Blake calls APP England

Rumours of tearing up existing plans and writing new ones may have been wide of the mark

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

John Blake’s heavily trailed state of the access and participation nation turned out to be more evolution than revolution, and more evaluation than either. Here’s the slides and the speech.

The evaluation bit was a new, and welcome addition to existing priorities around quality and school-university engagement that will be familiar from the most recent OfS guidance letter. You”ll recall that some of the language around that guidance suggested that your hard-won access and participation plan was lost in time, like tears in the rain.

We would like to see the OfS rewrite the national targets to better align with this new focus, and renegotiate A&P plans with providers to meet these new priorities

What this actually means appears to be the introduction of a new concept of “variations”. We can expect full guidance in the spring of 2022, but this will be the cue to build in the new priorities, which are here stated as:

  • strategic partnerships with schools to raise attainment
  • improving the quality of provision for underrepresented students
  • developing non-traditional pathways and modes of study

Variations will be submitted over the summer, with OfS assessments of these to follow very quickly – allowing the amended plan to run from the start of the next academic year.

In year monitor

Providers with an APP in force for 2020-21 will be expected to publish a short impact report in the autumn or winter, and respond to questions from OfS – which will appear on a risk-led basis stemming from analysis of data. The full self-evaluation will not be expected this year.

That also means that the optional independent student submission won’t be automatically invited this year either – although OfS was impressed with the exercise last time, and still expects providers to be working with students and SUs on regular involvement and evaluation activity.

So what about years to come? We can expect consultation with stakeholders on the development of a new APP cycle, but the preferred approach seems to be new plans for 2024. That’s a year earlier than we were expecting before the change of director, but it is better than having to start again this year which is what more than a few were expecting.

Interesting bits from the speech

On Covid and meeting the needs of all students:

In higher education, whilst we can point to some sudden successes – who knew that it was so easy to record lectures and allow students to review them afterwards? Certainly not those disabled students who campaigned so long for it and were told it was impossible – we also have to face the fact that educational inequality is rarely made better by major disruption.

A nice restatement of current government orthodoxy on participation and outcomes:

I absolutely reject any suggestion that there is a trade off between access and quality – if providers believe the regulation of quality justifies reducing their openness to those from families and communities with less experience of higher education or who have travelled less common, often more demanding, routes to reach them, they should be ashamed of themselves.

and

It cannot be right that those students’ entry to higher education is used to polish the laurels of providers who are consistently and persistently not delivering on the quality of teaching and support those same students need to thrive in higher education, and succeed after graduation. The access and participation plan process can do more to prevent this.

Which is nicely phrased – nobody is doubting the right of all students to a quality higher education, the issue comes with assuming that outcomes are a good measure of teaching quality (they are not) and that outcomes are not affected by student background (they are). Perhaps Blake will introduce some evaluative evidence into this infuriating conversation.

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