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"The Governor View" – new widening participation figures highlight competing performance measures

Widening participation is high on the agenda for governors and has been since 2004 when ‘top up’ tuition fees were introduced with the condition that universities draw up plans to widen access. Now in England universities are required to publish access and participation plans which are evaluated by the Office for Students, while in Scotland institutions are working towards targets monitored by the Commissioner for Fair Access. Meanwhile, in Wales, institutions must submit fee and access plans to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

So far, not one university has been de-registered or prevented from charging the extra fees through failure to recruit and retain enough non-traditional students, and some have made considerable progress. Despite this, the latest performance indicators on widening participation from HESA make discouraging reading. They show the percentage of new young undergraduate entrants who are state-educated has gone up by just 0.1 percentage point in five years, from 90 per cent in 2015-16 to 90.1 per cent in 2019-20. In addition, the percentage of new, young undergraduate entrants classed as being from widening participation (WP) backgrounds has risen less than one percentage point, from 11.1 per cent to 11.8 per cent across the UK and to 11.7 per cent in England.

New figures for student non-continuation rates in 2018-19 published by HESA on 24 February this year also show little change in the proportion of UK domiciled undergraduate entrants who do not continue past the first year – 6.7 per cent compared with 6.8 per cent in 2017-18 and 6.5 per cent the year before. Data consistently shows that students from disadvantaged homes with no family tradition of higher education and relatively little financial support are more likely to drop out. So it may be no surprise to find that HESA’s figures show universities with the best records for WP tend to have some of the worst records for student continuation.

Governors who spoke to Advance HE pointed out the irony that to succeed on one measure risked failure on another, and said that while their institutions had increased spending on supporting WP students over the last decade, they still found them less likely to reach graduation than their more affluent peers.

The governor of a large, new university questioned the criteria HESA uses to draw up its benchmarks. “It can be really frightening for governors because they are being challenged to ensure the delivery of the objectives of the OfS while being measured by key performance indicators that work against each other and are difficult to apply. Unless every aspect of widening participation can be a positive feature then there is a disincentive because the more students you take who are in danger of not continuing then the more you are putting your performance indicators and your reputation at risk. And if you are not good enough then your whole institution is at risk. The model needs re-visiting,” she said.

The OfS says that it is unacceptable for institutions to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as an excuse for poor outcomes. But some governors feel this is unfair, especially at a time when students from disadvantaged backgrounds have been most hard hit by the pandemic, losing part-time jobs without family safety nets to fall back on.

Some governors expressed alarm over the government’s advice to the OfS that graduate outcomes should be taken into account when calculating how well a university is doing on widening participation. “Gavin Williamson says he doesn’t think students should count towards the targets if they do subjects that don’t lead to good graduate employment outcomes. That could muddy the water on WP and have a very damaging effect when, in fact, I suspect the policy is more about how many institutions the government want to survive post-pandemic,” said a governor at a university with a strong research record. 

Governors interviewed were united in questioning the approach to measuring participation – suggesting it is too narrow and piecemeal, and calling for even more of a concerted national effort, backed by government funding, to move the figures in the right direction more quickly. One governor at a research-intensive university called for a well-funded reincarnation of AimHigher, the grassroots initiative set up by the Department for Education in 2004 and closed down in 2011, which has now been succeeded by Uni Connect (formerly the National Outreach Collaborative Programme).

“When you consider the deprived areas we should be recruiting from to improve our access statistics, we are still looking at grades that are poor and it’s a challenge. It shouldn’t be that way but under-achievement is something we have to deal with,” he added.

A discrepancy between the apparent progress reported to the OfS by individual universities and HESA’s national figures could come down to “faulty measurement”, according to the governor of an institution that has consistently met its targets for low income and BAME entrants but is still missing its HESA benchmark based on the proportion of students from low participation – POLAR4 – areas. This is underlined by the fact that most London institutions are reported as failing to meet their WP benchmarks, even though they are admitting a high proportion of disadvantaged students, he said.

Some institutions are better than others at targeting at the micro-level, almost on individual students, because a dozen or so entrants a year can make a big difference to the figures, suggested a governor at a medium sized institution. Long term problems will only be resolved, however, through a better-resourced national approach to partnership between schools and universities, he added.

Generally, governors think their institutions take widening participation targets seriously and, although access and participation plans are time-consuming, they do not view them as a tick box exercise. But a member of the board of a small, specialist institution felt that more could be done to reach out to potential students. While the pandemic has kick-started initiatives such as virtual auditions free of charge for the first time and using information technology to get freshers together on projects before they arrive, she felt both institutions and policymakers could be taking even more proactive action.

“The data shows us that widening access is an issue in specialist institutions and it is good to have an objective that regular people in the street care about. The difficulty is that good intentions don't translate easily into good outcomes in terms of recruitment and retention and to make real changes you need funding – small institutions do not have flexibility in income – and strong leadership,” she said.

The issues raised by governors demonstrate there is a high level of concern about widening access and participation data and how it is used, and a number of questions board members should consider. Governors may wish to take a closer look at how their own institution is performing against WP benchmarks, and the underlying reasons for this if they are below target. With the focus of attention shifting more towards improving continuation rates, the relationship between these and widening access may deserve particular attention.

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