Matching ambition with outcomes for fair access and participation

Today the Office for Students (OfS) launches a consultation which will see a major shake up of the way we regulate access and participation.

We want to bring about significant change in ensuring not just that university and college doors are open to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also that those students thrive in their studies and are well-prepared for life after graduation.

So why are we doing this now? I’ve been in the post as director for fair access and participation for nine months. In that time, I’ve visited universities and colleges all over the country meeting with students, senior management and those implementing access and participation programmes. I’ve enjoyed discussions with a vibrant third sector and I’ve been struck by a shared passion and commitment to improving access and aspiring to the best possible outcomes.

More work needed

I am just finishing assessing the first round of access and participation plans. They show significant investment and increasingly well thought-out activity. However, the ambition I hear in meetings often isn’t matched in these plans, either by aspirational targets or progress on the ground.

There are still significant challenges that need to be acknowledged in plans, for example, poorer outcomes that go hand in hand with particular groups of students. We need universities and colleges to be rigorous in their self-reflection and use of evaluation and evidence. Many of the first drafts of plans we read were weak in these areas. Some self-assessments gloss over the problems, sometimes seeking to assign blame to others, or hide behind sector-wide patterns. It is, frankly, not the sort of practice that should pass muster in knowledge-based organisations.

For these reasons, I’ve been challenging universities and colleges on the rigour of their self-assessments and their approach to evaluation. Crucially, we will expect more stringency and greater ambition next year. I am confident that the proposals we set out today will support this and drive change, while also cutting unnecessary bureaucracy.

Risk based and strategic

The consultation document sets out the rationale for our proposals. I want to draw out some which are likely to generate most debate. First, we’re moving away from the annual submission of access plans. People in universities often say to me that they would be more ambitious and achieve more if given a longer period to plan and deliver their activity than the current cycle makes possible.

Instead, we’ll take a risk-based approach. We’ll monitor progress annually and take action where we have concerns, but those providers that are at low risk will only need submit a new plan every five years. Higher risk providers will be required to submit plans more frequently. This new approach lets universities and colleges take a more strategic, long-term approach to their work. It also, clearly, reduces red tape and frees up staff so they can concentrate on the programmes, support and interventions which improve access and outcomes. Meanwhile, OfS staff will be able to focus their attention on providers that are not ambitious enough or failing to make progress.

Looking at the data

People outside higher education often tell me they have a perception that a particular university or the sector as a whole is not making enough progress – but they don’t have the facts to back it up. That’s one of the reasons why we will provide much better evidence on the performance of every institution at each stage of a student’s journey. We’ll achieve this by placing additional commitments on universities and colleges to be transparent, but also by publishing a much clearer set of data and indicators every year through OfS.

As we signalled in the regulatory framework, institutions will need to publish data on applications, offers, admissions, and outcomes split by gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background. The consultation suggests we go further, including data by age and disability status. The OfS will also launch an access and participation data set. This will show the extent to which progress is being made across the sector and at individual providers. These measures will cast a brighter spotlight than ever before on institutional performance. It will be evident which institutions are helping to close stubborn gaps in participation and outcomes, and which aren’t. And it will also challenge everyone, including me, to achieve the progress students, Parliament and the wider public are expecting from us.

Targets and finance

Universities and colleges will continue to set their own targets; they must be strategic and focused on outcomes not activity. Some targets will use standardised measures set by the OfS; this will help us to more easily compare performance between institutions across key national priorities. Clarity over our measures of good practice and success will also help institutions to know where we need to see progress, and compare their performance with others.

We’re also changing the way we collect details of expenditure, which should rebalance our focus towards the outcomes achieved, rather than the money spent. So, we will be asking providers to report on the investments they make to engage with young people aged under 16, those between 16 and 18, and adults, as well as their financial support for students, but they will do this as part of our broader regulatory requirements.

For all activity and financial support, we’ll be tough on our expectations. Evaluation is not an optional extra; it’s critical to making significant progress. We will increase our support in this area, and there will be greater opportunities, through the new Evidence and Impact Exchange, for providers to share effective practice. This extra support will come with greater expectations. It is in everyone’s interest to understand what works best and we all need to raise our game on this.

It is simply not good enough that a postcode or a particular school could be the key factor influencing where a young person ends up in life. I am confident that today’s proposals can make a lasting difference to the many thousands of people who have the talent to excel in higher education but are being held back by factors outside their control. Universities and colleges tell me they’re ambitious and they’re committed to change – these reforms will ensure that their actions back their words.

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