between sectors can increase equality of opportunity in English higher education.

The event aims to better illuminate the work of the Third Sector Forum, and fill the gap by bringing higher education providers into the discussion.

Since 2022, Impetus has hosted the forum, a space for the Office for Students to regularly engage with third sector practitioners working on fair access and participation, and for the two to foster candid and meaningful dialogue.

After over 15 years of funding great charities like IntoUniversity and The Access Project working on these issues, we know just how much expertise the third sector has to share.

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration

It is crucial to remember that the expectation of collaboration is not new. The Office for Students has called for this from as far back as 2019, as did its previous iterations, alongside the Department for Education.

By autumn 2022, in John Blake’s inaugural year as Director for Fair Access and Participation, the Office for Students launched a consultation on a new approach to access and participation. Moving away from a set of national targets or “outcome gaps”, providers were instead encouraged to use contextual data analysis and consultation to identify the most serious “risks to equality of opportunity” specific to them. These identified risks were then to be used in the development of intervention strategies.

Initial guidance saw John Blake set out his expectation of rigorous evaluation, evidence-led interventions and, crucially, “more, and more impactful, strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector.”

This need for collaboration was reiterated once again in March 2023, when guidance was published for the 40 “first wave” providers who would pilot the new approach. Most recently, as Jim Dickinson covered for Wonkhe in December 2023, John Blake called for “more evidence of collaboration between universities and colleges and third sector organisations, schools and employers to address risks to equality of opportunity”.

Barriers to partnership

Why then, does sustainable, equitable and, most importantly, effective collaboration between the higher education and third sectors continues to be the exception to the norm?

At Labour Party Conference last year, I mustered the courage to ask the vice chancellor of a prominent university why there seemed to be hesitation around collaborating with the third sector. Their answer was that the third sector needed to better demonstrate the value-add it offered as a partner – something which could not be achieved in-house.

Impetus’ recent collaboration with Inclusion Revolution and the University of Bath reaffirmed this barrier, finding that regulation can discourage providers from building strategic partnerships. Instead, they are inclined to focus in-house activity on “what the institution is best placed to do,” which actively disincentivises work with external partners.

Other explanations include providers needing to see evidence of the efficacy of interventions, a lack of alignment between the mission of a third sector partner and the APP goals of a provider, and preference for programmes which are structured in a specific way.

The picture of hesitation around partnership is incomplete without the question of money. It is no secret that our current funding system is unsustainable in the long-term, with providers feeling the impact of over a decade of fee freezes coupled with inflation, and third sector organisations crunched by economic downturn.

These are hard times, but the lack of sector collaboration on fair access and participation will only make it harder for those young people already disproportionately impacted. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are 40 per cent less likely to go to university than their better-off peers – a gap that has remained stuck for over a decade.

Worse still, last year’s widening participation figures saw the gap in progression rates between Free School Meal-eligible pupils and non-FSM eligible pupils increase to the highest recorded level.

Specialist insight

The third sector’s importance in our wider ecosystem cannot be overstated, nor can its role in the weathering of various crises over the past half decade. Having built strong and long-term relationships in localities or regions, third sector organisations are often deeply embedded in the community and have specialist insight. As argued in our work with Inclusion Revolution and the University of Bath, “where priority populations are very small or have specialist support needs, interventions delivered through third sector partners are likely to have a greater impact and offer economies of scale”.

Take for example IntoUniversity, an Impetus partner charity which runs centres to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. As part of IU’s setting-up process, they conduct “community consultation”, using formal interviews and informal conversations with teachers, community leaders and organisations to better understand how best to reach the young people who need them most.

Another Impetus partner charity, The Tutor Trust, trains students and graduates from the north of England to provide small group tuition to primary and secondary pupils. The organisation’s The Right Angle programme across Greater Manchester offers 1:1 tutoring, and – in partnership with locally-based charity Talk, Listen, Change – simultaneously offers counselling to pupils. It is precisely these sorts of community relationships which not only promote the work of local organisations, but can hugely benefit higher education providers in identifying and mitigating contextual risks to equality of opportunity.

Being smaller and less bureaucratic than higher education institutions, third sector organisations can also offer dynamism in responding to new and emerging needs and provide flexible and innovative solutions, while having the infrastructure to do so.

The Access Project – another Impetus partner charity – works with high-potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing tutoring and intensive support to support them into top universities. In 2023, the organisation permanently transitioned to an online delivery model, allowing them to meet increasing demand and improve quality by recruiting volunteers from across the country.

Civic and moral

Clearly, there is no shortage of benefits to be reaped from increasing the efficacy of partnership working, but where does this work begin?

Our report found that, without increasing regulatory burden, the regulator should expect higher education providers “to demonstrate that they have identified the most appropriate delivery body for interventions”. Yet, this cannot be achieved when regulation offers neither the proverbial carrot nor the stick. We concluded that incentives are necessary to “promote partnerships that deliver greater impact.”

Our report also showed the importance of regulatory processes reflecting the flexibility required for providers working with multiple partners without compromising robustness, for example, in reporting arrangements. In the meantime, “expectations should minimise the burden on delivery partners, recognising the limited capacity and capabilities of small organisations.”

At a time when both the third and higher education sectors are feeling the crunch of inflation and the cost of living crisis, it is even more essential to rely on one another. While it would be naive to expect the priorities of the sectors to align perfectly, I’m reminded of the following quote by John Blake from October 2022, when the consultation on access and participation was launched:

We also contend there is a wider mission for higher education – a civic and moral duty to always seek out new ways to serve our society, better ways to ensure that those historically excluded from higher education can benefit from it.

The opportunity for partnership and collaboration goes to the core mission not only of third sector organisations, but also higher education providers. If we are to fulfil this “civic and moral duty”, the only way is together.

One response to “Increasing equality of opportunity requires deeper collaboration with the third sector

  1. A university which has status from the Charities Act 2011/1993 have charitable status. They have been registered as charities and are already supposed to be operating as members of the third sector.

    So the expectation for third sector collaboration predates 2019, and the OfS, by roughly a quarter of a century.

    They are only ‘exempt’ from regulations/registration/oversight with the Charity Commission because they have one or more different bodies that are supposed to be regulating and overseeing them and their charitable work. The OfS is one of those bodies.

    If there is a need for any higher education provider registered as an exempt charity to be brought (back) into the third sector discussion then the plan has gone very badly wrong and these companies should not be enjoying charity status.

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