No surprises on access and participation

The Office for Students has published its new guidance on Access and Participation Plans.

Along with the launch of an Evidence and Impact Exchange, this is billed as the “start of a new, more strategic approach to improving access and participation”. With the new approach to access and participation out in the wild, I wanted to unpack some of what it could mean from a practitioner perspective.

The more the world is changing the more it stays the same

It is important to acknowledge there aren’t really surprises here. But there are substantive shifts – some on policy, some technical, and many of which are both overdue and positive. The expanded guidance (clocking in at 53 pages for Regulatory Notice 1 alone) gives more detail on the regulator’s decisions in response to the consultation carried out in the autumn.

The first major change is that APPs will set objectives and targets for a five-year period. This is unsurprising and welcome. Those with responsibility for overseeing APPs and Widening Participation work have been asking for this for a long time and, as the consultation bore out, practitioners will be on board with this in principle.

This is a good thing for several reasons. Access Agreements under the Office for Fair Access were nominally five-year plans. But OFFA would release new guidance every year and we’d have to do a new Access Agreement in response. This was, ultimately, not very strategic – giving the impression (whether deserved or not) of an ever-shifting terrain. It’s hard to plant a flag in loose ground. This could fix that issue.

A five-year approach also allows for better long-term planning. For WP teams this is particularly important when launching work with younger year groups, which necessarily involves a longitudinal approach. We’re building in the idea that in some cases effective change takes time. It can also map onto the student lifecycle for enrolment, continuation and completion.

Life is full of small surprises, it’s a never ending game

In the run up to publication, some worried that there would be new national targets ‘imposed’ on the sector. Effectively the new approach is to aim for fewer, better targets. Each institution gets given a core dataset, with a dashboard of headline metrics from which to do a self-assessment and set targets from this core bunch. This relates to gaps in access, continuation, attainment and progression across a number of different ‘groups’. Targets have to be aligned to deliver OfS’ national priorities alongside specific institutional challenges. And in addition there will be supplemental datasets that institutions can use to identify gaps and set further targets.

Again, this is good. Even though institutions have been moving in this direction anyway, a move from inputs and outputs to demonstrating impact is necessary, with many (but not all) now having well-developed Theories of Change, or at least an evaluation framework for much of their activity. Establishing what impact we expect our work to have, what institutional and societal change we want to see, and making sure we can demonstrate that is only right. It underpins the launch of the Evidence and Impact Exchange and, as referenced in the guidance, a self-assessment tool for providers to identify where they are at in terms of evaluation maturity will be part of the submission.

If nothing is impossible, will you believe your eyes

The third major branch of the reforms is OfS moving away from a minimum expenditure commitment. It is right that an expected investment level (that for many was established in 2012) should be revisited. And as cash investment is an input, this is consistent with a move to focus on impact (i.e. what is achieved with the investment). The OfS does state that any significant reduction in access investment from previous years is going to need clear and convincing rationale, and indicates that they’ll be sure to ask these questions if faced with a proposed reduction. There is concern, however, that this is coming a few years too early – and that transitioning out of the current practice of setting an expected spend will need to be closely and carefully considered.

We are about to commit to stretching targets over a sustained timeframe, and plans will be reviewed and approved based on credibility and risk. So the investment commitment will need to be credible to achieve the level of change expected, particularly at ‘high tariff’ providers. The new approach is moving closer to achieving this by looking at ‘return on investment’. This may be possible in the long term, but feels prematurely tactical from the regulator. It’s complicated and nuanced work and I’m not sure the sector is ready to pivot to this approach without more preparation. The EIX may also be well placed to contribute here.

If the unexpected brings a smile, that’s a big surprise

As ever, there will be things we do that won’t feature anywhere in the guidance but which we will still go to bat for. At King’s we’ll be drafting an access strategy with Lambeth council. We will be campaigning with LatinXcluded to raise the visibility of the LatinX community via inclusion in the census. And we will carry on empowering parents to campaign on HE issues that matter to them.

These are important facets of WP activity as we see it, and other departments up and down the country have their own areas core to their mission that can’t always be converted into an easily metricised framework – in fact where this may be possible is through smart and more deliberate links to the emerging KEF. But from the consultation events and the subsequent guidance, the OfS does seem open to the broad nature of WP in 2019 and to try and allow for this kind of flex, providing that the ‘core’ national priorities are addressed. It will be for us to make sure we keep this sort of discussion on the agenda and are ready for the next phase.

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