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Best laid plans? Ambitions for student access and participation in the new reality

14 May 2020 | Jess Moody As the sector responds to rapid change, Jess Moody, Senior Adviser at Advance HE, asks how institutions can hold on to a vision of equitable student access, participation and success.

The use of the word ‘unprecedented’ right now is, perhaps…unprecedented. With so many new challenges –  recruitment of new students, the ‘pivot’ (for some) to online teaching and support services, the needs of our community and workforce –  it could be dangerously easy for equality work to be deprioritised. We want to reiterate our support for the sector: to stay ambitious, even as our ‘reality’ may mean the challenge has increased, or our time scales shift.

Compounding inequality?

We entered this pandemic with already entrenched structural inequalities in higher education. Looking through the lens of the student lifecycle in the UK, these have resulted in many challenges, including:

  • Underrepresentation of specific student groups: both generally, and in different disciplines, levels of study, and types of institution.
  • significant degree awarding gaps for different student groups - particularly relating to ethnicity (and gendered intersections) and disability.
  • differential experience of safety and harassment
  • unequal progression to highly skilled employment, and postgraduate study
  • teaching staff and senior academic staff who do not yet reflect the diversity of student cohorts.

Plans were in place to tackle many of these challenges. In England for example, a new approach has developed focussed on long term Access and Participation Plans (APPs), sector level targets, and an evaluative turn: focussing on the outcomes of interventions, rather than financial or other inputs.

But COVID-19 has presented additional challenges. Firstly,  many of the students we are focussing on in this work (students underrepresented, marginalised or with specific needs) may very well be the students most affected by the pandemic: either directly in terms of health, or indirectly through the resulting social, academic and economic upheaval (all of which come with their own structural inequalities).  Secondly,  institutions may find themselves with reduced capability (time or resources) to respond to these needs, or even wonder what part they can play. In all this – not only the risk of continuing inequality, but the risk of compounding inequality – where go best laid plans?

The Office for Students in England – like many other funders and authorities – has responded to the crisis by a temporary easing or adjustment to external regulatory or monitoring requirements around undergraduate student equality work. Many institutions will be grateful for the flexibility and understanding here as they focus on internal challenges. But the OfS has also issued a clear message that institutions should still “seek to deliver” their Plans.

And all these external drivers – APPs (or equivalents), transparency returns, funded projects, Equality Charters – should ultimately be considered instruments collectively working to achieve a greater aim: a vision of an equitable student learning experience. The test of COVID-19 is how embedded that aim is in an institution’s vision of what sort of educational experience it can and wants to provide coming out of this crisis, and for whom.

So the work goes on.

How do we keep student equity momentum going?

There’s no easy answer on this, but a good place to start would be to identify underpinning principles, and embed them into institutional decision making.

Here are just some suggestions.  

  • No one left behind: Identify your most vulnerable groups (in terms of underrepresentation, marginalisation, or differential needs) and ensure that their inclusion in higher education going forward is prioritised. Institutions will need to reflect on either their changing needs of these groups, the size of the populations, and any newly vulnerable groups, as the pandemic creates new and changing disadvantages.
  • Do no more harm: there are many things about this crisis that we can’t control. But we can make every effort not to compound existing inequalities. A strategic equality impact analysis can be helpful here: some recently updated resources from our work funded by the Scottish Funding Council may be more widely applicable.
  • Be transparent and flexible: commit to transparency in the difficult decisions being made (particularly about prioritisation), but be flexible in response to any unintended negative impacts on vulnerable groups. Trust and belonging go hand in hand: where mistakes are made, or the needs of a particular group are missed, be honest and work with students to understand their changing lives.  
  • Support first: so much of the work around not only enabling students to ‘get in’ but ‘get on’ (or even ‘get ahead’) in higher education has focussed on supportive infrastructures: from inclusive to targeted support (academic,  financial, wellbeing) to meeting individual needs and adjustments. Check that ‘wraparound’ provision isn’t being lost in the move online, and what may need to change in the future.
  • Learn: Understand the impact of your decisions. This could be about monitoring the outcomes or participation of students through an equality lens following key decisions or structural changes. However, an evaluative approach is not only about statistical analysis, or benchmarking metrics, nor is student equity something to be done to students or observed about them. It’s about whole institutional reflection, about listening to feedback, and about critical conversations about approach and positionality and learning and unlearning. Give both staff and students a change to ask, listen, reflect, and learn – in partnership.

How can we help?

And what is our role at Advance HE? Well, we can listen, we can offer resources, we can prompt questions and share answers through our networks, and we can offer direct support and advice.

For the sector and our members we’ve responded recently with a range of COVID-19 specific resources which can relate to your student equity work, such as:

In keeping to our visions we must also not lose sight of where we’d got to, if we want to keep momentum going. We continue to offer our existing resources and training, working with you to contextualise these into the new challenges, and perhaps more clearly communicate with colleagues about the importance of this work.  For example, we have materials to help you:

Alongside this we have been working with some members (and their students) to consider how they can ensure their student access, participation and success work is heading in the right direction. That could be offering an external critical eye on general approaches and operationalisation of plans, or exploring tricky questions around (e.g.) recruitment or awarding gaps for specific protected or underrepresented groups.  We know that some members have asked us recently for more detail specifically on our support around the English APPs – so we’ve developed more guidance on how we can work with your staff and students through  bespoke options here .

There are a lot of unknowns but as a sector we want to learn. Advance HE is still here as a critical friend to help you with your challenges, to share new knowledge, and to keep the light burning for an equitable higher education sector.

Jess Moody is a Senior Adviser at Advance HE, exploring diversity and inclusion across the staff and student lifecycles in higher education. She has supported a range of universities with their inclusive curricula development, and tackling structural inequality in access and participation

With the introduction of an approach to Access and Participation from the Office for Students in England, and increased regulation across the UK, Advance HE can support institutions to identify challenges and realise ambitions in their approach to supporting student access, participation and success for all students: Supporting the success of Access and Participation Plans (APPs)


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