Chris Millward tells us what he really thinks

Improvements to access shouldn’t be about lowering entry grades to get in only to see those students drop out. Nor should it be about expensive foundation years. Universities should be intervening to improve pupil attainment in schools.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That might feel like a new priority – embodied in the excitement before Christmas surrounding John Blake’s appointment as the new Office for Students (OfS) director for fair access and participation – but it’s actually been a theme in ministerial speeches for a few years now, and goes back at least as far as OfS‘ formation.

For example, the first bit of ministerial guidance to OfS on access and participation said this:

This Government has emphasised its strong desire to harness the resources and expertise of our higher education sector to work in partnership to improve outcomes across the state school system. The Government expects more higher education providers to establish stronger long-term relationships with schools. This could include becoming involved in school sponsorship, opening free schools and supporting mathematics education in schools (although support need not be limited to those means), with the aim of raising attainment and progress for disadvantaged and under-represented groups so that more pupils are qualified to progress to higher education.”

Nevertheless, you get the sense that it’s an agenda that’s been resisted by OfS, or at best de-prioritised. Now in a terrific pers cap paper for the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) that charts the history of access regulation since 2006, outgoing director for fair access and participation Chris Millward lifts the curtain a little and gives us an insight into what’s been going on in this epic Mountain – Mohammed tussle.

Having had that advice on schools, Millward says that OfS included it in guidance to universities and colleges, and produced good practice resources to support the work, but that OfS was “cautious” about positioning it any more strongly than would be “appropriate” for the regulator of higher education, rather than schools – for four main reasons.

  1. OfS could not compel universities and colleges to invest their own funds in schools or for specific purposes such as raising attainment;
  2. The investment made through access and participation plans was derived from the tuition fees of current students and they would legitimately question why they were being asked to pay for schools;
  3. Any contribution universities made to raising attainment in schools would be a marginal one, so it would be difficult to determine how they would be held to account through access and participation regulation, other than for levels of spending and activity;
  4. Many of the institutions with access and participation plans were further education colleges and specialist providers recruiting adults from professions and communities, rather than young learners from schools.

What’s fascinating about all that is that you can see what happened when ministerial exhortations met the realities of actual regulatory design, powers allocated in legislation, and that pesky question of what will actually work. This is, in many ways, evidence of the old “buffer” role between government and the sector in action.

Maybe it’s the case that ministers frustrated at the lack of progress on universities intervening on schools attainment never heard those arguments, with OfS playing “carry on regardless they’ll be gone soon”. Maybe it’s that ministers disagreed with the reasoning and had good reasons for the disagreement that we’ve not seen in public. Maybe it’s that ministers and their advisors just heard all of that as “excuses”, and resolved to move on from Millward with a schools improvement person who now has a spectacularly difficult brief.

Either way, given that all four of the above reasons remain, given that ministers want fast results, and given that the approach to attainment Millward settled on is so deeply embedded into access and participation both inside OfS and across the sector, John Blake appears to have a much harder job on his hands than perhaps many anticipated.

Elsewhere in the paper, Millward offers a stinging critique of the direction of travel of government policy insofar as it may involve a reduction in the number of people studying and working in higher education, and the promotion of other routes through life:

Firstly, increasing demand for higher education has driven governments in England since the second world war to facilitate expansion; we saw this continue during the pandemic, despite the rhetoric against it, and I expect it to continue. Secondly, tertiary education in the 21st century cannot simplistically be divided between academic and technical routes; it is academic, technical, professional and creative, reflecting demand from students, but also the character of work and the demand from employers for broad and adaptable cognitive abilities, as well as specific skills.

He’ll find few in the sector disagreeing with that. What we don’t know yet is whether John Blake will come to agree with him.

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