Uncertainty over Uni Connect should be a chance to define the terms of collaboration

A recent evaluation of the Uni Connect programme has focused minds on the future of collaborative outreach in England. Richard Boffey makes the case for a foundation of social justice

Richard Boffey is Head of AccessHE at London Higher

As someone involved in delivering the Uni Connect programme, I had found myself waiting with bated breath for the final report of an independent evaluation of the programme to be published.

This feeling will have been shared by many others in the sector, especially those running the 29 Uni Connect partnerships across England. For our organisations, the report and its recommendations are of existential importance.

There is much to welcome in its findings, including balanced assessments of where Uni Connect achieves real impact and where, with reforms, it could achieve even more. The report stops short of making a definitive recommendation as to what a national collaborative higher education outreach programme should be, and do, in the future, but that was always going to be the case given decisions on the future of Uni Connect rest ultimately with the Office for Students (OfS) and, by extension, with the Department for Education.

We now await OfS’ promised response to Public First’s evaluation. After such a prolonged period of flux for Uni Connect – phase three of the programme was of course subject to a consultation, too – a clear signal from the regulator and from government about the longer-term future of the programme is urgently needed. The OfS would also do well to heed the advice of my London Uni Connect colleague Antony Moss, who has written for the Higher Education Policy Institute about how to put collaboration at the heart of any future settlement for the programme.

At the risk of making contradictory arguments, however, it is not just clarity on funding that is needed at this point. What we also need is a more fundamental discussion about the purpose of collaborative widening access and participation work in English higher education.

Connective tissue

It may be counterintuitive to call for this discussion as Uni Connect approaches the end of its third phase. Surely now is the time for protracted consultation to give way to firm commitments, in the form of assured funding? Yet it is precisely the precariousness of the programme’s funding which has meant that discussions about Uni Connect have always remained focussed on matters of funding, structure and governance in the shorter-term, rather than on the role it could play in a social justice framework for the sector.

At present, both the regulatory framework for access and participation, with its focus on mitigating equality of opportunity risks, and the Uni Connect programme objectives relating to higher education participation and knowledge gaps, brokerage of partnerships, and generating what works evidence, are essentially processual. They each come from the assumption that HE study can transform the societal position of students from underrepresented backgrounds in certain ways – but do not, of themselves, constitute a social justice model.

We would neither expect nor want the regulator to be responsible for defining this. So, while the OfS weighs up its response to the Uni Connect evaluation, we as a sector have an opportunity to determine a vision of our own for tackling entrenched educational inequalities and the role collaborative outreach infrastructure can play in that. The Public First review ascribes value to Uni Connect as a “connective tissue” between the various stakeholders in higher education outreach, but looking beyond intervention-level definitions of connectivity, we now have a chance to think about how and where genuinely connected thinking can shift the dial on the most stubborn access and participation challenges of the current moment and how Uni Connect fits into this picture.

A social justice mission

A recent report by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) on levelling up and HE participation sketches out what this might look like with respect to socio-economic inequalities specifically. The report recommends that any future policy programme, whether framed around “levelling up” or “opportunity missions”, should include as one of its pillars a target relating to rates of HE participation amongst Free School Meals-eligible young people – and that this target should be embedded within the work of a renewed Uni Connect programme.

A social justice model for fair access in higher education could also include widening participation targets focussed on access to appropriate student accommodation, access to sufficient financial support to enable meaningful participation in university life, or access to genuine choice of (higher) education pathways. Currently these are all negatively drawn, as “risks”, in the equality of opportunity risk register, the EORR (risks 11, 10 and 5, respectively). It is down to the sector to define this model, including defining underlying outcomes, institutional practices and cultures, and cross-sectoral approaches to collaboration.

To take the example of the London Uni Connect partnership, it would be hard to justify agreeing the principles for our widening participation work, assuming it is funded beyond 2025, without giving regard to London’s housing crisis, given private sector purpose-built student accommodation costs for London students have increased by 20 per cent in the past year alone.

A social justice model of higher education in this context would necessitate an integrated model of addressing HE participation gaps and student housing supply. We must not lose sight of these interrelationships as we enter phase four of Uni Connect.

Such an approach would go some way towards addressing the issue of piecemeal reform to access and participation work that is exemplified by the current approach to Uni Connect, by bringing reform of collaborative outreach into step with wider social justice considerations across the sector. It would also help to resolve the questions that have dogged the subject of collaborative HE outreach programmes for years, relating to whether these programmes deliver outreach or serve as a platform for collaboration and practice sharing (or both), and whether they work to national or regional targets.

The regional Uni Connect partnerships, in whatever form they are constituted from 2025 onwards, will first want clarity on funding. In the meantime, they should look to consider what a social justice model for their area would look like, and how Uni Connect could help them to deliver that in future.

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