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Becoming a social beacon in student safeguarding – how the OfS Catalyst Fund has helped catalyse sustainable change

27 Aug 2020 | Hannah Borkin Advance HE’s Hannah Borkin and Kevin Guyan conducted research into the effectiveness of the Office for Students’ (OfS) Catalyst Fund, a fund designed to support projects to improve student safeguarding in higher education. As the final evaluation is published, Hannah looks at the impact the Fund has made across the sector.

Student safeguarding involves putting in place measures to ensure those at Higher Education Providers (HEPs) are protected from abuse, harm and neglect. As long as safeguarding measures are required, the need for partnership working, involving students and staff, to deliver long-term, sustainable approaches remains a pressing issue.

This need was recognised by the OfS in response to a 2016 Universities UK (UUK) report, Changing the Culture. In alignment with UUK’s ongoing work in this area to drive cultural change, the OfS provided matched funding support to English HEPs to explore new approaches in three areas of student safeguarding: sexual violence and misconduct; online harassment; and religious-based hate crime and harassment.

The topic of religion and belief was explored in a recent Advance HE report on student outcomes. The report was the first of its kind to examine how student outcomes may differ according to religion and belief. This analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency was intended to give providers an evidence-base to more effectively target initiatives for underrepresented groups and to tackle structural inequalities related to religion and belief. The report was intersectional in focus, and considered how religion and belief intersected with other identity characteristics such as gender.

When looking further into the data in the Advance HE report, it was found that the religion and belief composition of the student population of the 11 Catalyst-funded providers was broadly similar to the rest of the UK higher education sector. This further confirmed that the recommendations provided in the round three summative evaluation of the Catalyst funding could be applicable on a wider scale.

Advance HE evaluated all three rounds of this funding and the OfS has today published Advance HE’s final evaluation. This report considers the holistic impacts of the third round of the Catalyst funding, which ran between 2018 and 2020 and supported 11 projects. The evaluation focuses on identifying recommended practice, knowledge gaps and inherent risks for providers conducting work in the area of religious-based hate crime and harassment.

Positive progress

The learnings and outcomes that emerged from the round three evaluation were varied and, on the whole, very positive. They focused on areas such as project impact, student engagement and experience and the measures project teams put in place to ensure sustainability.

The 11 providers came together for a series of network meetings to exchange ideas about their initiatives. The network meetings provided an opportunity for project teams to share good practice and form a collaborative network of specialist knowledge. This exchange of expertise ensured outputs and resources from the funded projects were well-informed and able to share good practice. As an approach, this model could be further replicated for the sector in the case of future funding.

Providers collaborated with local community-led organisations, charities and faith groups to ensure project impacts went beyond the campus. Overall, providers felt confident they had made positive progress. In some cases, providers had become ‘social beacons’ for initiatives against hate crime, which involved the production of guidance and resources for providers that did not receive funding, as well as the local community. 

The positive impact of all three rounds of funding is clear. Providers highlighted a notable increase in reporting from students in the three areas of harassment covered by the funding, and student confidence and awareness of these issues has grown. Specialist training has been rolled out across providers as well as external to the provider, and senior leaders are engaged with the work. The challenge now is ensuring providers continue to embed this work going forward, as well as ensuring the work is intersectional.

As research into student inequality in the area of religion and belief remains sparse, publications such as Religion and Belief in Higher Education, as well as the round three evaluation of the Catalyst funding seem like timely and necessary commentaries. An intersectional, partnership and community-led approach is the first step to effectively tackle religious-based hate crime and harassment, and further support areas of student safeguarding as we progress into a post-COVID era.    


The final evaluation report can be found on the Office for Students website.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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