To close access and participation gaps we need to close our understanding gaps

Launched in 2019, the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO) has been established as a new “what works” centre with the aim of tackling inequality in higher education.

TASO’s remit is to synthesise, generate, and disseminate evidence, and to help support a thriving evaluation community. But where does the centre sit amidst ongoing debate about impact, evidence and evaluation in the sector?

Impact not expenditure

The call for a more evidence-informed approach to widening participation and student success is not new. For several years, the Office for Students (and formerly OFFA) have released guidance and tools designed to encourage providers to bolster their evaluation practice and we have seen the focus swing away from measuring spending and towards measuring outcomes. Concurrently, the OfS has introduced ambitious new targets to eliminate the gaps in access and student success within 20 years, setting clear quantitative goals for the sector.

But as noted by Julian Crockford here on Wonkhe, (now chair of TASO’s Evaluation Advisory Group) setting targets is only half of the story. Practitioners are tasked with devising a programme of activities to achieve rapid progress on these targets, to be refined and iterated through the production of impact reports and action plans. The question of which activities to choose has been left largely to providers and this, Julian argues, is akin to asking the sector to find its way to a far-off destination without a map.

It is hard to disagree – but I would argue that this is exactly the dynamic we need. Yes, the path from where we are to the OfS’s targets is unclear, but practitioners hold expertise, experience and institutional knowledge to forge ahead in the coming years. What is needed, however, is as much guidance and support as the sector can offer, and this is where TASO can play a valuable role. If practitioners are leading the way, TASO must help navigate – and although we don’t yet hold a complete map to success, we will aim to help providers chart a pathway through the complex landscape of evaluation and impact.

Evidence of impact

As a first step, it’s vital that we develop a clear understanding of the evidence base on how to support access and success for disadvantaged and under-represented groups. Assessing the strength of the existing evidence has been TASO’s focus over the last ten months, and this process has centred on two research themes: widening participation outreach and gaps in the student experience. In summer 2019 TASO conducted a ‘call for evidence’ from the sector and gathered over 100 examples of research and evaluation, which have been rolled into a broader review of the literature for each theme.

We are pleased to be able to start sharing the results of this analysis for widening participation and today we have released our first report with the Education Policy Institute: “The impact of interventions for widening access to higher education”.

The report highlights that we still lack a robust evidence base on the efficacy of activities designed to widen participation in HE. Specifically, although many approaches produce a modest positive effect on individuals’ understanding and attitudes, we know less about the impact on actual behaviour, such as enrolment in HE courses.

The report also identifies sizeable evidence gaps for some of the most popular initiatives, including summer schools and multi-intervention outreach schemes. Where we do see positive outcomes among participants, there is a dearth of causal evidence – that is, we do not know whether activities are truly effective or whether they simply attract individuals who were more likely to apply to HE in the first place.

The question of how to generate new evidence to fill these gaps is not trivial. Evaluators are still seeking to establish the most appropriate and practical techniques for the sector, and methodological and philosophical debates continue. TASO seeks to contribute to the pluralism of the sector by bringing the What Works approach into the rich methodological toolbox. For our first funding round, we are seeking partners for two projects: both a randomised evaluation of summer schools and a developmental, process‑driven project focused on identifying the effective elements of multi‑intervention outreach schemes and mentoring.

From evidence to practice

Evidence generation is core to TASO’s mission, but it can’t be our sole focus – behind every Access and Participation Plan are the people who collectively shape and deliver widening participation and student success activities and it is these individuals we need to reach if we are to meet our aims.

It’s vital that TASO produces tools and resources which are practical and have direct relevance for those who are delivering activities. To some it may feel that the drive for more evidence and evaluation is separate from practice, but we are all on the same journey towards eliminating inequality in HE and I am hopeful that, together, we will reach our destination a little faster.

Leave a Reply