Ministers are making new demands on access to and participation in higher education

In a speech and a letter, ministers have set new expectations on access and participation. Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan wonder how universities will respond

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

“Providers should not be incentivised, nor rewarded, for recruiting disadvantaged students onto courses where too many students drop out or that do not offer good graduate outcomes.”

To accompany the appointment of John Blake as the new director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), Michelle Donelan and Nadhim Zahawi have written to the regulator with some new guidance for the postholder.

Michelle Donelan has also given a speech summarising some of the issues in the letter and setting out priorities for the post holder and providers in the years ahead.

The provided press lines focussed very much on “inputs” – with universities required to take steps to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children by driving up education standards in schools and colleges in the local community. The unspoken bit here is a government that has consistently previously expressed suspicion over contextual offers and admissions – we’re very much in the realm of “help the kids get the grades” rather than “bypass the system by making your own assessments” here.

Donelan’s press lines also emphasised “making getting on as important as getting in”, a reference to the suspicion (partly “proved” by the IFS/Sutton Trust research we cover elsewhere on the site) that the students benefiting from widened access in a given provider are not necessarily the same ones that complete or go to get cracking jobs. Universities will also be required to “set new ambitious targets” to support students throughout their time at university by “reducing dropout rates and improving progression into high paid, high skilled jobs” has also made up much of the coverage.

The big process headline is that having promised a more strategic approach by replacing one year access agreements with five year Access and Participation Plans (APPs), ministers are now asking OfS to tell universities to tear up those agreed plans three years early – all under the guise of doing so representing a “less bureaucratic approach”!

If you are wondering how this reduction in bureaucracy will manifest in these unexpected re-tooling of five year plans two years in, we’re afraid that this isn’t clear. Providers will still be expected to set and measure progress against “challenging” targets, these targets will still have to be approved (and we all recall what a joy that was last time round) by the OfS, and there will still be required monitoring both at a provider level and then on up to the regulator. We’re not told how long these plans are meant to last (there’s a suggestion of the remainder of the previous five year timeline), but at this point we could be forgiven for taking any announcement on this as being subject to change.

From here, Blake will need to take up post (January) and convert the mood music into new guidance for providers – but you’d have to assume that the desired pace of change here implies new plans submitted and approved for September 2022.

As such we’ve pulled out the key points from what has been released so far, and tried to put them into context.

Speech

Donelan’s speech stuck closely to the pre-circulated lines on access and was delivered with the competence we have come to expect. She did not – mercifully – impersonate a car or talk about Peppa Pig World. We got a thank you to the sector for hard work during the pandemic, and hints that both details of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) and the Augar report response are not far away. “Getting on is as important as getting in” (a line previously used by both Chris Millward and former NUS President Shakira Martin) is the line that will resonate.

On the LLE there were a few more clues on the long awaited transformative policy ahead of the consultation. It was suggested that the policy will be communicated as an individual “lifelong learning account”, with individuals able to “sign up and log in” to access four years of post-18 education. The example of a diesel van mechanic retraining after 10 years of experience suggests that the current workforce will be very much in scope for the LLE – with a feature allowing for “clear signposting” towards courses that will help meet career goals. But Donelan was also emphatic about young people not being “channelled, regardless of fit, into a straitjacket of a traditional three year degree”.

If you follow this sort of stuff, one thing that’s notable here is the almost total abandonment of the idea that OfS is an independent regulator – occasionally taking soundings from ministers, students and stakeholders and synthesising when exercising its statutory and strategic duties. This is very much a “it will do this” and there’s more “in this particular way” than we’ve seen in the past.

Guidance

Under the orders for John Blake, provider plans will need to be bolstered with new national targets from OfS – with a new focus loosely sketched as there being a more explicit read-across between access and quality, a focus on higher pre-university attainment, and outcomes measures – all couched in the old “graduate jobs” language rather than focused on output metrics.

The access into quality angle is the old “low quality courses” agenda back with a twist. We’re still looking at early employment-based metrics (eighteen months) as the measure, but there is also an angle around completion (of a “high-quality degree”). The higher prior attainment line emphasises providers working with schools, and providers should be credited for doing this even if young people decide on another (apprenticeship, higher technical) route not offered by the university or college in question.

There is welcome wording on regional equalities, which makes us hope that a more nuanced perception of what a “graduate job” is can actually support levelling up in local areas rather than dragging graduates towards London and other economic hubs.

OfS is charged with rewriting current national targets on access and participation to better align with this new focus. And, as above, it will renegotiate A&P plans with providers.

The working with schools angle is an interesting one. Most, if not all, providers already do something in this space – and there is evidence that working with a university or college can drive up attainment – or as the document puts it:

ensure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged and supported to achieve their full potential.”

There’s an attempt to reset plans to focus on “activities that benefit students” – the examples given include summer schools, intervention in schools, and targeted bursaries – and away from marketing activities that are seen as benefiting providers. If you are wondering whether telling young people about the benefits of courses at your university benefits them or the provider we are sure clarification will arrive shortly. It’s an easy enough line to assert, but picking apart “sales” and “advice” will be spectacularly hard for OfS to do (just as it is in, say, financial services) and without a big investment in information, advice and guidance universities are always going to be finger wagged at over perceived conflicts of interest.

