Due by 31st July, variations need to address the four priorities previously signalled by Director for Fair Access and Participation John Blake – making APPs more understandable and accessible to students and key stakeholders, partnering with local schools, getting on as well as getting in, and creating more routes into higher education through the expansion of degree apprenticeships and flexible level four and five qualifications.
In many ways, though, what’s surreal is what is not there.
When access agreements were annual, providers had the opportunity to adjust some of the things they were doing both for inflation and to take account of changes in government policy. And so when OfS switched to five year plans, the underpinning assumptions were that both inflation and government policy were fairly stable.
Both of those assumptions turned out to be wrong. So to only ask providers to adjust plans to correct for one component of one of those assumptions is surreal.
When the bulk of university providers last wrote down their student financial support plans, they were doing so off the back of guidance issued in February 2019 – and so will have been basing plans on circumstances at the time, and evaluation of activity carried out during a period of pretty low inflation.
It’s unlikely that anyone at the time was estimating that the effective student inflation rate would hit 10 percent this year. Nor was it likely that anyone was assuming that tuition fees would still be frozen in the 2024-25 academic year.
Were providers predicting the continued slashing of funding for the UniConnect programme (by another £10m next year)? Were providers to know that funding for the student premium – designed to help providers support those students at most risk of dropping out – would fall even further per head in real terms?
The point is that when the circumstances change, we ought to adjust our expectations – and both nudge and support folks on adjusting appropriately.
A key OfS judgement when reviewing access and participation plans in light of targets being set is to determine whether those plans are sufficiently realistic or robust. And the truth therefore is that an APP that has a plain English summary, discusses a few projects with local schools, describes some L4 pilots and summarises the work of the student success unit shouldn’t cut it.
Providers, for example, that have been maintaining the same family income limits for student financial support since the OFFA days really ought to have been reminded how hard things are getting for families on £25k or less. Providers maintaining the same value of bursaries for the life of their plans really ought have been reminded that £1,000 in 2019 really won’t be anything like as helpful for a low-income student in 2024.
Providers assuming that the student premium, or UniConnect, or inflationary increases in the unit of resource will provide funding to augment their efforts really ought to have been reminded that all of these things are now being slashed. And given the weight of evidence that’s stacking up over extra-curricular activities and outcomes – and how the pandemic has hit participation from those from low-income backgrounds in particular – you’d have hoped some words would have emerged from Nicholson House on that.
It would have been right, surely, for providers to have been reminded about some of the big impacts that the pandemic has had on student (and applicant) mental health and confidence – and to remind providers that their involvement of students in the development and monitoring of those plans ought to be providing signals on what to do with APPs as a result.
Your hopes would be dashed. Some plain English, something vague about getting on as well as in, and a couple of square peg, round hole DfE priorities to be shoehorned in are what plans will have to instead reflect. It’s now up to providers to do the right thing all on their own.