Rewrite access and participation plans, Donelan directs

University access and participation plans must focus on outcomes and be more accessible to parents, teachers and applicants

Universities will need to rewrite their access and participation plans – months after they started work on the current five-year strategies – under plans to be announced by the universities minister today.

Michelle Donelan – the minister for higher and further education – said in a speech today (24 November) that she is instructing the Office for Students (OfS) to set new social mobility targets for higher education providers, “refocusing the entire access and participation regime”. The new approach signalled by the minister will necessitate the revision of plans that are just over a year old.

Ms Donelan also used her speech to announce that John Blake – currently head of public affairs and engagement for education charity Ark – is to be the next director of access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS).

Nearly all universities have active access and participation plans (APP) covering up to the end of the 2024/25 academic year.

The Office for Students announced with some fanfare the first of these multi-year strategies in 2019, describing them as demonstrative of “genuine ambition”. These documents run from between 20 to 30 pages. They detail how a university will increase the number of disadvantaged students that access higher education, achieve good degrees and find graduate employment.

Ms Donelan said she wants to “to make getting on as important as getting in” to university social mobility. “A student’s outcome after university needs to be as important to providers as a student’s grades before university,” she added.

The APPs are written by universities, identifying specific targets and interventions for access and participation. The targets range from addressing the ethnicity awarding gap, increasing the enrolment of white working-class boys and improving graduate employment for Black and disabled students.

But the new approach will require universities to set targets to reduce dropout rates, increase the proportional uptake of degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications, and improve graduate progression into “high-paid, high-skilled jobs”.

Plans must explain how universities will work with schools and colleges to “raise standards” – like tutorship schemes, the Department for Education (DfE) suggests.

“The minister wants universities to focus more on outcomes”, a spokesperson for the Department for Education told this publication, adding the documents should be “more action-focused” and more accessible for members of the public.

The OfS will consult with the HE sector, before setting new standards.

Donelan also wants universities to cut out “complexity and bureaucracy from access and participation plans”, to give them ‘more time to focus on disadvantaged learners”. University Business asked the DfE how drafting brand-new plans would reduce bureaucracy: a spokesperson said the new plans should be “concise” statements, of around 500 words, available for teachers and parents to access on university websites.

The minister also trailed details of the new lifelong learning entitlement (LLE). “We need to enable you to better facilitate upskilling and reskilling and open up higher education to an entire section of society who have felt it was out of reach for them,” she told delegates at the Times Higher Education Campus online event. She said that the modules that have won funding in the upcoming 2022 LLE trail will be announced shortly.

It is positive to see a focus on part-time courses, higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships
– Prof Steve West, Universities UK

The Office for Students and Research England is also announcing £8 million of funding to support 13 new projects to improve access and participation for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students to postgraduate research places.

Mr Blake said he looked forward “to working with universities and colleges to ensure that young people from all backgrounds are able to access the education that is right for their achievements and aspirations”.

“But attainment and access are only the first steps: they need to be matched by participation and success. It is crucial that students are able to study on high-quality courses which meet their needs, and are then supported so they are ready to embark on rewarding lives and careers after graduating,” he said. Prior to joining Ark, Mr Blake worked for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange from 2017 to 2018. He started his career as a history and politics teacher after completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford. More recently, Blake has acted as an advisor to the Department for Education (DfE) on initial teacher training (ITT) and a volunteer panellist on the controversial ITT market review.

Labour said ministers “have no plan” for social mobility. The party’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said: “If the government were serious about driving up access and outcomes, they would be pushing ahead with reforms to university admissions which Labour has been calling for, instead they have sat on their hands.

“Under the Conservatives, the increase in students on free school meals attending university has stalled and access projects are getting cut back.”

University APPs report statistics on students from poor backgrounds, Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, mature students, care leavers, disabled students and those with intersectional disadvantages. The data must cover gaps in access, attainment, non-continuation and progression to employment or graduate study. HE providers must identify where improvements can be made and delineate the approach they will take.

Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said the sector would work with the OfS “to build on the progress the sector has made by identifying areas for further improvement within Access and Participation Plans”.

“It is positive to see a focus on part-time courses, higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships, and we look forward to working with government to boost demand for more diverse and flexible ways of learning,” Prof West added.

The former director for access and participation, Chris Millward, is leaving the OfS to join the University of Birmingham. The OfS chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, is also to exit shortly.

In its recent consultation on its strategy for 2022 to 2025, the OfS announced that it could take a new approach to regulation. Its first three-year strategy oversaw the registration of 400 universities and colleges and the development of access and participation plans. With that job complete, the OfS said it can ease oversight on providers that satisfy its standards. The latest directive from the government may mean OfS oversight is, once again, cast across the sector.

Read more: Clean sweep for London universities in social mobility top 10 – IFS report

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