Uni Connect essential for ‘levelling up’, new analysis finds

New NEON report says support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter HE will fall unless there is continued funding for the OfS Uni Connect programme

New research shows investment in widening access to higher education will fall if the Uni Connect programme is not renewed.

In a report released today, the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) shows that, should the Uni Connect programme not be renewed, widening access spending in its entirety (institutional and collaborative) could fall after 2022/23.

Uni Connect is an Office for Students programme undertaking targeted higher education outreach to young people in years 9 to 13 living in particular geographic areas.

Since its inception in 2017, Uni Connect has provided £60 million of OfS funding per year to support higher education providers with collaborative outreach. Phase two of Uni Connect started on 1 August 2019 and is due to finish in July 2021. Phase three of the Uni Connect programme will start in August 2021 – the OfS says it will “in principle” run through to the end of July 2025.

However, with funding cuts expected by many vice-chancellors in this autumn’s comprehensive spending review, a number of providers have expressed uncertainty over the future of the Uni Connect programme.

Without this support as the educational after-shocks of Covid continue we will see young people with the potential to enter HE denied it – Graeme Atherton, NEON

Today’s NEON report – entitled ‘The Outlook for Outreach’ – examined the access and participation plans (APPs) of 171 higher education providers and found that, from 2022-23, the total invested in activities to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter HE will fall unless there is continued funding provided for the national Uni Connect programme.

“Whilst the report confirms the real commitment of HE providers to widening access, it also highlights the essential and complementary role that Uni Connect plays and the need to secure the programme’s long-term future,” said the report’s author, Dr Neil Raven. “There is a need for a degree of certainty and assurance regarding future funding – which would help to ensure recognition and inclusion in APPs as they evolve.”

Director of NEON Professor Graeme Atherton said:

“This report emphasises that the efforts made by HE providers to widen access to HE and contribute to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda need the support of a national collaborative programme like Uni Connect. Without this support as the educational after-shocks of Covid continue we will see young people with the potential to enter HE denied it because of where they live.”

In addition, the research found that the APPs contained “a very small number of targets related to supporting progression into HE for specific underrepresented groups” such as care leavers, disabled students and mature learners.

It also revealed a shortage (just 15.5%) of targets that were collaborative ones shared with other organisations/providers including the 29 Uni Connect partnerships.


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Interview: Graeme Atherton, widening participation champion, head of AccessHE and director of NEON

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