Policies directly concerned with widening participation in higher education, or which are likely to have an impact on it, have come thick and fast over the last few months.
At the end of 2021, the government announced an “access reboot” laying out expectations that universities will work more closely with schools to raise attainment and aspirations and provide evidence of what works, a direction of travel reiterated in the levelling up White Paper.
More recently, proposals in the government response to the Augar review, particularly minimum entry requirements and number caps, and the imposition of numerical baselines in student outcomes, also have implications for widening access, and in the view of many in the sector, the potential to be damaging.
Governors who spoke to Advance HE pointed out that working with schools is already a core part of university WP and outreach, whether that be institution-specific passport schemes or wider aspiration raising initiatives.
“We are doing exactly that - sending students into schools to do mastery classes for example,” said the governor at an alternative provider who also sits on a Russell Group institution audit committee. “That’s been going on for over 20 years. I understand that government wants more of it; of course they do, who wouldn’t.”
A governor at one small specialist institution outlined its partnerships with three local schools and wider work in schools in low participation neighbourhoods, including running Saturday morning classes.
“Our work with schools is critical to our goal of making the subject we specialise in as accessible as possible,” she said. “I don’t think culturally anyone would object to what is being asked by ministers but the resource question is a very big one for us. We are a very small place and funds are scarce. Diverting resource into this has been, and will continue to be, a challenge.”
Similar comments were made by governors at other institutions, who asked where will the funding come from to pay for more outreach programmes at a time of rising inflation and fee freezes?
Another issue is difficulty with providing the kind of objective evaluation of schemes that the government and the Office for Students’ new director of fair access and participation, John Blake, want to see.
“Certainly a big message from the new director is the evidencing and evaluation side but it is well known that it is very difficult to bank evidence because it requires the long-term tracking of students,” said one HE governance expert. “So many factors influence whether a young person decides to go to university. What has been the critical factor is very difficult to pin down.”
A Russell Group governor has similar concerns: “I might be leading a university that is doing incredible work in this area but it is not getting the expected outcomes because it is in one of the most deprived areas in the country and there just isn’t the social support, social capital, all of those social networks, that feed into outcomes. If these outcomes are measured, there could be a disincentive against going into these areas which are hardest to reach and to get positive outcomes from.”
There is also a question mark over whether schools have the capacity, staffing, time and resources to engage fully with universities knocking on their doors, particularly schools in challenging circumstances with the disadvantaged intakes that HE is meant to boost the fortunes of.
“The message we have been getting back is that there are so many things being offered that schools don’t have the capacity to engage with them all,” said a governance expert. “There’s not enough space in the school day or in the workload demands already on teachers to really make that possible and to do it well and monitor the effect of it.”
A significant amount of current outreach is with sixth formers. Governors interpret the refresh as an attempt to persuade the sector to work with younger pupils; there is an obvious symmetry in setting minimum GCSE grades and saying to universities it is part of your job to ensure young people achieve them.
But again, this presents a resource question. The lecturer or third-year student who is happy to run a master class with 17 and 18 year olds might be less enthusiastic about working with 13 year olds or seven-year-olds.
“The capacity and skills within universities to communicate with or teach, say primary school pupils, might just not be there and to build that up will take funding,” said the governor of a post-1992 university. “As a governor, I would really be concerned about spreading ourselves too thinly.”
Despite the challenges, the expectation is that “wherever the regulator and government focus, there will be more investment” by universities. Certainly, governors envisage partnerships with organisations that may already have the school contacts and expertise in working with a range of pupils. New Access and Participation Plans for 2024/25 to 2028/29, featuring this “access refresh” work, have to be submitted by summer 2023. Current plans, which cover 2021/22 to 2024/25, are supposed to be updated. Variations have to be submitted by this summer. OfS advice on this is expected in April.
For universities which already have outstanding WP records, however, there are other more pressing concerns. The governor of a university where 60 per cent of students are from ethnic minority backgrounds and a quarter of the intake are eligible for Free School Meals, pinpoints retention and completion is a much bigger challenge.
“To up the ante on aspiration raising in schools would be very challenging for us when actually we know what we have to concentrate on: once we have the students in, it is to keep them, nurture them and help them be as successful as possible. As a governor, I would be worried that this directive on access might deflect us from what we know we should be doing.”
A similar criticism is levelled against the plan in England for minimum entry requirements of GCSE passes in maths and English, or two Es at A-level, to qualify for student finance.
“I struggle to see what the rationale is for maths minimum entry grades in humanities or arts for instance,” said a post-1992 governor. “It might be useful in some courses but not across the board. Surely universities should be setting their own admission requirements, as they do in Scotland, where they are contextualised for disadvantage. The English policy is that everybody has to do the same. I don’t see why it is necessary at all.”
Minimum GCSE grades are described as a “blunt instrument” by a member of the governing body at an alternative provider who fears they could work against the idea of post-16 students progressing up through the various education levels.
Potential contradictions between quality assurance measures and widening participation are also highlighted. The government’s crackdown on “poor courses” which has led to numerical baseline proposals for progression, completion and graduate jobs, could all have implications for access, according to governors.
“Numerical baselines expect outcomes to be the same regardless of your starting point and that is hugely challenging,” said one governance expert. “It ignores the achievements of some WP institutions in terms of what they deliver for their local students and the way they raise aspirations and add value once students are in university.”
If non-traditional students become a risk to your data, there’s a disincentive for taking them, she warned. Widening participation students, who might have lower prior attainment, are more likely to drop out and are less likely to get a graduate job, are not acknowledged under a numerical baselines regime. The governor of a specialist institution also points out that in a small intake, one or two students can tip the balance.
“The step OfS has now taken – away from benchmarking and towards absolute figures - really does make it incredibly difficult for an institution to stick to its mission to serve the local community,” said one governor. “We have always very strongly celebrated the diversity of the university sector in the UK, that different universities serve different purposed, however we seem to be going down a line which is one-size-fits-all.”
In the short to medium term, governing bodies will be interpreting internal data and setting it against the business case for courses. One governor mentions a recent committee deep dive into a particular subject area and its employability rates. Governors have concerns about pockets of provision that “by their very nature” are going to struggle to meet the OfS thresholds.
“This will be very much on the radar of governing bodies,” said one. “It is continuing the trend we’ve seen in the last two to three years. Universities, particularly in arts and humanities programmes, have seen this coming and started to make changes to provision. That is potentially a loss of opportunity for students of the future: places will not be there.”
However, for one governor, the numerical baselines have the potential to provide an opportunity for universities to refocus on important areas, such as employability, and provide their own context to justify what they do.
“The fight back against numerical thresholds, I think is a consequence of a sector that has been battered by indecision for five years and of course you are going to get people kicking back,” she said. “If everybody knew what they were supposed to do and it was set, I think you’d get a different reaction.”
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