Providers are told to be work “altruistically” with students – the emphasis is on attainment followed by their choice of next step. Universities will, therefore, get recognition for convincing students to attend other universities – and will need to set targets on encouraging entry to apprenticeships, HTQs, and part-time courses.

However:

Providers should not be incentivise, nor rewarded, for recruiting disadvantaged students onto courses where too many students drop out or that do not offer good graduate outcomes.”

Given the one and a half year time lag from entry on continuation data and the five year lag from entry of outcomes data, it is not clear whether these courses will be identified retrospectively or whether a general sense of disquiet drawing on the experiences of previous cohorts will be enough. Any changes to courses made in the light of these issues will surely also be taken into account?

Plans themselves will be both short and concise, both accessible and easy to understand. That’s not our words, that’s the words of the DfE letter to OfS. The intended audience should be parents and students, positioned here as able to hold providers to account over delivery rather than, say, participants in a plan’s development or delivery.

From nowhere we learn that this new regime of writing new plans three years into a five year plan, setting new challenging targets that need to be monitored against, and radically overhauling current outreach practices will reduce bureaucracy – and that providers will see a “material efficiency benefit” (MEB) from this. Some of you may be old enough to remember the time we moved to a five year access and participation cycle to reduce bureaucracy.

Overall, the big takeaway here is about that relationship – and forgive the crude language here – between inputs and outputs. We’ve heard Donelan say “I also want to be clear that we will look forensically at courses to ensure they are high quality, and lead to good graduate outcomes” before. The access and participation spin as she adds “especially when it is the disadvantaged who are let down time and time again by low-quality courses… by low completion rates and poor outcomes.”

The primary colours policy goal here is:

Gone will be the days where universities were recruiting students onto courses that lead to dropping out, frustration and unemployment.”

Whether the sector tries to prove her wrong, argue it’s the wrong question or deliver on that goal will be interesting to watch.

3 responses to “Ministers are making new demands on access to and participation in higher education

  1. Given the OfS has yet to be able successfully identify ‘quality’ I do not have high hopes that this will do anything but continue to conflate a bunch of unrelated stats with the concept. Perhaps I should judge the quality of my choice of breakfast cereal based on what sort of day I subsequently have?

    That’s before we even get into the question of whether any of these measures will actually have any positive impact on the people they are purportedly supposed to help; I find it curious that the government finds it difficult to accept that there may be societal or structural issues giving rise to disadvantage (presumably too Marxist?) and so likes to pretend the the underlying exams don’t have any problem with them that might need addressing whatsoever…

  2. So we’re looking at another 180. Universities have been pushed hard by OfS and DfE to stop broad social good WP activities which improved attainment and HE participation if they didn’t result in a measurable increase in WP participation at their provider specifically. The DfE/OfS solution is now to go back to doing the thing we were explicitly told not to (and which we were not allowed to include in APP).

    This does at least fit neatly with the other bit of OfS gaslighting on Quality (“no, we’ve always been interested in process as well as outcomes”).

    As you say, there’s nothing in this which suggests a tangible reduction in bureaucracy, and it’s pretty clear that we’re going to be spending the next 12 months radically redefining what we need to do for this Government regulator (it will be interesting to see whether we get minimum spending commitments back, as it will be hard to justify spending £1k of each HE student’s loan on provision in schools). Good job there’s nothing else to do right now, and that we’re not eagerly awaiting potential significant student funding cuts…

  3. I tend to look beyond the usual widening participation headlines and question just what the government and it’s policy wonks really want. Is it increased ‘social mobility’ whatever that actually means? Or something more, such as even greater financial control over students later lives through mortgages and not striking in order to keep paying them and the requirement for that to work to embroil as many young people into the system to achieve the greatest possible level of embedded control?

    Somewhere deep in Whitehall far removed from the politicians we elect sit the unelected elite neither civil nor servant snivel service power brokers who set the long term targets, the elected politicians being mere regularly replaceable window dressing dummies, to be briefed just enough to keep the longer term targets on track, and disposed of when or if they become problematical. Much as Orwell’s 1984 has become a handbook for state control machinery and his Animal Farm novella became a warning to the unelected elites, ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ were a double bluff warning to the people of the UK about the snivel service’s control. Double bluff? Yes allowed by the unelected so the people might laugh and say it’s only comedy and it could never be like that, those that have worked in the snivel service will you otherwise.

    The well endowed Universities might spend just enough to satisfy these new requirements, and keep their status, but many newer, smaller less well endowed Universities will find the costs difficult to bear, yet another stick to beat them with.

    “Powerful people cannot afford to educate the people that they oppress, because once you are truly educated, you will not ask for power. You will take it.” John Henrik Clarke

    “An educated people can be easily governed.” Frederick the Great

    And one final key quote from George Carlin:
    “Governments don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. That is against their interests.

    They want obedient workers who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept it.”

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