Q&A: Richard Boffey – head of AccessHE

Post-pandemic priorities, Nadhim Zahawi and working with rapper Dizzee Rascal…

If your institution is in London, and committed to attracting the greatest diversity of students possible, you’ll probably know Richard Boffey, who’s been head of AccessHE – part of London Higher, the higher education (HE) network for the capital – since March this year. AccessHE works with about 50 HE providers across London, who Richard characterises as “the subset of London Higher members that either have a particularly clearly stated widening participation mission or a very strong local civic role to play.”

A North London grammar school boy from an academic family, Richard got involved in outreach work while studying German at the University of Leeds. After a stint in the corporate world, he’s now come full-circle to work he says “excites and motivates” him. He’s not an evangelist for higher education, he’s at pains to point out – but says “it’s a sector that can transform lives”. Here, we find out more about his mission…

Congratulations on your new(ish) role. Can you tell us a bit about it?

My role is looking specifically at how we can get members to collaborate around support for students from underrepresented groups throughout their HE journey. And supporting them in improving some of their widening access participation offer.

So that might be evaluating what works in the London context, it might be running projects that expand the reach of access and participation work. Day to day I’m involved in project management and oversight, liaising with the members trying to build a collaboration and reach out into communities in London, making sure that our members in their anchor institution roles are having that civic contribution. We know they already have, but we really want to amplify it.

What are the biggest issues facing access AccessHE right now? What are your short and long term priorities?

The post-pandemic context dominates at the moment. So a lot of our work is widening access and participation and initiatives in the context of, say, education recovery – the learning loss of the last 18 months – and considering in what ways prospective students, both young and old, have experienced some additional form of disadvantage through what we’ve all lived through during the pandemic.

That might be, in the case of young Londoners, time outside of school, not the same opportunities to experience higher education in the build-up to applying and entering it – they may not have been able to visit campuses, and may have had a deficit of advice and guidance that sixth formers and college learners get in those critical final years. Not to mention, of course, adults who have lost jobs and have been looking to upskill, but had that process interrupted or disrupted, and don’t necessarily know where to start.

So that’s an immediate term priority: support some of those areas that are interlinked with HE progression – attainment at school, integration into the community, opportunities to experience what higher education in London has to offer.

Some of the language and the rhetoric around widening access having essentially “conned” people into going into university is problematic

Long term? We have a Conservative government with a very strong majority that’s due, we think, this autumn, to finally report back on the Augar commission. Difficult to say with any confidence exactly what that will hold, but does seem like it will carry some some consequences for the sector in terms of the support that’s offered to students – financial supports, and bursaries, there might be a change to the headline fees, certainly to repayment thresholds for loans – so the sector is going to be navigating a sea change in the financial arrangements for higher education.

There’s an issue around perception of HE and the value of HE that is really important to widening access work. It’s something that you come up against, not just in the attitudes of people you’re engaging directly as prospective students, but their influences and parents who might be telling them, ‘Of all the opportunities, why would you do the one that involves taking on lots of debt?’

It’s also a government that has rowed back on the commitment to getting increasing numbers of young people into higher education. There was a time when this 50% mantra of New Labour was a gold standard for governments. But you can see that there’s an increasing emphasis on alternative post-secondary pathways. And that, in my view, doesn’t have to mean that higher education is competing with these options, especially from the perspective of access – we’re trying to inform and educate and advise people about all post-secondary options. I’d hate to think that we were promoting higher education at the expense of these alternatives.

How would you summarise the feelings of higher education providers at the moment about the noises the government has been making?

I guess it would depend in some measure on who in the institutions you asked. The government’s commitment to making the country an R&D superpower will be welcome news to certain universities, and clearly they have a role to play in that. The levelling-up agenda to me seems like one HE has a critical role in, even if we know that London isn’t necessarily getting the best press as part of this narrative and agenda. I think you could point to the fact that, within London, there is such disparity of wealth and opportunity – it isn’t an issue that is characterised by some London-and-elsewhere binary.

Although it’s easy to listen to the culture war narrative and think that universities have been attacked by government, there are clearly indications that this government sees a role for higher education

But then, if you asked widening access practitioners what they thought of the government’s current position…. Some of the language and the rhetoric around widening access having essentially “conned” people into going into university is problematic. It gives very short shrift to the frontline staff involved in supporting people and ultimately changing their lives by giving them a chance to go to HE. And so that hasn’t been helpful.

London rapper Dizzee Rascal joined AccessHE for a project in Tower Hamlets during the pandemic © Achim Raschka / CC-BY-SA-4.0


But it’s about finding constructive ways of working with this government and its agenda. From our perspective, it was a challenge, for instance, that Uni Connect funding for this year, a core programme of the OfS’s, was cut. Those are the constraints you have work within and try and make the best of. There are challenges, certainly.

Although it’s easy to listen to the culture war narrative and think that universities have been attacked by government, there are clearly indications that this government sees a role for higher education.

What was your reaction to Nadhim Zahawi being made education secretary?

I think I shared the view of several commentators in the sector who were quietly optimistic about it, in that he had a junior education minister role, and from what you can discern from his comments on higher education and universities seems to appreciate their value and the role they can play. And that’s encouraging – someone who believes in what they’re doing and is prepared to work constructively with them. So in terms of the viable candidates for the role, the names that were in the frame, the sector can probably be fairly thankful. I don’t know. Maybe that’s too strong….

Are there any recent AccessHE projects that you have found particularly rewarding?

One that sticks out was a piece of work that we were funded to do as part of the Greater London Authority’s post-pandemic recovery initiative, around delivering some work in Tower Hamlets with several of our members, as well as community partners. Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of poverty in London – we’d seen that the pandemic had impacted young people particularly acutely there. We knew it had set back learning and development by some way, with school closures.

Despite all the complications of the time, around being able to engage in person with this group, we ran a four-week initiative that we called Access E3 (after the Tower Hamlets postcode), a sort of creative expression and personal development project connected to role models in the local area, all done remotely and a real logistical puzzle at the start.

We had a lovely end-of-project presentation that Dizzee Rascal attended – it really meant something to the participants to be connected with someone who shared all these local memories with them

We had a lovely end-of-project presentation that Dizzee Rascal attended – he’s an E3 local. I was amazed that it came off, it was very strange to see him on the other side of the Zoom call. The participants weren’t in awe at all, it was great to see them chatting with him. It really meant something to them to be connected with someone who shared all these local memories with them, and reference points, and has gone on to global renown. The event was attended by their teachers, their parents and carers and it was just lovely to be able to offer something that’s a ray of hope, more than anything, at that period of time.

We’ve since run some other sessions with these young people and it’s just so nice to see the improvements in confidence and self-efficacy that are a goal of this work. We talk a lot about collaboration in this sector, and I think that is a really good example of what it is to collaborate meaningfully. I don’t think a project of that richness can exist without the component partners we were able to bring together. So long may that sort of work continue.

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